When I was a kid, a number of my friends were devout collectors of comic books, and their most prized possessions were usually their mint-condition copies of "X-Men", the long-running Marvel Comics saga about a team of mutant superheroes. Though I read the occasional borrowed issue from time to time, and even bought one issue of my very own (the one where the "X-Men" came to Canada and Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau was on the cover), I never could understand why so many kids shelled out a good chunk of their allowances to stay on top of their adventures. I figured that it was just a fad, and like all fads, it would pass in time.
However, in the two decades since my elementary school days, the "X-Men" phenomenon has not only survived, but has grown by leaps and bounds. As it was in the early Eighties, and even in the early Sixties, when "X-Men" was first published, the comic book franchise continues to be a top-seller for Marvel comics today. The Nineties saw a long-running Saturday morning animated series, and now, in the year 2000, comes the first "X-Men" feature film, helmed by "Usual Suspects" director Bryan Singer, in what Twentieth Century Fox hopes to be the start of a long-running franchise. Having watched the film, which I found to be good (but not great), I can now see why the "X-Men" has commanded such a loyal following. Underneath all the rubber jumpsuits, special effects, outrageous pyrotechnics, and comic book plot is a compelling and provocative cautionary exploration of intolerance and ignorance, a theme that has endured the comic book franchise since its early days.
In the 'not too distant future', humanity is faced with an escalating crisis of genetic mutation. All across the globe, increasing numbers of children are being born with abnormal abilities, which sometimes make them a danger to others, as well as themselves. Fueled by public fear and paranoia against this growing mutant minority, U.S. Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison, who starred in the cult sci-fi film "The Lathe of Heaven") is pushing for a law that will make mutant identification and registration mandatory, calling it a public safety issue.
Unfortunately, some of Kelly's fear-mongering rhetoric has merit, as there is a growing anti-human movement among mutants that is being spearheaded by Magneto (Ian McKellen, who appeared in Singer's "Apt Pupil"), a powerful mutant who has the ability to generate magnetic fields and control metallic objects. Magneto believes that public anti-mutant sentiments are the first step towards an inevitable war between mutants and humans, and given his childhood experience in a Nazi concentration camp, he is launching a pre-emptive strike against his would-be persecutors. Among those sharing in his vision are the feral Sabretooth (professional wrestler Tyler Mane), the shape-shifting and blue-skinned Mystique (supermodel Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, who had a cameo in "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me"), and the quick-tongued Toad (Ray Park, out of his Darth Maul get-up in "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace").
However, Magneto's aspirations are countered by his old friend Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" fame), a powerful telepath who believes that peaceful co-existence between humans and mutants is possible. In addition to running a school for 'gifted children', Xavier has assembled a team of mutants to oppose Magneto's goals-- Cyclops (James Marsden of "Disturbing Behavior"), who shoots laser beams from his eyes; Storm (Halle Berry of "Bulworth"), who can control the weather; and Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen of "House on Haunted Hill"), who can move objects with her mind.
The plot primarily focuses on two new recent additions to Xavier's team of X-Men, Wolverine (Australian actor Hugh Jackman) and Rogue (Anna Paquin, seen recently in "She's All That"). Rogue is a frightened teenage runaway who is forever denied human contact due to her mutant ability to absorb the life-force of others through a mere touch. On the other hand, her reluctant guardian, Wolverine, is an abrasive loner whose wounds can heal incredibly fast, and has no recollection of his past or how he came to have razor-sharp adamantium claws that pop out of his hands. When attacked by Magneto's henchmen while traversing the Canadian wilderness, they are rescued by the "X-Men" and taken to Xavier's stronghold, where they are offered an opportunity for a better. While Rogue jumps at the chance to live a normal life with others of 'her kind', Wolverine remains skeptical and suspicious of Xavier's motives. However, Wolverine's loyalties do not remain undecided for long as Magneto's scheme to declare war on humanity quickly hits too close to home.
The underlying appeal to tolerance and understanding that permeates the "X-Men" mythology is universal, and remains as relevant today as it was twenty-seven years ago, when the comic books were first published. Back in 1963, the American civil rights movement was gathering momentum and the comic book stories were allegorical commentary on what was happening in people's backyards. Since then, a number of social and political issues have continued to give context to the themes embodied in "The X-Men", lending credence to the fact that the thin line between ignorance and understanding, between intolerance and acceptance, is a very thin one indeed. Witness the early days of the AIDS epidemic, the treatment of those of Middle Eastern descent in the first days after the Oklahoma City bombing, and even the social and medical issues unleashed by the recent announcement of the complete mapping of the human genome. The world in which "The X-Men" inhabit is not too unlike our own.
Unfortunately, outside of the film's intriguing thematic undercurrent, the rest of the "X-Men" film falls into the predictable vein of good versus evil, with few truly standout or awe-inspiring moments. It's not as epic as the first "Batman" film, but it's no "Batman & Robin" either. Otherwise, the story moves along at a fairly brisk clip, and even though much of the film's first half is heavy in exposition, providing background and details on each of the X-Men, it never gets overbearing or dull. There are numerous face-offs between the good and bad mutants, where each superhero or villain dazzles the audience with their unique abilities, backed up by some decent special effects
Singer's eye for style is evident throughout "X-Men"-- those familiar with Singer's previous efforts will feel at home with the film's polished visuals. For example, the film's opening scene in a concentration camp in 1944 is sumptuously shot, conveying the bleak hopelessness of Magneto's childhood that would lay the foundation for his xenophobic aspirations. The fight scenes are also visually appealing, with well-shot and well-choreogaphed action sequences that will certainly satiate those spoiled by the martial arts mayhem found in "The Matrix".
Wolverine and Rogue are given the most screen-time, and as a result, their characters are developed the most. Jackman is suitably reticent as the flesh-and-blood embodiment of what is probably the most popular character in the "X-Men" series, while Paquin effectively brings the emotional turmoil and isolation of her character alive. McKellen brings his considerable acting resume to bear in a memorable turn as the film's chief villain, while the commanding presence of Stewart is put to good use in the role of Xavier. Unfortunately, given that the film is only 100 minutes long, the rest of the cast is given the short end of the stick, making the performances of Janssen, Marsden, and Berry merely functional.
If you've been a long-standing fan of the "X-Men" comic book, "X-Men" certainly won't disappoint. Even if you only have a passing curiosity to the whole "X-Men" phenomenon, the familiar themes espoused by the story make this film more than just your average effects-laden comic-book translation. And though the film doesn't offer anything truly earth-shattering, there are enough visuals and action to offer a fun night at the local megaplex.