It was mid-1963, and Stan Lee was on a roll. In a mad burst of invention, he and star artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko had just birthed the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Hulk, Thor and Iron Man – all in 12-cent comic books whose brash, four-color vibrancy were their medium's equivalent of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," another product of 1963. Lee was 40 years old, doing double duty as Marvel Comics' editor in chief and head writer, fresh from 20 years of writing Western, romance and, most recently, monster comics starring beasts named Gruto and Bruttu and Rommbu. But with their return to superheroes, a genre all but left for dead after its 1940s heyday, Lee and the artists finally hit a nerve.
Marvel's growing fan base couldn't get enough. So around the time he was assembling a new team called the Avengers and plotting The Amazing Spider-Man No. 4, Lee stood at his typewriter on a terrace in his Long Island home, trying to come up with more heroes. First came the characters – a guy who shoots beams from his eyes, a human ice machine, a telekinetic teenage girl, and their mentor, a telepath in a wheelchair. "But how did they get their powers?" says Lee, now 91. "They were separate people that weren't connected to each other, so that would be a hell of a job."
He had already done the radioactive-accident thing at least three times, so Lee went in another direction: "I took the cowardly way out," he says. "I figured, hey, the easiest thing in the world: They were born that way. They were mutants!" He called the team the Mutants, until Marvel's publisher told him kids didn't know the word. Instead, Lee settled on the X-Men ("I figured, they have extra powers, and their leader is Professor Xavier"). Lee spent maybe a day on the proposal and another day plotting the issue; Kirby, a pulp genius World War II vet who'd chomp on his cigar while cranking out as many as five pages a day, designed all the characters as he drew the first story.
It's all there in The X-Men No. 1, almost everything that would become a billion-dollar movie franchise decades later (the latest movie, X-Men: Days of Future Past, hits theaters May 23rd): Professor Xavier, his school for gifted youngsters, the flirting and feuding mutants in residence, the humans outside who feared and hated them, even the helmet-wearing villain, Magneto, ready to achieve mutant liberation by any means necessary. The comic book debuted just after the March on Washington, and Professor Xavier, too, had a dream. In creating characters who faced prejudice because of inborn differences, Lee baked in an effectively malleable metaphor. "The main objective was to show that bigotry is a terrible thing," Lee says. "If you needed an objective for a superhero story!"
But the X-Men were second-tier Marvel characters throughout the Sixties. For whatever reason – maybe their drab yellow-and-blue uniforms, which made them look like superpowered janitors – the comics just didn't sell, and the title essentially shut down for five years, switching to all reprints in 1970. The X-Men stirred to life in 1975 under writer Len Wein, who helped bring in new characters – most notably, an irascible, metal-clawed, amnesia-stricken hero: Wolverine. But Wein was busy, and an eager 24-year-old named Chris Claremont took over, and ended up writing the X-Men for nearly 17 years and defining the most popular version of the team.
Claremont had lived the book's outsider themes. "I'm an immigrant," says the writer, who came to the U.S. from England as a kid. "My first week in school, I showed up in knee socks, shorts, shirt, tie, sweater. Got the shit beat out of me because I looked like a geek." He combined soapy angst with cosmic scope, while hitting the prejudice theme harder than ever: Now the teenage outsiders who had begun to dominate comic-book readership saw the mutant struggle as their own. Claremont teamed with the sleek artist John Byrne beginning in 1977, and as the Eighties approached, the suddenly sexy-looking mutants made being "born weird" seem cool: They were Gen-X's first alternative heroes (witness Weezer's shout-out to the team's Kitty Pryde on "In the Garage"). Soon The Uncanny X-Men, as the comic was now known, was Marvel's most popular title.
By then, Lee was spending much of his time trying to get Marvel's characters onto movie screens. But there had been zero Marvel movies by the mid-Nineties, when Lauren Shuler Donner – a producer married to Superman director Richard Donner – flipped through written descriptions of the X characters. "They were so engaging," she says. "Particularly Logan, Wolverine. He was complex and tragic." But Hollywood was dubious. "It had been years since Superman, and other comic-book movies weren't that successful."
Eventually, Fox came on board: Marvel was, at that point, near bankruptcy and delighted to license any and all of their characters. Director Bryan Singer (of Usual Suspects fame) signed on, ready to shift the mutant metaphor yet again, letting it encompass homophobia (in his second movie, a mutant's mom asks, "Have you tried not being a mutant?"). And the first bit of casting was obvious. "Lauren picked something up from her desk and held it up," says Patrick Stewart, who had spent seven years playing Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation. "I said, 'What am I doing on the front of a comic book?' She said, 'Exactly.'"
Another key role, Wolverine, went to the studio's pick, Dougray Scott. But after the Scottish actor hurt his ankle filming reshoots for Mission: Impossible 2, Shuler Donner pushed for recasting. They found theater-trained Australian Hugh Jackman, who was considered too tall for the part: In the comics, Wolverine is a stocky five feet three – Claremont's pick would've been Bob Hoskins, though he ended up loving Jackman.
X-Men's budget was a relatively modest $75 million. But it was still the most ambitious and adult superhero movie made to that point, beginning with its audacious opening, at a Nazi concentration camp. When Singer showed early footage at Comic-Con to fans who had waited their whole lives for a Marvel movie, reaction was intense. "I remember Bryan coming back from Comic-Con," says Stewart. "He said, 'This is going to be huge.'"
The first X-Men movie, released on July 14th, 2000, finally brought Marvel's superheroes to the movies, nearly 40 years after their birth. "I loved it," Lee says. X-Men grossed nearly $160 million in the States, and within a few years, superhero movies had practically swallowed Hollywood. In 2009, Disney bought Marvel for $4 billion. Most of the X-Men's creators and chroniclers did everything under work-for-hire agreements: Marvel owned it all. Marvel has paid Lee generously, but Kirby's heirs, and, for that matter, Claremont, got precisely zero. "I get to watch stories I wrote brought to life by the most brilliant actors in cinema," says Claremont, 63. "Would it be nice to have more bucks? C'est la vie."
The second X-Men movie, which pushed Wolverine to the forefront, was even better, and even more successful. Singer went off to direct Superman Returns for Warner Bros., and rather than wait, Fox pushed ahead with 2006's disappointing X-Men: The Last Stand, which ham-fistedly kills off some major characters, including Stewart's Xavier. "I don't see how one can ever be satisfied with being vaporized," says Stewart.
Wolverine got his own movie in 2009, but the franchise was truly revived in 2011's sprightly X-Men: First Class, with a fresh cast including Jennifer Lawrence and Michael Fassbender, and the clever twist of an early-Sixties setting. Their idea for the next X-Men film, with Singer directing, was ambitious and expensive: Combine both casts in an adaptation of Claremont and Byrne's 1981 story "Days of Future Past," which traveled into a dystopian future in which mutants are prey for genocidal robots.
The new film recaptures the look and feel of Singer's first two movies, but the director has dropped out of all publicity for the film: Just before its release, two men sued him, claiming he sexually abused them when they were teens (Singer denies the allegations). "Bryan will always be my friend," says Shuler Donner. Will the scandal hurt the film? "I hope not," she says.
There are more X-movies on their way, and the central theme never stopped resonating, obvious as it may be: Stewart says it was a "strong incentive" for him and his friend Ian McKellen, the openly gay actor who plays Magneto (Fassbender plays a younger version). "It was dealing with a contemporary issue," says Stewart. "Prejudice, and the treatment of those thought to be different. That people should be allowed to express their individuality and should not be victimized for being different."
This story is from the June 5th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.