Adapting a film from a comic book presents filmmakers with a dilemma. Unless the comic’s characters are familiar, like Superman or Batman, non-enthusiasts need background to understand the story and get involved. But taking time to bring neophytes up to speed only serves to bore avid fans, taking valuable screen time away from their heroes in action. X-Men takes the remedial instruction approach and as a result is a somewhat hobbled action-adventure yarn that’s slow to develop. X-aficionados will welcome their idols’ arrival on the big screen, but they’re likely to be disappointed with how little time their bizarre superpowers are on display. Non-fans probably won’t find enough here to stay engaged. Like a Ferrari with a Yugo engine under the hood, X-Men looks great but takes an eternity to reach a still sluggish top speed.
Star Wars got under way with a jaw-dropping plunge into a mind-blowing (for 1977) space battle that immediately established the combatants and forged audiences’ loyalties. X-Men opens with a flashback to 1944 Poland and proceeds slowly and deliberately from there. Screenwriter David Hayter is publicized as "a lifelong X-Men fan," but his script displays a little too much reverence, consuming the film’s entire first hour to lovingly but laboriously introduce the complete cast and reveal all the minutiae of the plot.
In his previous feature, The Usual Suspects, director Bryan Singer constructed a slick whirlwind of details that weren’t sorted into gold and dross until the film’s conclusion. It made viewers regret that they hadn’t paid better attention along the way. Here, Singer guides X-Men so leisurely that most will be reaching for a non-existent fast-forward button to speed things along.
We learn that "in the very near future," mutants with strange powers are living among us. Some use their powers for good, others are evil. At a basic level, both sides want the same things – for mutants not to be feared, registered or controlled, as McCarthy-esque Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison) is proposing. Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is the world’s most powerful telepath and leads a group of mutants that uses its talents to serve mankind. He believes that mutants and humans can peacefully work together. Magneto (Ian McKellen) leads the forces convinced that mutants are humans’ natural master. And he’s willing to take drastic measures to ensure their triumph, saying: "Sometimes, God works too slowly."
On the "good" side of the playing field are Rogue (Anna Paquin), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Cyclops (James Marsden), Storm (Halle Berry), and Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). Rogue can absorb the powers and memories of any mutant she touches, and contact with her can be fatal to humans. Wolverine wields three retractable metal claws on each hand, rapid healing powers, and a really bad attitude. Cyclops’ eyes fire a laser-like beam that slices through buildings (but not stiff dialog), and Storm can control the weather. The baddies consist of the mammoth Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), the metamorph Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) and Toad (Ray Park – Star Wars: Phantom Menace‘s Darth Maul) – he’s got a fifteen foot tongue and the ability to scamper up walls.
As Wolverine, Hugh Jackman is a revelation. He’s a lithely coiled knot of animal energy with just the right mix of brooding intensity and snide humor. Paquin gives Rogue more than just comic-book dimensions, but the rest of the noble mutants are less fully formed. Cyclops serves mostly as an obstacle for Wolverine’s budding affections towards Dr. Grey, and Storm’s an excuse to display Halle Berry in skintight leather. The bad guys are even fainter outlines – they’re largely hired guns. Only Magneto is given much motivation for his actions, and McKellen plays him with a bemused intelligence that’s a fine match for Stewart’s virtuous Professor X. They both appear to be having a grand time matching wits and quips.
Much of the Marvel Comics’ usual allegory and angst are sadly missing, save for one brief parallel drawn between the childhood WWII horrors endured by Magneto and the persecution planned by Senator Kelly. Marvel heroes are usually outcasts, continually tortured over the responsibilities carried by their superpowers and guilt-ridden over the results of their actions. But other than a few flashes from Wolverine and Rogue, what’s offered here is more a standard good vs. evil power showdown.
X-Men’s production design and art direction create a believable future world. Special effects are seamlessly integrated and serve the story well. But there’s a curious lack of sustained energy. Every time it feels like X-Men is really going to take off, Singer powers back a bit and the film bumps back onto the runway. There are several far from subtle clues that a sequel is in the offing, but by the end most won’t care. In a summer filled with box-office success but noticeably short of artistic triumphs, X-Men is definitely a cut above. But this year, that’s like a climber boasting that they’ve conquered the tallest mountain in Kansas.
– Bob Aulert