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X-Men, 2000. Directed by Bryan Singer. Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Tyler Mane, Ray Parks, Bruce Davidson.

Synopsis: Sometime in the near future, mankind begins to develop a schism as radical mutations begin to divide humans into homo sapiens and homo superior. Many people, including United States Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davidson) view the rising tide of mutation as a threat to humanity's survival. He wants to register mutants the same way people register handguns. Others feel that war between human beings and mutants is inevitable. Prime among these is Magneto, a concentration camp survivor and mutant with the power to control magnetic fields. He is marshalling his forces for the opening volley. In between is Professor Charles Xavier, who runs a school for "gifted children" in upstate New York. He sees a future where human beings and mutants coexist. To this end, he educates young mutants to control their powers  and use them constructively. He has a deeper purpose to this, too, because some of his senior students are also agents provocateur, charged with defending humanity and mutant-kind from each other. These are The X-Men.

Into this mix come two new mutants: Marie, a young girl from Mississipi whose mutant powers manifest themselves during her first kiss. She abosorbs the lifeforce of anyone she touches. Traumatized, she runs away from home, heading north until she can run no further. Her flight carries her to Alberta, Canada, where she encounters an itinerant bar fighter named Logan, billed in the cage fights with which he makes his living as "Wolverine." Logan emerges from his fights unscathed, much to the horror and suspicion of his opponents, who feel that they have been had. When one of them demands satisfaction after taking a beating, Logan reveals more than just an ability to take a punishment: he has claws and lighting reflexes and he can heal virtually any wound in seconds. Marie hitches a ride with Logan as he leaves town, giving herself the name of "Rogue" when Logan presses her for a name. They are waylaid on their way by a huge feral mutant who seems intent on capturing Logan, but the battle between Logan and their attacker is interrupted by the two of Xavier's X-Men, who take both Logan and Marie to Xavier's school. Meanwhile, Magneto makes his move: he captures Senator Kelly in order to test his first major weapon in the war between mutants and humanity, an energy pulse that causes mutations in fully grown human beings. In Magneto's stronghold, we are introduced to Magneto's "Brotherhood of Mutants," including the blue-skinned shapeshifter, Mystique, the grotesque Toad, and Sabertooth, the mutant who attacked Logan and Marie. Magneto needs Marie to move his plan to fruition. He draws her from Xavier's school and captures her. Logan vows to get her back and thwart Magneto's plans for her. To this end, as Wolverine, he accompanies a team of Xavier's X-Men to the site of Magneto's offensive at The Statue of Liberty. Xavier's team consists of Storm, who controls the weather, Cyclops, who shoots energy blasts from his eyes, and Jean Grey, a telekinetic. The battle is joined as Magneto's plan is revealed: he is going to mutate the world's heads of state and most of New York, but The X-Men have discovered that the process is ultimately fatal. They must save the day, or else the war will begin....

The Pedigree: Director Bryan Singer has described the process of filming The X-Men as "The impossible task of distilling a thirty-six year-old soap opera into a two hour movie." He isn't far wrong there. Unlike Batman or Superman, whose adventures tended to be single issue affairs throughout their careers, the appeal of the X-Men was always the strength of their continuing character development and interactions. The man principally responsible for this was writer Christopher Claremont, who wrote The X-Men for over twenty years and transformed the book from a marginal seller into one of the most popular comic books in the world. Oddly enough, Claremont had no involvement with the movie (possibly stemming from a messy divorce from Marvel Comics several years ago). This is unfortunate. The movie has had six or seven writers since it became a "go" project, and most Hollywood writers have no idea of how to handle large ensemble casts (which this, by necessity, has). Singer is an odd choice to direct the movie, too, since his previous films, The Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil, are dark, brooding, borderline art films. On the other hand, he dealt with a fairly unweildy ensemble cast on The Usual Suspects, too, so what the hell. It isn't THAT different...

I have to admit that I was of two minds about the very prospect of a film version of The X-Men. The comics were a staple of my youth. I was one of those faithful readers when I was a teen. I KNEW that they would have to omit huge hunks of the mythology. Unlike Batman or Superman or Spider-Man, the origins of The X-Men aren't particularly tidy, since you have literally scores of characters playing important parts over the years. Add to this the fact that superheroes are rarely done very well on film. Occasionally a film like Richard Donner's Superman or Tim Burton's Batman movies will show up, but more often than not, you get Spawn or Joel Schumacher's Batman movies (or, worse still, The Punisher, Captain America, and Roger Corman's mercifully unreleased Fantastic Four movie). The result is an enormous crap shoot. When superhero movies go awry, they generally REALLY suck.

The Suck Factor: When I finally made it into the theater, I had already heard a lot of the buzz. I don't trust buzz anymore (not since the Independence Day debacle), but nevertheless I began to be hopeful. Maybe it WOULDN'T suck. That's all I asked: "Please don't suck." It became apparent pretty quickly that it didn't. Once the "Suck Factor" was gone, my critical faculties returned full force....

The Performances: The X-Men is well cast in depth. Patrick Stewart is the perfect actor for Professor Xavier: he looks like the character walked whole and breathing off the comic book page. Ian McKellan is an excellent choice as Magneto and he seems to be channelling his Richard the Third into the character, but nuancing it so that he is a credible monster. His role is pivotal, really, since Magneto is the most complex supervillain ever to appear in comics. He isn't evil, per se, so much as he is an ideologue with whose power is the equivalent of an atom bomb. The relationship between Xavier and Magneto is fascinating: they are one-time friends separated by an ideological gulf, each trying to sway the other to their point of view. When was the last time you saw two arch-enemies play a game of chess in a movie? Oddly enough, this conflict is secondary to the rest of the movie, despite the fact that it provides the film with its central plot.

Hugh Jackman's Wolverine could have stepped whole and breathing from the comics, too. Where another actor may have focused on the feral nature of the character, Jackman give him a measure of confusion and humanity in addition to the rage. Anna Paquin's Rogue is well played, too. Paquin is a natural actress (she already has an Oscar), and gives her character a striking vulnerability. Most everyone else is a walk-on, but Famke Janssen as Jean Grey make the most of her scientist/telekenetic superheroine role (should the sequels follow the comics, her part gets particularly juicy), James Marsen is not particularly likeable as Cyclops (which I suspect stems from the fact that the audience can't see his eyes), Halle Berry is an adequate Storm (and is given a relatively small amount of screen time). Of the villains, Mystique makes the strongest impression, despite having only a single line of dialogue: she is the most visually striking thing in the movie and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos is particularly good at striking menacing poses. Ray Parks is saddled with the role of Toad, one of the X-Men's lamer villians, but he does a pretty good job of it. Tyler Mane looks okay as Sabertooth, but doesn't have any screen presence to speak of.

Realization: The movie is physically darker than one would expect, given the persistent notion in Hollywood that comic book projects should be bright and obnoxious. The special effects are more than adequate for the job, even though the climax of the movie doesn't "wow" anyone. The film was done on the cheap (relatively speaking), so barnstorming effects and action sequences are few here. The actual depicion of the various superpowers is excellent, though, particularly Wolverine's claws and Storm's manipulation of the weather. The lack of a barnstorming climax hurts the film some, but more on that later. The actual "look" of the characters has been meticulously thought out and given a "team" unity that the comics used to dabble with from time to time. Only Magneto's helmet looks out of sorts, really. One of the most striking things about the film is that it is edited at a reasonable pace and filmed with an eye toward clarity of action. This is a welcome relief.

The Story: is where the film falters. Once I determined that X-Men did not, in fact, suck, I began to expect things of it that were not delivered. The bright shiny gold-standard of super-villain plots is Lex Luthor's plan to sink California in Richard Donner's Superman. THAT evil scheme was brilliant. Magneto's evil scheme lacks something...a certain "epic" quality, if you will. Part of this is because, as I said, the film was done on the cheap, but also because the movie doesn't give it an adequate build up. The film is, by necessity, mainly expository. It has to provide a window to the public at large into the characters, while simultaneously stroking the sensibilities of comics fans. In so doing, it forgets to provide the thrill ride. Mind you, I don't mind the extensive character development, but fer Pete's sake, it wouldn't hurt to have it both ways just this once: an epic with good character development would suit me just fine. The depiction of Xavier's school struck me as more than a little saccharine, too, and the sequences where Rogue tries to fit in with the rest of the mutants are downright mawkish. On the other hand, there was a lot of entertaining background material for the dyed-in-the-wool X-fan. On the supervillain front is the nagging question of why a hyper-intelligent bad guy like Magneto should choose such dimwitted underlings as Sabertooth and Toad. The supervillains are short-changed on the interesting superpowers, too, and seem to be underpowered compared with the good guys. One gets the feeling that they were having a clearance sale at the warehouse where supervillains hire their flunkeys. The open-ended nature of the movie is somewhat galling, too, since it comes after a fairly anti-climactic climax. I admit to liking the fact that Magneto is not killed in the course of the movie (providing the filmmakers the opportunity to film that chess game I mentioned before), since archvillains should never really die.

All in all, X-Men is sound and fury signifying nothing. Mind you, I still read comics, but I haven't read The X-Men in going on twelve or thirteen years. Oddly enough, one of the reasons (but by no means the only reason) I gave up on The X-Men all those years ago was because nothing ever got resolved in them. In this respect, X-Men maintains an absolute fidelity to its source material. But unlike the comics, where a new issue would be offered to advance the story every month, the next X-Movie is at least two years in the future. Given the amount of money 20th Century Fox will likely authorize for a sequel, and given the promise of this first effort, it damned will better deliver the goods....