I’ve never read an X-Men comic book. I didn’t grow up mentally masturbating at the thought of Wolverine or Stan Lee. I can’t recite from memory the secret sordid past of Magneto and Professor Charles Xavier. I am not entirely familiar with all the permutations of the strange mutations said X-men have and how they work and under what conditions. In general, I don’t read comic books, I don’t crap my panties over new comic-book-to-film releases coming out, and in general superheroes doing superhuman things usually sounds to me like stuff it’s OK for people in the single-digit age bracket to like.
BUT HOW ABOUT THAT “X-MEN” MOVIE! In a nutshell, “X-Men” is as good as I thought it was going to be when I still thought it was a movie all about male porn stars. Indeed, it does rock the proverbial c**k. Finally, a Summer 2000 Movie that isn’t a piece of s**t, a piece of s**t sharing a plate with a piece of pie, or a vehicle for a celebrity lead wherein he makes jokes about his own s**t. In a season riddled with disappointments and inconsistencies, “X-Men” beats Patriot a*s and pisses in the eye of the perfect wave. Free at last to go to the movies, god almighty we are free at last.
“X-Men” starts, of all places, in the middle of Nazi Germany, as a young Erik “Magneto” Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen), is torn from his parents and introduced to a world of woe and terror, causing him to manifest his mutant power (to mutate metals). Magneto, like the X-Men we meet soon after, is a Mutant of the Distant Future, folks deemed “homo superior”–and we’re not talking West Hollywood here, folks. They are a next generation of superhumans, endowed with odd gifts capable of being used to good or evil ends.
Jumping into the future, we meet Rogue (Anna Paquin) on the flip side, a young mutant too but a girl, unfortunately blessed with the icky habit of toxifying anybody she touches. With these two characters set off quickly against each other in sharp relief, the politics of “X-Men” is clear. We’re all mutants in one way or another, it’s how we respond to our mutation that dictates our paths into the future. Magneto makes bad with the destructive use of his mutantism; X-Men aspire to good regardless of their dysfunction.
After hooking up with the highly hirsute (and real star of “X-Men”) Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who has adamantium retractable claws as his mutation, the duo ends up at a secret school courtesy of Magneto’s doppleganger, the wheelchair-bound Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). There we meet fellow-X’ers Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) who can look super hot and move stuff with her brain and read your mind at the same time; Cyclops (James Marsden) who can look like LaVar Burton on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and blow your head off with his eyes at the same time; and Storm (Halle Berry) who can look like she’s allowed as much depth of character as the black guy in “The Perfect Storm” and whip up big weather changes at the same time.
In the future, it turns out, all mutants are the disenfranchised enemy, treated in ways and discussed with rhetoric that clearly echoes the PI-speak that in history has been reserved for minorities, the handicapped, and all others similarly disenfranchised or oppressed. One Senator, Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison), embodies the evil voice of arch-conservatives everywhere, a mode of being we learn can ultimately turn you into a real drip. The X-Men band together to save the world and their dignity against Kelly and the naughty forces of Magneto–whose posse includes the huge Sabretooth (6’10” pro-wrestler Tyler Mane), superhottie morpher Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), and the hoppin’ and super-tongue havin’ Toad (Ray Park)–as they plot a superhero-sized blow-out at a U.N. meeting.
Performances in the X-ensemble are skillful throughout–Jackman is an enigmatic Wolverine, Stewart was born to play Xavier, Janssen is coolly slick as Grey, McKellen is dastardly as Magneto, and Romijn-Stamos flat-out rocks as Mystique. One of the most clever inversions of the classic superhero fight features Mystique and Wolverine; Mystique seems torn somewhere between trying to kick-a*s and get laid as she f**k fights to the finish. Less strong in their roles are Paquin’s Rogue, who looks a little shaky around all the adults, and Marsden’s Cyclops, who’s a little too pretty and square to come off as cleverly cocky as he could.
The reason “X-Men” succeeds is not because it was a great comic book series, or because the X-Men themselves are totally cool, or because there isn’t a straight man alive who wouldn’t be happy after seeing Rebecca Romijn-Stamos walk around in nothing but blue paint for a couple hours. “X-Men” is great because it does absolutely everything it shouldn’t. It privileges character and intimacy over special effects and action, it makes fun of itself at the exact moments it finds itself taking itself most seriously, it cares about story in ways that go beyond plot points and into real story capable of ringing true, even in Hollywood.
It seems odd in this age of neo-political incorrectness to be cheering for a bunch of superheroes led by a guy with more in common with “In Living Color”‘s Handicap Man than your classic comic book hero. Much can be owed, one imagines, to director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil), for refusing to do what surely everyone around him wanted him to do. Make another formulaic piece of Hollywood s**t where we’re supposed to crap our pants for X-number of special effects minutes or just show up because so-and-so’s in it. “X-Men” spends a little too much of its close setting itself up as a franchise, but, hey, I’ll live. Somebody, at least, made sure that a movie based on a comic book wasn’t a comic book on screen, but instead, thankfully, just a really good movie.