The movie version of X-Men was perhaps my most anticipated film of the summer. A few years ago, I really became interested in comic art; it was an offshoot of my passion for animation. I began to appreciate the artistic value of comic books. In addition to being well-drawn, comic books offer readers a mythos that current pop literature often overlooks. They create worlds and beings and damaged psyches fighting to make sense of the universe.
The X-Men comics are among my favorites for this very reason. I naturally expected to enjoy the movie because of this. What I didn't expect was that X-Men would be so much more than I anticipated. While retaining the spirit of the comics, the movie (from The Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer) is broader in scope than most superhero adaptations. Like Tim Burton's original Batman, this is intelligent and psychological enough to appeal to X-Men neophytes as well as hardcore fans.
The story begins in 1944. A young boy watches as his parents are taken to a concentration camp. The German soldiers try to hold the screaming boy back, but he keeps trying to break free of their grasp. Arms outstretched to his retreating family, the boy's anguish seems to bend the bars of the gate that separates them.
The boy grows up to be Magneto (Ian McKellen), one of thousands of "mutants" who discovered they had extraordinary powers during adolescence. On the surface, most of the mutants are just like anyone else; each one, however, has developed a secret power that makes them different. Some of the mutants choose to embrace their humanity over all else. Others believe that - because of their differences - mutants are under potential threat from normal humans. Magneto falls into the latter line of thinking. And he has a point: a powerful U.S. Senator (Bruce Davison) is introducing legislation to have all mutants report and "register" their powers. The senator believes that mutants are an inherent danger. "Who knows what they are capable of?" he asks. "Do we really want them in our schools, teaching our children?" Magneto has developed a plan (which I won't reveal) to influence such political thinking once and for all.
Some of the mutants under Professor X's tutelage are: Storm (Halle Berry), who can change the weather at will; Cyclops (James Marsden), able to shoot lasers out of his eyes; and Jean Gray (Famke Janssen), a doctor with telekinetic powers. One day, two brand new mutants find the school. Rogue (Anna Paquin) is able to suck out people's life forces, while Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has accelerated healing powers and a nasty set of claws that come out of his knuckles. This team assembles to stop Magneto's plan.
This is a basic kind of comic book plot that allows for lots of adventure. At the same time, the movie wisely resists overloading on special effects and mindless violence in favor of developing a credible story punctuated by logical action scenes. The X-Men have always represented outsiders: those who are different, or foreign, or misunderstood. Not so coincidentally, the film's climax takes place on Ellis Island, further drawing a comparison to those seeking to fit in. X-Men takes this idea seriously, effectively using the characters as a metaphor for anyone who has been prejudiced against.
The movie's compassion for the idea puts it a step ahead of most comic book adaptations. Rather than aiming the picture squarely at kids, X-Men remains loyal to the adult nature of the source material. That's not to say that kids won't enjoy it (they will), but it does show that the film has greater ambitions.
This is also true in terms of character development. I liked the interplay between Magneto and Professor X, who maintain a civility despite their philosophical differences. And I loved the bond that grows between Wolverine and Rogue. They meet in a cold Canadian town, initially resist each other, then form an alliance as they discover their similarities. Jackman (an Australian actor unknown in this country) and Paquin (Oscar winner for The Piano) don't just dress up in silly costumes and run around. They develop 3-dimensional characters we really come to care about. The screenplay isn't afraid to pause the action long enough to provide some touching human moments between them.
The action and effects are spectacular too, although, as I said, they don't dominate the story. It's more exciting when these things become an essential part of a movie rather than its whole reason for being. Singer makes sure the more high-concept elements of the film are balanced by the thoughtful ideas of the screenplay. (How many summer movies are smart enough to actually contain ideas?)
I know other X-Men fans will be thrilled by this film, but I want to also encourage everyone else to see it too. This is a rare "event" movie that is proud of its ambitions. I enjoyed every second, and plan to see the movie again. Going in, I had high expectations for X-Men; to my surprise, it surpassed every single one of them.
( out of four)
X-Men is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.
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