The "X-Men" Experience

As I sat in a Times Square movie theater waiting for a press screening of "X-Men: Days of Future Past" to start, I couldn't help but think about just how many things had changed in my life in the fourteen years in between the release of the first "X-Men" way back in 2000. A lot has changed since the first mutant movie opened unceremoniously in the middle of July.

Sidenote: it's not my intent to sidestep the whole part about me having already seen "Days of Future Past." I'm still under embargo! The film's opening this Friday, meaning you will definitely hear my opinions about the film, probably in this very location, very soon. Right now, though, I feel it's appropriate to look back on just how different everything was at the turn of this century. After all, I have embarrassing high school photos of myself to show and a tale about my run-in with Cyclops at a shopping mall to tell -- and I've deemed right now the right time.

I've written a lot about my X-Men fandom in this space. One could even say that writing about my intense childhood devotion to the X-Men has become my fallback topic for weeks void of social justice issues to write about. So yes, I was unbelievably so super-pumped for Marvel's mutants to make their big screen debut, and in those pre-social media days, it felt like I was the only one who felt that way. I had just turned 16 and I was definitely the only person I knew that still read comics. In the years since the debut of Fox's "X-Men" cartoon, I had gone from being one of many third graders that were straight-up obsessed with the team to being the lone high schooler still following their monthly exploits. I did not let my "last fan standing" status lessen my excitement.

"Wizard" magazine had, at one point, run an article summarizing all the failed attempts to get the team on the big screen. All of them centered around Wolverine (get used to that, teenage Brett) and made absolutely bizarre choices. There was one where Mastermind was a teenager and a lead character, and there were a number where original characters took the place of any recognizable villains. The information I had about Bryan Singer's "X-Men," which I gathered solely through magazine articles that were printed on paper, assuaged my fears. The X-Men team was composed of A-Listers -- even though I was disappointed at Gambit's exclusion -- as were the villains. Early reports led me to believe this would feel like an X-Men movie -- even if it wasn't going to look like one.

Oh, yeah, I was pretty put off by the black leather looks. "Matrix" was, at the time, a buzzword that journalists and message board members -- there was a very clear distinction between the two back then -- threw around a lot. "The Matrix" was fresh in everyone's mind, and its influence could be felt everywhere. I was disappointed that the filmmakers threw all of Jim Lee's masterpieces in the laundry basket in favor of costumes that were less distinctive. Jean, Cyke, Storm and Wolvie might as well have all been cosplaying as cowl-less Batmans in all those promo pics, but, still, I was getting an X-Men movie!

"X-Men" was pushed back to after the July 4th weekend, a far cry from the May release dates that are now synonymous with super hero movies. Maybe Fox didn't want a super hero movie going up against "Gladiator" and "Mission: Impossible II"? Considering how completely unproven and unsuccessful comic book movies had been up to that point, Fox was right to be afraid. Superman and Batman had been derailed by campiness, and "Blade" was the only other somewhat notable comic book character to get a successful film. The fact that "X-Men" happened at all made my head spin -- in a metaphorical surprised way, not in a "my mutant power's very lame" way. I had rented "Blade" after it's successful theatrical run; I knew that the grittier Marvel heroes could be successfully translated to live action. I did not know, and no one knew, if any of Marvel's super powered super heroes could revitalize the genre that Joel Schumacher had successfully put on ice. Not knowing whether or not the film would be any good did not stop me from recording every "Entertainment Tonight" segment about the film on a VHS tape, preserving those puff pieces on magnetic tape.

To illustrate just how different things were back in 2000, I remember getting nothing but confusion when I called the Carmike Cinemas Wynnsong 16 in late June to find out if "X-Men" would get a midnight showing. First, trying to explain that I meant midnight going into Thursday -- "11:59 on Thursday evening!" -- over the phone was basically the nerdiest Abbott and Costello routine ever. Second, I remember getting pushback on the very idea because they only did midnight showings for big movies. I have never felt older than I do right now, recounting a long ago time when super hero movies weren't considered big deals to an audience that I either perceive to be nodding along in recognition, or an audience that I would be tempted to call "whippersnappers."

The theater eventually gave in, perhaps because I wasn't the only person harassing them about getting their midnight mutant fix, and the comic book fans of Murfreesboro, Tennessee got a midnight screening. I bought the tickets days in advance, and I can still feel that same surge of electricity as the tickets printed out and were placed in my hand by the box office worker. My first midnight movie. I had to do this right. I learned that dressing up for midnight movies was a thing thanks to "Phantom Menace" mania from the prior summer, so I decided, "Yeah, I wanna be that guy." Thankfully, I would be a "that guy" with "those girls," because I had three friends who also agreed to dress up. I bought a pair of silver-framed spectacles with red lenses at Gadzooks that were sunglasses in name only -- a sticker on them specifically said they did nothing to protect against UV rays -- and became Cyclops. My friends pulled off makeshift Jean Grey, Mystique, and Rogue looks that we thought were pretty cool, having not yet been exposed to the cosplay wizardry found online nowadays. We were the only people in costume at the theater, and I can't even recall if the number of people at the midnight showing justified the theater staying open late. I only remember the movie.

I'm incredibly thankful that I have within my noggin the proper context that this super hero movie golden age exists in, and I'm glad I can remember just how awestruck I was after I experienced "X-Men." I was fine with all the liberties it took with continuity -- the films made Xavier's a school with an actual student body before the comics did -- and I just appreciated that it existed, and that it took its source material seriously while still being a fun movie. I fell in love with it immediately, and I saw "X-Men" three times in a twenty-four hour period.

And then I met James "Cyclops" Marsden.

July 17th, the Monday after "X-Men" enjoyed a surprisingly successful opening weekend, I was at Hickory Hollow Mall looking at overpriced Star Wars memorabilia in Suncoast Video -- a.k.a. high school Brett's favorite pastime -- when I noticed the cashiers talking way too energetically to a young guy wearing a baseball cap. The guy left, and I then overheard the cashiers remark, "I can't believe that was Sabretooth." Now, for cashiers at Suncoast Video, I'm still shocked that they confused Tyler Mane for James Marsden. Come on, guys, you worked at the nerdiest store in the mall! But through context clues, I figured out they were actually talking about James Marsden. As soon as my mom met me in Suncoast Video, I put us on a mission to find him. Now, my mom is easily the most fearless and outgoing person I know, so she was the perfect person to task with tracking down an X-Man in a mall on a Monday afternoon. We saw him in the distance, descending a big concrete spiral staircase just outside the J.C. Penny. We trailed a few feet behind him, with him reaching the foot of the staircase as we rounded the curve. My mom -- remember the fearless part? -- started whisper-shouting "James!" in his direction. After no response, she just cut to the chase and said, slightly louder, "Cyclops!"

That got his attention.

And he was great. Yeah, we were intruding in on his private shopping time in a fairly empty mall, but we were also a mother and her 16-year-old son -- an unthreatening pair, despite us just having literally run from one end of the mall to the other in search of him. He was in town for his wedding, and was impressed/surprised that I had already seen "X-Men" six times at that point. I think he was also relieved to hear from me, a superfan, that his Cyclops was spot-on. Since I didn't have anything for him to sign and phones were still just phones back then, you whippersnappers, James Marsden walked with me and my mom to Blockbuster Music for me to buy the "X-Men" soundtrack. I got his autograph and we parted ways about ten minutes after we first cornered him in front of that Kirkland's home decor store. I've been pro-James Marsden ever since.

Now fourteen years have passed and "X-Men: Days of Future Past" will soon be in theaters across the country. A lot has changed since then. Five movies separate this latest installment from the first, I've covered every step of this film's production for a number of websites and not print magazines, I live in New York City now, Hickory Hollow Mall has fallen on some truly depressing times, and I'm just a few months shy of 30. The only thing from that time I truly want to hold onto, though, is the fun of it. I don't want that to change. Even though super hero movies have become incredibly commonplace, I don't want to forget the time when that was not true. I don't want to forget just how awesome it felt when "X-Men" proved to me that my super heroes could be real.

Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).

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