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Reel Toronto: The X-Factor

Toronto’s extensive work on the silver screen reveals that, while we have the chameleonic ability to look like anywhere from New York City to Moscow, the disguise doesn’t always hold up to scrutiny. Reel Toronto revels in digging up and displaying the films that attempt to mask, hide, or—in rare cases—proudly display our city.
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Logan and Professor X take a stroll around Casa Loma.
Ultimately, the mutants would betray us and decamp for Lotusland. But for a shining moment, Toronto was the centre of the geek universe when X-Men shot here.
Bryan Singer‘s film was instrumental in reviving the comic book movie, making it at least partially responsible for the likes of Spider-Man and Batman Begins (okay, and Elektra and Spider-Man 3…).
The 2000 flick takes full advantage of our city’s uncanny (ha ha!) ability to resemble anywhere you need us to, from Alaska to Eastern Europe.


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The Distillery area is much more hospitable these days.
It starts with the prologue, in which a young Magneto discovers his powers at a Nazi concentration camp. The ever-useful Distillery District—just prior to its revival as an arts district—fills the role surprisingly nicely. It’s not because it looks like a ghetto, per se, just because it takes so little to make it look authentically European.
As the scene ends, the camera ominously pans up the length of a smokestack that is actually part of the Boiler House complex.
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This was probably the only interesting debate to take place at Metro Hall.
The very next scene is a debate in the US Senate about whether mutants should be licensed. Filling in for the Senate chamber is our very own Metro Hall. It’s a great use of the erstwhile council chamber, and we can’t help but think that all city hall debates would seem a bit cooler and more interesting if they adopted the same lighting scheme.
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Professor X likes classical music and pithy conversations with arch-rivals.
Disgusted by the debate, evil dude Magneto leaves the chamber, followed by his nemesis, Dr. Charles Xavier. The hallway, however, is not Metro Hall but rather Roy Thomson Hall, right next door. In addition to having a cool, futuristic look, the lobby’s distinctive steelwork fills the scene with Xs so very appropriate to the motif of the film.
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Why fly all the way to Alaska when you can be a superhero in Scarborough’s Rouge Park?
Despite having some scenes set in the far north, X-Men never left the GTA. The bar in which we first meet Wolverine, for example, is actually a set built in the Distillery District. When he heads out on the road with Rogue and gets ambushed by baddies, it’s not some remote Alberta highway, but merely Rouge Park. If you live out east you may recall the mini-snit residents got in when the road was closed for two weeks during the shoot. Where’s the love, people? It’s Wolverine!
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All the junior mutants love the ‘Shwa.
The Xavier mansion, in which little X-Dudes learn how to control their powers, is supposed to be in Westchester, New York. Westchester is actually a tony enclave north of New York City (the Clintons live there now), but it took two local locations to play the X-Mansion. The exteriors are Oshawa’s Parkwood Estate. The mansion is a film star in its own right, having appeared in everything from BIlly Madison to Hollywoodland. If you want to pretend you’re a mutant or something, you can drop by this national historic site, which was once the home of GM Canada founder R.S. McLaughlin.
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Storm holds forth in the conservatory.
The interiors were shot in our very own historic tourist trap, Casa Loma. If you’ve ever taken visiting relatives (or actually gone on your own), you can’t help but recognize the wood-panelled hallways or the main floor conservatory, dressed up as a classroom.
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Adding an “X” to the floor makes any room cooler.
Also easy to spot are the stables through which Xavier takes Wolverine and in which Cyclops has his super-duper, super-fast X-cycle stored.
For the two X-sequels (horribly sub-titled X-Men United and The Last Stand, respectively), the filming moved to the west coast. Both the interior and exteriors for the school were filmed at peacock-infested Royal Roads University, just outside Victoria, BC.
On the other hand, Magneto’s evil lair was built out in Ajax (no jokes, please) in the Greenwood Conservation Area.
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Without Hamilton, the worst line in all three X-Films could not have been brought to life. You know, the one about toads and lightning…
The train station to which Rogue flees is neither in Westchester nor Toronto. Both the interior and exterior are actually the St. James North station in Hamilton (now known as Liuna Station). You can’t catch trains there anymore, but its art deco architecture has been preserved for use as a banquet hall. That means if you’re a comics fan shopping for a wedding venue, you have a choice between Xavier’s school or the place where Cyclops blows the shit out of the roof. How to choose?!
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This is precisely the sort of thing that usually doesn’t happen in Burlington.
The final battle takes place on Liberty and Ellis Islands, both of which are actually situated off the tip of Manhattan. Liberty Island is basically a boring place with a cool statue (and one you haven’t been able to climb since 9/11), while Ellis Island is a really fascinating immigration museum. It is because of Ellis Island’s history as an immigration centre that (in the movie) the United Nations holds some big conference there, inadvertently making them the target of Magneto’s evil plan.
Of course, these days you can just CGI in any old thing you want. So to create an island near Manhattan all you really need is some shoreline and water. That’s exactly what X-Men found in Burlington. The red brick promenade at Spencer Smith Park provides a perfectly adequate substitute for Ellis Island, and apparently Lake Ontario can pass for New York Harbour, at least at night.
We were sad when the X-Men left us for Vancouver, but Toronto has not fully lost its comic book mojo. This summer The Incredible Hulk shot all over town, turning Yonge and Dundas in a Harlem warzone. We’re looking forward to that one when it comes out on June 13.

Comments

  • Mark Ostler

    I might be mistaken (I haven’t watched X-Men in a while) but I vaguely recall that the ‘NYPD’ boats featured in the film bore a striking resemblance to Toronto police boats.
    I was also unaware that Rouge Park was used to shoot those snowy wilderness scenes, but it makes sense.

  • rek

    Speaking of Toronto’s ability to mimic any place you want in movies, Repossession Mambo with Forrest Whitacker and Jude Law is filming on Carlaw again. It’s set in the future.

  • Gloria

    Haha, Ajax.
    Excellent post.