C’mon, how many good super-hero movies can you actually name? After “Blade” and the first two “Superman” films, I’m left with extreme ambivalence about Tim Burton’s “Batman” flicks. It’s so hard to sell one person with extra abilities and a weird costume to a mass-audience, you can see why there are good reasons movies full of such characters almost never get off the ground. The X-Men are lucky in that most of their powers don’t require too much expensive CGI work to pull off, but their inherent themes of paranoia and racial injustice added with enough back-story to fill seventeen Mexican soap operas more than make up for it.
Beyond the book itself, I thought director Bryan Singer’s “Usual Suspects” was hugely overrated and an actor I really like, Dougray Scott, had to bow out of the part of Wolverine at the last minute because of the out-of-control schedule of “Mission: Impossible 2”. The unknown Hugh Jackman replaced Scott, and his previous experience seemed to come mainly from the world of musical theatre.
Now I ask you, what would you expect?
So, no one is more surprised than I am that the movie actually turned out great. Given every opportunity to screw up, Singer and a crew of credited and uncredited screenwriters overcame every obstacle in their way. “X-Men” should be the blueprint for all super-hero films to come.
Job #1 is setting up the world. From the opening we learn that human evolution is lurching forward. People born with significant genetic differences (blue skin, wings, whatever) are called mutants. In the not too distant future, normal humans such as Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison) react to those born as mutants with fear and revulsion, much as others have reacted to blacks, Jews and homosexuals in the past. Kelly leads a political and societal movement to single all mutants out, first with identification, but he is not unopposed.
Among the mutants there are two factions. One is the Brotherhood of Mutants, led by Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Ian McKellen). He’s seen the same attitudes before when he saw the Nazis put his parents to death in the gas chambers. Magneto is not taking any chances about a repeat. He and the Brotherhood will protect their brethren by any means necessary.
Hope for conciliation is left to Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). Divided from his former friend Magneto by ideology, he runs a school where mutants can learn to cope with their differences. Beneath the school is the headquarters for his graduates who seek to protects both mutants and humans from mutants, the X-Men.
Our tour guides through the conflicts of this world are Logan (Hugh Jackman) and the teenage Rogue (Anna Paquin). Rogue learns of her powers after accidentally placing the first boy she kisses in a coma. Freaked, she hits the road where she eventually runs into the amnesiac, brooding Logan who sometimes goes by the name Wolverine. The pair then find themselves sucked into the battles amongst all the other parties.
Thankfully, this film is neither of two things: camp or an action film. While the big climax does not disappoint, Singer and company have set out to explore this world and its inhabitants. They hold fealty to human nature before the original comics. The basic personalities and interpersonal relationships have been delicately preserved to the point where any fanboy not satisfied is probably too anal to ever get laid.
Surprisingly, despite a total of ten mutant characters, all get the chance to at least distinguish themselves. The film wouldn’t work, however, without the one guy who dominates the comic, Wolverine. In Jackman, we have a star. His reaction to all this craziness defines the audience’s as he’s forced to pick sides in this super-powered struggle. Jackman’s talent and presence are the driving force behind the whole movie.
The only real problem with “X-Men” is that it’s too short. Clocking in at under 100 minutes you’re left wanting more. The filmmaking team, which includes executive producer Richard Donner, the director of “Superman: The Movie”, have done their part by creating a world with a lot of stories left to tell. Now it’s time for America to do it’s part and support one of the best films of summer 2000. After all, the only thing “X-Men” is really missing is a sequel.
(Also visit the companion to the official site Mutant Watch and help Senator Kelly in his battle for mutant registration.)