It has taken over twenty years for Marvel Enterprises to adapt one of their comic books into a live-action motion picture, but they have finally succeeded with "X-Men," arguably their most popular current superhero series. Having never read the comic before, or seen the animated series, my only relation to the world of "X-Men" came eight years ago (when I was in middle school), at a time when the collectors' trading cards were all the buzz. I remember looking at my schoolmates' cards, and one night I even attempted to go buy some, but either I looked in the wrong place or they were all sold out. In the sixth grade, collecting "X-Men" cards was the "in" thing to do, and being an impressionable preadolescent, it was relatively easy to get swept up into the world of Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm, and the many other characters. However, the fad never truly rubbed off on me, and aside from a cursory knowledge of some of the "mutants" and their powers, I went in to see the first "X-Men" movie, which is already shaping up to become a franchise, without knowing very much in the way of details.
Being a non-fan, it is with pleasure to report that "X-Men" is a good, respectable film--not 'great' by any stretch of the imagination--but one of the very few comic book adaptations that has been successfully translated to the big-screen. The opening chapter in the "X-Men" saga, I suspect, is more a set-up for grander, more satisfying, things to come, much like the original "Star Wars" was back in 1977. Some of the central characters are developed more than others, and there is a great deal of exposition for which the occasional action scenes are built around, but that is just fine, because like "The Empire Strikes Back," "X-Men II" will begin to fill in the missing puzzle pieces and concentrate on the characters and backstories that there was no time for in the original.
The film is set in a not-so-distant future wherein the United States Senate is attempting to pass a bill against mutants (i.e. human beings who have obtained special powers due to DNA mutations), headed by the discriminatory, close-minded Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison). Magneto (Ian McKellen), a mutant whose family was taken away from him during WWII, suspects that another present-day Holocaust is at hand, and sets out with his henchmen, Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), a blue-skinned shapeshifter; Toad (Ray Park), who has a very, very long tongue; and Sabertooth (Tyler Mane), a hairy man-beast, to prepare for war. On the opposing side, the so-called X-Men, mutants who strive for peace and acceptance, must stop Magneto before the point of no return. Headed by Professor X (Patrick Stewart), a wheelchair-bound telekinetic, the X-Men run a school for gifted mutants, with the faculty run by Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Jannsen), also a telekinetic; Cyclops (James Marsden), whose eyes shoot laser beams if not shielded by sunglasses; and Storm (Halle Berry), who can control the weather.
The X-Men acquire two new mutants to their team after saving Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Rogue (Anna Paquin) from an attack on a wintry Canadian country road by Sabertooth. Rogue, a frightened 17-year-old high schooler, has run away from home after kissing a classmate and inexplicably putting him in a coma for three weeks. Holing up in a bar, she meets Wolverine and suspects that they both may be mutants after seeing him get attacked by a group of troublemaking men and defending himself by extracting sharp blades from in between his knuckles. Because they both are outcasts, and Rogue cannot ever come into human contact with anyone without sucking their life energy from them, they quickly bond, and at first, do not know what to expect from the X-Men.
Without the careful handling of the characters of Wolverine and Rogue, "X-Men" would feel like a shallow excursion to oft-covered territory, just as most comic book adaptations fall into the trap of. However, as played by Aussie newcomer Hugh Jackman and Academy Award winner Anna Paquin (1993's "The Piano"), and scripted by David Hayter, Wolverine and Rogue spring to life, forming the heart and soul of the rather simplistic story. The camaraderie that develops between the two, with Wolverine sort of becoming the surrogate guardian of Rogue, is nicely developed and sweet.
The other X-Men aren't nearly as fully drawn, with most slinking in the background for large periods of time, only to come into their own when they must use their powers to save themselves or those around them. The exceptions are Patrick Stewart ("Star Trek") and Ian McKellen (1998's "Gods and Monsters"), as Professor X and Magneto, respectively, the leaders of their conflicting sides. Both performers are effective and suitably cast, and this is an especially nice change from Stewart's usual role as Captain Picard in the "Star Trek" movies.
Meanwhile, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, despite having next to no dialogue, is seductively threatening and leaves a memorable impression as Mystique, arguably the nastiest villainess since Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman in 1992's "Batman Returns." As the other evil opponents, Ray Park, as Toad, and Tyler Mane, as Sabertooth, are fairly inconsequential characters, and the film neither benefits nor suffers from their appearances. On the "good" side, Famke Janssen (1999's "House on Haunted Hill
") and Halle Berry (1998's "Bulworth") are likable as Jean Grey and Storm (who has my personal favorite superpower), but they have very little screen time and even less to do. In the next "X-Men" installment, I am sure they will be more prominently displayed. Finally, James Marsden is sorely disappointing as Cyclops, although it is difficult to say whether his utter blandness is the fault of the actor, or merely because he has the least to do. Based on his strong previous work in 1998's "Disturbing Behavior" and 2000's "Gossip
," my suspicions point to the latter.
Unlike the "Batman" series, which catastrophically plummeted in quality following "Batman Returns," "X-Men" relies more on storytelling than the visual flair of the set design and cinematography, which is a wise choice. Whereas "Batman" is a fantasy almost through-and-through, "X-Men" is set in a realistic version of today's world, with characters that only happen to have powers beyond normal human capabilities. Nonetheless, the visuals are occasionally impressive, particularly a beautiful shot of a snow-covered Canadian vista that is reminiscent of 1999's gorgeous "Snow Falling on Cedars
," as well as the climax set atop the Statue of Liberty.
At 100 minutes (including end credits), "X-Men" reaches its finale about fifteen minutes too quickly, leaving a sneaking feeling that a fair amount of footage was left on the cutting room floor. Better to end while leaving its audience wanting more, however, rather than wearing out its welcome with an excessive running time. In an attempt to bring a Marvel comic book to life, 20th Century Fox has created an entertaining, if slight, motion picture in "X-Men," undoubtedly only the beginning in a successful new franchise, and if it's any indication that director Bryan Singer (1995's "The Usual Suspects") has succeeded, I am already anxiously awaiting a sequel. Look for it to be released in 2003. You can mark my words with a capital "X."