Here's a movie that, even after seeing it, I can hardly believe was made. They did it, they finally made a damn good Marvel movie, and it's the X-Men! Like most guys, there was a time in my late childhood/early teenage years where I lived almost solely for comic books. Every dollar I came up with went to buy one more fix of colorful heroes and villains, unlikely storylines and apocalyptic confrontations between good and evil. My favorite book was always X-Men, which I followed in reprints through the classic "new X-Men" run from the Giant Size Uncanny X-Men #1 up to the Dark Phoenix Saga, as well as in the late 80s slump and the revival under the pen of Jim Lee. There is truly something special about this series that Jack Kirby created all those years ago (Stan Lee apparently had very little to do with it, even though he took full credit). Maybe it's because, unlike a lot of the early super-heroes, the X-Men are characters you can relate to. Just a bunch of young dudes and gals who happen to be mutants, i.e. to have a genetic condition that gives them various super powers which generally reveal themselves during highly emotional moments at puberty. It's a gift but also a curse, as it makes mutant kids different, scary and threatening to "normal" humans. It might be that feeling of not fitting in that appeals to the millions of geeky teenage boys worldwide who make X-Men one of the best-selling comic books around.
But what about the movie? Simply put, "X-Men" is the greatest comic book adaptation ever. Hands down. The "Superman" flicks were good but pretty corny, Tim Burton's "Batman" films looked great but were uninvolving, the ones by Joel Schumacher are way too campy. "Spawn" is cool but uneven, and "Blade" rocks but only as a one-note flick. "The Phantom" was also fun in its own modest way, but not great. In fact, until now my favorite comic book movie was Sam Raimi's "Darkman", and it is not even based on a comic book! Yet that was a film made lovingly by a highly skilled filmmaker who embraced the opportunity to defy physical laws, use baroque camera angles and have his hero (played by none other than Liam Neeson) go to super human lengths to right wrongs. As directed by Bryan Singer, the "X-Men" movie does all this while also making fanboys drool at the chance to finally see their favorite characters in live action. Of course, some will whine about this or that, like the absence of the Danger Room, of the cheesy original costumes (which are replaced by black leather suits) and of characters like Nightcrawler, Colossus and the Beast. But instead of wondering about what could have been, you should enjoy what is, an all too rare clever comic book movie.
There are two main storylines in the movie that eventually merge into one gripping continuity. First, there's the quick growth of the influence of Republican Senator Kelly (Bruce Davidson), whose political agenda includes pushing a bill that would force all mutants in the US to register so the government can keep track of them. "You're for gun registration", Kelly argues, "so wouldn't you want to register kids with powers far exceeding that of a handgun?" Not a bad point in itself, but Brotherhood of Mutants head Magneto (Ian McKellen) -who has the power to attract and manipulate any metal object- finds the idea reminiscent of 1930s Nazi Germany, when the first step of Hitler's plan included registering all Jews. A concentration camp survivor, Magneto is particularly sensitive to prejudice, and like a genetically mutated Malcolm X, he's ready to take "any means necessary" to ensure that mankind doesn't trample over the freedom and rights of mutants.
At the other end of the spectrum, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) -who possess high telepathic skills- prefers to follow the ideologies of Dr. Martin Luther King and dream of a world where all live peacefully together. With his personal wealth, he founded the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters where mutants can learn to control their powers in order not to hurt themselves or others. The movie introduces us to the Westchester, NY institution through two newcomers arriving from Northern Alberta: confused teenage girl Rogue (Anna Paquin) and rowdy man-beast Logan aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Rogue has a condition where, upon touching another person, she temporarily absorbs their energy and memories and, in the case of a mutant, their powers. A tragic gift it is, since it doesn't allow her to ever touch loved ones if she doesn't want to cause them harm. As for Wolvie, his body benefits from instant regenerating capabilities, meaning that wounds heal almost instantly and that his aging process is considerably slowed down. How long has he been around? He doesn't even know himself since experiments at his expense by the secret Canadian project 'Weapon X' has left him with implanted adamantium skeleton and retractable claws but also major memory loss...
Logan and Rogue will more or less reluctantly join the X-Men, the team of mutants Xavier has put together to protect humans from dangerous mutants of the likes of Magneto. The X-Men include young but brave leader Cyclops (James Marsden), whose eyes shoot deadly optic beams unless he wears ruby quartz glasses, his girlfriend Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who has telekinetic and telepathic powers, and Storm (Halle Berry), who is able to control the weather, whether it's wind, rain or lightning. Will they be strong enough to stop Magneto's Brotherhood, which boasts the diverse talents of Mystique (Rebecca Romjin-Stamos), who can take the shape of anyone she sees, Sabretooth (wrestler Tyler Mane), a Yeti-like dude with the strength of ten men, and Toad (Ray Park), who has amphibian-like long tongue and agility?
I'll say it again: best comic book movie ever! Director Bryan Singer, best known for the brainy noir thriller "The Usual Suspects", is not one to cheapen or dumb down the surprisingly serious issues that give the X-Men comics more weight than the common super hero fare. His movie always remains intelligent and involving. This is a character driven picture that happens to deal with the extraordinary, not a big toy commercial. Never does it fall into audience-insulting stupidity, campiness or caricature. In fact, the film positions its fantastic elements in reality; the characters are aware of the oddity of their situation, or of the ridiculous of it. I love how Wolverine is always there to sarcastically point out such occurrences, going as far as calling the X-Men geeks!
The movie works on different levels while always keeping its momentum. It exposes the whole mutant thing interestingly, through visually stunning special FX work and sharp dialogue (kinda like Morpheus' intro to "The Matrix"), and the characters are well introduced and developed so that we care about them. Royal Shakespearean actors Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen (who had already worked under Singer in "Apt Pupil") play characters philosophically opposed, but solid writing and acting avoid them from being trapped as the good guy and the bad guy. Both make good arguments, and even Bruce Davidson's intolerant Senator Kelly isn't quite one-dimensional. Likewise with Hugh Jackman's Logan, who appears to be little more than a careless badass, but then we see in his relationship with Rogue that there's a good guy in there behind all the hair and the Bruce Campbell-style macho musings. Marsden and Jannsen have less screen time, but they make good of it. Marsden nails the inherent nerdiness of Cyclops and Jannsen projects both intelligence and womanliness as Jean Grey. It's also real cool how the couple and Wolvie relate to each other, in a mostly implied love triangle very faithful to the comic books. Halle Berry's Storm gets a lot of bad rap from fanboys, but she didn't bother me. Berry's no Angela Bassett, of course, but she hardly has any importance in the flick, the white wig ain't that bad and she does have at least one scene where she really gets to shine.
"X-Men" delivers great drama, but as you may guess it's also an action-packed romp. See Wolverine all claws out going berserk! See Cyclops losing control of his optic beams! See Storm making the sky break! See Magneto turning all the police's metal gear against them! See Sabretooth smacking Wolvie with a tree! See Ray Park showing the same physical prowess he did as Darth Maul through Toad and his crazy "tongue-fu" antics! And last but not least, see babelicious model Rebecca Romjin-Stamos, practically nude if not for the blue scales make up, doing more hella cool morphing than the T-1000 and giving us the baddest, sexiest on-screen villain since Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman! Above all, see a kick ass flick that does justice to its comic book inspiration, a wild ride that packs as much brains as thrills, and easily the best damn movie of the summer!