[Written for Seattle Post-Intelligencer]
When comic book movies get a bad rap, it’s largely because most comic book movies never quite understand their source. Director Brian Singer (The Usual Suspects) knows exactly what X-Men is about: it’s the pulp superhero version of Rebel Without a Cause, played as a parable in prejudice.
In the not-so-distant future, evolution hiccups and a sudden burst of mutations turns otherwise ordinary kids into superpowered beings. Triggered at puberty, the syndrome adds an entirely new dimension to adolescent angst. These social misfits are more than simply confused; they’re the targets of fear, abuse, and a growing witchhunt. They’re mutants, and if hysterical Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison) has his way they’ll be locked up for good.
Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, effortlessly channeling young Clint Eastwood) is first seen in a Yukon tavern version of a death cage fight. He’s a scrappy, brooding loner with an indestructible skeleton, unnatural powers of recovery, and razor-sharp claws that shoot from his fists. Rogue (Anna Paquin), a tortured teen whose first kiss sends her boyfriend into a coma, is doomed to live out her life without ever touching another human.
These tragic orphans find their first acceptance at bald, wheelchair-bound telepath Professor Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) “School for Gifted Children,” an idyllic Westchester mansion whose wooded grounds hide a hi-tech underground bunker of gleaming spaceships and superhero facilities. Xavier’s human magnet counterpart Magneto (Ian McKellen), a bitter Holocaust survivor with his own team of angry mutant misfits, is a kind of Malcolm X of mutant rights (is it a coincidence he utters the line “By any means necessary”?) opposite Xavier’s Martin Luther King.
Singer borrows a few design ideas from the Tim Burton Batman films and choreographs his fights with the help of Hong Kong martial arts movie veteran Corey Yuen, but X-Men is, unusually, neither splashy nor showboating. The fight scenes between the X-Men and Magneto’s treacherous team are a model of conciseness and clarity next to the loud, messy action of most films, and his focus nicely preserves the group dynamics.
Unfortunately the veteran X-Men are pale, unformed figures next to Wolverine and Rogue. James Marsden is woefully flat as Cyclops, the ray beam-blasting team leader, and any talk of his relationship with Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey comes off as pure wishful thinking: there isn’t a spark between them. Most of the other characters wind up shortchanged as well (Halle Berry seems breathlessly poised for lines she never delivers). With so much to cover, the film ends up oddly weightless by the end, as if all a preamble to a coming epic. X-Men has franchise written all over it.
It’s a franchise I’d be happy to see continue. At a swift 105 minutes, Singer deftly crafts a sleek, unusually tight film that balances comic book adventure, pulp opera, and the fear of being different. With parallels to the Holocaust, the communist witchhunt, modern homophobic hysteria, and racism, obvious as they may be, it provides a dimension that grounds this fantasy in the real world.