The X-Men hold a special place in my heart. As a kid, I was there when
they made their debut in 1963. On the surface, the Marvel comic book
bore quite a resemblance to The Fantastic Four, another Stan Lee and
Jack Kirby creation, but the X-Men represented a crucial twist on the
superhero concept. These young people were mutants, treated with fear
and hatred by mainstream society just because they were different.
Such an inspired notion. In one fell swoop, Lee and Kirby gave the
disenfranchised a comic they could call their own. The X-Men were
surrogates for blacks, gays, alienated teens – any group who felt the
sting of stereotyping and societal intolerance. While Superman and the
Fantastic Four battled galactic overlords, the X-Men were busy fighting
simply for their right to be, and kicking major bigot ass when
Professor Charles Xavier, a wheelchair-bound telepath of enormous power,
served as teacher, father figure and group leader in his position as
headmaster of the Xavier School for Gifted Children, a haven for mutant
youth. Over the years, the series experienced major changes, including
an enormously successful reboot that replaced the original students with
a more ethnic and racially diverse group of mutants. Eventually, the
X-Men franchise split into a series of titles featuring so many
characters that it was virtually impossible to keep track of them all.
Twenty-seven years after their creation, the X-Men have finally made it
to the big screen, in what may well be the best cinematic superhero
adaptation to date. While director Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects")
shifts characters around and stumbles periodically, he has captured the
essence of the comic book. The core team makeup is different, featuring
two of the original group and three from the later days, but the magic
remains the same.
"X-Men" takes place in the near future, with ultra-conservative Senator
Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison) campaigning for the Mutant Registration
Act, which would allow the government to keep tabs on any citizen with
mutant DNA. While Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) of the X-Men tries to
reason with the self-righteous politician at a Senate hearing, Professor
Xavier (Patrick Stewart) senses the presence of an old friend in the
chamber. The mutant known as Magneto (Ian McKellan) does not share the
guarded optimism of Xavier. A Holocaust survivor, Magneto sees the
hearings as the first step towards a genetic war, and the master of
magnetism is ready to make a preemptive strike.
The battle lines are drawn. Magneto and his Brotherhood of Mutants: the
shapeshifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), man-beast Sabretooth
(Tyler Mane) and Toad (Ray "Darth Maul" Park), an incredibly agile
creature with a tongue that would make Gene Simmons weep with envy,
versus Xavier's A-Team: Cyclops (James Marsden), who shoots laser blasts
from his eyes, weather witch Storm (Halle Berry) and Jean Grey, who has
a major in telekinesis and a minor in telepathy. Joining the trio are
two newcomers: Rogue (Anna Paquin), a teen who temporarily drains the
life force from anyone she touches, and Wolverine (Hugh Jackson), a
skilled athlete with amazing healing powers and retractable, razor sharp
claws that spring from the top of his hands.
Director Singer, working from David Hayter's efficient script, forwards
the plot while providing a wealth of treats for X-fans. While visiting
the school, which has a much larger population than the one in the
comic, other X-Men, including Kitty Pryde and a very young Bobby
"Iceman" Drake, make brief, but cleverly staged appearances. There are
several in-jokes for attentive viewers, and we see the beginning of the
love triangle between Wolverine, Cyclops and Jean Grey.
While most superhero movies struggle for an epic feel, "X-Men"
thankfully sets its burners a bit lower, playing like a solid issue of a
cinematic comic book and taking the time to flesh out a few major
characters. The story revolves around Wolverine, with Aussie actor Hugh
Jackson giving a knockout performance as the Canuck loner (asked if it
hurts when his claws come out, he quietly answers "Every time.").
Although the onscreen Rogue is significantly different from her comic
book counterpart, Anna Paquin beautifully conveys the angst of a girl
who cannot ever enjoy the touch of another person. And, thanks to a
heart-wrenching prologue, we see the damaged child beneath Magneto's
regal persona. As expected, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are
wonderful, particularly during their scenes together.
Despite limited screen time, Famke Janssen firmly establishes Jean Grey
as one tough, smart cookie and, in James Marsden's hands, the smirking,
tight-assed Cyclops becomes the perfect foil for Wolverine's verbal
barbs. Unfortunately, Halle Berry's Storm receives no personal
development. To make matters worse, Berry is saddled with a chintzy
white wig straight from the Eva Gabor Woolworth's collection.
Other quibbles include Sabretooth's growl, which sounds too much like
the MGM lion. A synthesis of animal and human roars would have been more
effective. And, primarily due to extensive wire work, some of the action
segments are a bit stiff. But these are minor complaints. "X-Men" neatly
balances character interaction with grand battles, while never
forgetting the theme that made the series a pop classic. For this fan,
the film was a very pleasant surprise. I suspect that those unfamiliar
with the comic book will have quite the good time as well.
Copyright © 2000 Edward Johnson-Ott