The X-Men films have always been at least a partial exception to this rule. Coming after the disappointment of Apt Pupil, this first film in the now-burgeoning franchise finds Singer with very clear intentions with regards to both the key themes of the story and how they should be executed. While it is very much a product of the pre-Christopher Nolan era of superhero films, much of it still holds up extremely well and it is the best of the original X-Men trilogy.
It doesn't take too much brain power to see what would have attracted Singer to the X-Men franchise. As an openly bisexual Jewish man growing up in late-20th century America, Singer's life resonates strongly with the struggle for acceptance and equality faced by the mutants in the original comics. In a BBC interview, he stated that he was drawn to the morally ambiguous world which the comics inhabited at their best, describing them as "a step beyond simple crime-solving, superhero action." Singer has always been fascinated by how evil can manifest itself in humanity, and if nothing else this film does a better job at exploring this notion than Apt Pupil ever did.
One of the main successes of X-Men, and to an extent of all the franchise instalments involving Singer, is that it has political and intellectual heft. While it doesn't put its brain as far front and centre as Nolan's Gotham trilogy, it's still a far cry from the simplistic, adolescent rendering of good vs. evil which we are often forced to endure with summer blockbusters. Even if the ideas are not to your taste, you always get the impression that the film is wanting to use its high-tech, skintight trappings to explore complex notions of identity, alienation, racism and the abuse of political power.
Singer understands that X-Men is less about the powers with which the mutants are blessed or cursed, and more about the people who are trapped within the circumstances of having said powers and how they decide to use them. He brings the theme of alienation to the foreground and keeps it there, focussing on how easily society rejects and turns on those who do not fit into convenient pigeon-holes, or those who refuse to stay quiet.
One of the biggest problems with superhero stories, particularly ones involving Superman, is that they are afraid to show the characters' vulnerabilities, living under some delusion that having any form of fear is cowardly. Singer gives us heroes riddled with insecurities; they feel like people that we could come to know, or who could live among us, not just other-worldly beings playing police with their special, sci-fi friendly weapons.
Proof is this is found in the delightfully naturalistic way in which said mutants' powers are introduced. Superhero films often go to great lengths to draw attention to said powers as something extraordinary, so that it either defines or dominates the character and they risk becoming less three-dimensional as a result. Singer, by contrast, treats the characters' mutations just as he would treat a character's sexuality; it's just something that's there, and we are called upon to accept it. Instead of giving us a bunch of mutants and asking us to care about them as people, X-Men gives us people and lets us grow to accept their more unusual characteristics.
Equally as important is the manner in which X-Men humanises its villains, working hard to show the shades of grey between the differing moral positions of Professor Xavier and Magneto. Singer described their relationship as being akin to the difference between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X: two men who were forged in the same conflict against racial injustice, with one choosing to embrace 'the enemy' while the other turned to violent retribution (albeit, in X's case, disavowing it in the end). Casting Shakespearean giants like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen means that we are unlikely to get pantomime performances from the outset. But both still benefit from a script in which both are utterly convinced that their approach is correct, both for their close circle of friends and followers and for society as a whole.
Sticking with the characters, it was a deft decision on the part of screenwriter David Hayter to focus the story around both Rogue and Wolverine (brilliantly played by Anna Paquin and Hugh Jackman respectively). To the casual observer, the X-Men universe and its fanbase seems to often worship Wolverine at the expense of the other characters; he is one of the most interesting people therein, but it isn't right that every story should be driven by him. Here the script manages to strike a good balance between Rogue's slow acceptance and growth into her powers and Logan's inner conflict regarding his role in the team, his feelings for Jean and his own nature.
The cast of X-Men is pretty strong all round, even if not everyone gets a fair crack of the whip. Famke Janssen is ideally cast as Jean Grey, bringing the same combination of glamour and steely reserve from Goldeneye and dialling things back for a more understated performance. James Marsden, by contrast, is dealt an unfair hand as Scott, whose role in the plot is largely being threatened by Logan's testosterone, but he does make up for his initial douchiness with a solid third act.
There are a couple of shortcomings with X-Men which prevent it from being a classic on the level of Batman Begins. Despite Singer's best efforts, there are occasionally jarring shifts in tone which make us wonder what kind of film we should be watching. For the most part we accept the balance between grittiness and humour for which Singer and Hayter have opted - but then we see Wolverine skidding across the snow early on in an unintentionally hilarious fashion, and it's not that easy to get straight back in the saddle.
Equally, while the male members of the Brotherhood of Mutants come off reasonably well, the female members in this instalment are not so lucky. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos is a fine actress but she is given far too little to do; while Magneto and Sabretooth handle the important plot points, she is reduced to the odd action scene in which she acts as eye candy for the predominantly teenage audience. Admittedly, however, her sex appeal isn't over-egged as much as in The Last Stand, nor is this kind of double standard exclusive to Singer's films (watch First Class if you don't believe me).
X-Men is a very solid introduction to both the comics and the characters which proves if nothing else that good Marvel films could be made long before Disney came along. Despite a few odd tonal decisions and a few slip-ups with certain characters, Bryan Singer has still delivered a film which is intriguing, intelligent and entertaining, with a tightly wound plot and set-pieces which avoid being overblown. Nolan's work on Batman may have since eclipsed this as a genre benchmark, but leaving aside the Caped Crusader, this is a good way to bring someone to comics for the first time.
I loved the visuals and how the plot of the story worked