X-Men (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

For Marvel Enterprises, the arrival of X-Men on the big screen represents the culmination of efforts that stretch back more than 20 years. For that long, Marvel has been trying to get one of their properties - Spiderman, The Fantastic Four, X-Men, or any number of others - out of the pages of a comic book and into a major motion picture. Their longtime rival, DC, did it twice - once with Superman and once with Batman - but every trip to the cinematic altar left Marvel as a jilted bride. (Conan the Barbarian does not count; despite being a Marvel mainstay for more than a decade, his origins stretch farther back than the comic books bearing his name and likeness.) X-Men, which features an A-list cast and a top-notch director, represents Marvel's best chance at gaining a foothold in Hollywood. If the film succeeds, they have other projects waiting in the wings, including multiple X-Men sequels (can anyone say "franchise"?). If it fails, the future of big-budget superhero movies, already uncertain in the wake of the Batman and Robin disaster, will be gloomy indeed.

X-Men has a strong fandom. Since the comic book first arrived on shelves in the mid-'60s, it has consistently been one of the best selling titles; most people who have collected comics at one time or another have bought at least one X-Men issue. Yet it remains uncertain how much box office clout these X-Men fans will be able to muster. Every movie studio hopes for the success of a Star Trek or a Batman. But the result could just as easily be akin to an X-Files - a movie thought to have a large, fanatical following but which tanked after a big debut. There is no question that X-Men will finish at the top of the box office chart during the first weekend of its release. The question to be answered is: What then?

It has been two decades since I last picked up an X-Men comic book. Once, in what seems like another lifetime, I was a comic book collector, and for about three years in the late '70s and early '80s, X-Men was one of the books I purchased religiously, dolling out a portion of my meager allowance to the guy behind the cash register at El Dorado Comics. (For those who are die-hards, I was a reader during the "Dark Phoenix" arc.) After my interest in collecting comics waned, I lost track of X-Men. Now, revisiting them 20 years later in a different medium, I find that there haven't been many fundamental changes. To one degree or another, I recognize many of the characters, so, on at least one level, the filmmakers have made an effective translation from print to celluloid. But is it a good enough metamorphosis to satisfy today's X-Men fans? And, more importantly, will it achieve what Superman and Batman accomplished and court non-aficionados to the movie?

For someone with my background, the film is effectively paced with a good balance of exposition, character development, and special effects-enhanced action. Neither the plot nor the character relationships are difficult to follow, and the movie avoids the trap of spending too much time explaining things that don't need to be explained. X-Men fandom is likely to be divided over whether the picture is a success or a failure. Many comic book lovers will be pleased to see the heroes brought (mostly) intact to the screen by a group of filmmakers who are concerned about maintaining the characters' identities and dignity. Others will grouse about missed opportunities and will cringe at even the most minor missteps. But, with a project like this, there's no pleasing everyone.

X-Men's action takes place in the near future, when the United States Senate is debating a bill that will require all mutants (human beings who possess special powers as a result of DNA mutations) to register with the government. The leader of this movement, Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison), is a McCarthy-like personality who has whipped public opinion into a frenzy. One of the most powerful of the mutants, Magneto (Ian McKellen), believes that Kelly's words are the first volley of a battle that will turn into a war, and he intends to launch a preemptive strike for mutantkind - something to head off the struggle before it begins. He is opposed by his old friend, the telepath Professor X (Patrick Stewart), and his band of "X-Men": Cyclops (James Marsden), whose eyes emit laser blasts; Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), whose skills are in telekenesis; and Storm (Halle Berry), who can control the weather. The professor and those who study at his "School for Gifted Children" believe in the philosophy of peaceful co-existence. But Magento is not alone in his assertion that humans "no longer matter." He is supported by three henchmen - a blue-skinned shapeshifter named Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, in a very interesting costume), the ferocious beast Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), and the ugly-but-agile Toad (Ray Park, formerly Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace) - all of whom would die for his cause.

Meanwhile, a pair of newcomers have arrived at Professor X's school. They are Rogue (Anna Paquin), a frightened teenage girl who has recently discovered that she cannot touch another human being without draining that person's life energy, and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), a fast healer with an adamantine skeleton and retractable, razor-sharp claws that spring from the backs of his hands. These two, who have a big brother/little sister type of bond, are deciding whether to join Professor X when a move by Magneto takes matters out of the realm of free choice.

X-Men, helmed by Bryan Singer (whose previous credits include The Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil, also with McKellen), does many more things right than it does wrong. Character development is admittedly spotty, with some individuals getting little more than token screen time, but there is enough here for us to care about the core group of mutants. The best realized personalities are Magneto, Wolverine, and Rogue. The middle ground is occupied by Professor X and Jean Grey. The flattest are Cyclops, Storm, and Magneto's henchmen. The action sequences, especially the climactic one, are choreographed with flair, with a few Matrix influences to be found (slow motion, a camera circling the action). Plus, although Magneto's plan is a little silly, it's nice to find a villain who is not a megalomaniac. Unlike the average James Bond bad guy, Magneto isn't interested in world domination. Instead, he wants to avoid living through a second holocaust. As a boy, he endured the Nazi death camps in Poland. As an adult, he doesn't intend for the human persecution of mutants to reach a similar level of intolerance. Thus, in many ways, the story that unfolds here is an allegory about difficulties of combating prejudice and bigotry.

Compared to Batman, the most recent comic-turned-movie franchise to capture the public's imagination, X-Men is an improvement. Style, not story, was that series' forte. The world created by Singer and his craftsmen is not as strange and gothic as Gotham City, but it is no less visually interesting. The climax, which involves the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, utilizes flawless, set-based duplications of reality (no significant footage was actually shot in or around New York). The giant spherical room within Professor X's school is impressive, as are chambers in Magneto's abode, and the glass-and-plastic apartment shown later in the film.

X-Men does not, however, top Superman as the most engaging superhero motion picture. The 1978 Richard Donner feature possessed an epic scope that X-Men doesn't approach. (Nor, in all fairness, does it aspire to.) This is a much simpler action/adventure effort, as the relatively short running length of 100 minutes betokens. In terms of its plot structure and intent, X-Men has modest goals, most of which it meets. The prime characters are introduced, thrown into the maelstrom of an adventure that allows each of them a personal highlight, then sent on their way, hopefully into a 2002 sequel.

For the role of Professor X, there couldn't be better choice than Patrick Stewart, whose bald head alone made him the #1 pick of almost every X-Men fan. Having portrayed Star Trek's Captain Picard for more than a decade, Stewart is used to both appearing in science fiction adventures and playing a cult icon, and appears at ease. It's too bad he isn't accorded additional screen time. Ian McKellen, soon to don the robe of Gandalf in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, brings his considerable talent to bear in the role of Magneto, creating a more complex and conflicted villain than one might normally expect in this sort of movie. As Wolverine, Hugh Jackman (an Australian with little film experience beyond his homeland) is suitably feral and captures some of the mannerisms of his comic book inspiration (smoking a cigar and saying "bub", for instance). Anna Paquin explores the emotional pain and loneliness of the young Rogue, who is forever forbidden intimate human contact. Famke Janssen, James Marsden, and Halle Berry all look and act their parts, at least within the constraints of their limited screen time. They are supporting players with limited duties. (Although I could have done without the pointless, perfunctory "love triangle" that emerges featuring Jean, Cyclops, and Wolverine - it doesn't work on any level. Even the Luke/Han/Leia romantic subplot in Star Wars was more intriguing).

Most viewers will see X-Men as delivering what's expected of any summer movie. There are serveral in-jokes designed specifically for X-Men fans (including cameos by a number of familiar mutants, including Kitty Pride and Iceman), none of which will confound someone who has never been exposed to this world before. X-Men brings to the screen the elements that any live comic book adaptation should offer, resulting in a lightly enjoyable cinematic experience. For mid-season escapism, X marks the spot.

X-Men (United States, 2000)

Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2000-07-14
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1