directed by Bryan Singer
(20th Century Fox, 2000)

Marvel Comics characters don't often translate to the big screen well. While DC has racked up successes with portions of the Superman and Batman series (both of which, admittedly, floundered after good beginnings), Marvel has seen many movie efforts go directly to video, where they languish in relative obscurity.

That said, X-Men exceeded my expectations. It was a good movie, with fair acting and good storytelling to bolster what I expected to be basically an eye candy flick.

The story, after an auspicious start in war-torn Poland during the Nazi occupation, shifts to the near future, when humanity is experiencing its next wave of evolution. A select few people in society are, with adolescence, mutating -- developing unique powers, abilities and, in some case, changes in appearance. Of course, society at large reacts strongly, with many people insisting that the mutants are a danger to society and should be registered and monitored at the very least, locked up at the extreme. Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison) is the most vocal supporter of anti-mutant sentiments.

At the other end of the spectrum is Eric Magnus Lehnsherr, a.k.a. Magneto (Ian McKellen), whose persecution by Nazis as a child has left him unsympathetic towards the anti-mutant hysteria. He enlists the aid of several fellow mutants to fight back: the bestial and supernally strong Victor Creed, a.k.a. Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), the shapeshifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) and the agile, tongue-lashing Mortimer Toynbee, a.k.a. Toad (Ray Park).

Somewhere in the middle is Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), a psychic mutant who is secretly training mutant children to control their powers while protecting society from their evil counterparts. His allies include the telekinetic Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Scott Summers, a.k.a. the eye-blasting Cyclops (James Marsden), and the weather witch Ororo Munroe, a.k.a. Storm (Halle Berry). They locate and recruit the fast-healing Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), with his indestructible skeleton and retractable claws, and Rogue (Anna Paquin), who absorbs other people's life energies and powers -- both of whom turn in top-notch performances. Paquin is a convincing teenager frightened by the changes in her and the fast-moving events around her; Jackman, meanwhile, is about as perfect in the role of Wolverine as any actor could hope to be, providing the right amounts of ferocity, confusion, distrust and genuine compassion for his young charge.

There have, of course, been some changes from the comics. Jean Grey no longer uses the codename Phoenix and she seems to lack the fire-based powers previously attributed to her. She is also older than most of her counterparts and has become a doctor, for reasons unknown. Rogue doesn't fly or have super strength; then again, since she got those powers in the comics after "absorbing" them in a fight with another hero, they might still crop up in future movies. Magneto's cadre of allies no longer act as the "Brotherhood of Evil Mutants," wisely dropping the word "evil" from the name. (How many bad guys, after all, consider their own actions evil?)

Adolescent boys, who probably make up the largest segment of X-Men fandom, may be disappointed with the costume choices, however. Yeah, the black, heavy-duty suits of the film look cool, but the skin-tight tights of the comics world still have a certain appeal which these outfits lacked. However, the movie more than made up for that with the villain Mystique -- I haven't read any X-Men books for many, many years, but I don't recall the character ever spending most of her time running around naked. (The textured bodypaint that actress/model Rebecca Romijn-Stamos wore for the part apparently took eight hours to apply for each day of filming.)

X-Men manages to avoid many of the stereotypes attached to "comic-book" movies. The special effects are convincing, but never exceed the importance of the story and its issues of bigotry and hatred. The acting isn't Oscar-worthy, but it's competent throughout and several performers -- most notably Stewart, McKellen and especially Jackman -- are excellent. Unfortunately, the characters in the film are for the most part woefully undeveloped -- grist, I suppose, for the inevitable sequels. (Unlike most of the Batman movies, X-Men doesn't kill off all of its villains at the end, so they can return, too.) I hope director Bryan Singer holds on to the X-Men franchise and does as well with the second film.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

Buy it from Amazon.com.

Read Tim Keene's review, which agrees it's a good movie but disagrees on the reason why.