"X-Men" contains a lively enough mix of athletic stunts,
otherworldly characters and heavy special effects to ensure keen youth interest in this film version of the wildly popular Marvel Comics title. But nonfans of the comic book may wonder what all of the fuss is about. While it's spirited entertainment, "X-Men" lacks the style and substance of such top-drawer science-fiction movies as "The Matrix" or "The Empire Strikes Back".
Whether the film will have enough boxoffice oomph to establish a franchise for Fox is an open question. Unlike film series based on comic books such as "Batman" or "Superman", "X-Men" features an army of heroes and villains, leaving the nonfan without a major character to identify with. Of course, the multiplicity of characters may be a positive attribute in a film series, bringing more depth and complexity to future installments.
For director Bryan Singer
, though, whose career really took off with his stylish "The Usual Suspects", "X-Men" marks a backward step into impersonal, effects-driven filmmaking. This is a thoroughly competent though not terribly compelling work that demonstrates Singer's ability to handle the logistics of a big-budget production. But he loses his storytelling voice in the process.
In the not-too-distant future of Stan Lee's "X-Men" comic books, a sizable minority of humans have evolved into creatures with phenomenal mental or physical abilities. But the international community is divided about how to respond to these "mutants." Are they warrior-saviors or dangerous misfits who should be isolated from society?
The situation forces Prof. Charles Xavier
(Patrick Stewart), himself a telepath, to gather together these misunderstood individuals into a "mutant high," where they learn how to harness their amazing powers.
Among the pupils are white-haired Storm (Halle Berry
), who is able to control the weather, Cyclops (James Marsden), whose eyes emit energy rays, and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen
), who possesses telepathic and telekinetic abilities. Despite the gender mix, these are the X-Men.
Meanwhile, the professor's former friend and now archenemy, Magneto (Ian McKellen
), prepares for the coming battle between men and mutants by recruiting an evil brotherhood to rule the world. Magneto's minions include the physically powerful Sabretooth (Tyler Mane
), whose growl is definitely not worse than his bite, the leaping Toad (Ray Park), whose recoiling, yards-long tongue creates all sorts of mischief, and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos beneath layers of blue makeup and silicone prosthetics), who can morph into seemingly anybody.
Interestingly, two main protagonists among the X-Men hate their "gifts." The sullen, anti-social Logan, a k a Wolverine (Australian actor Hugh Jackman
), possesses the ability to physically heal himself. Because of this, years before, he fell victim to a bizarre medical experiment that welded retractable metal claws to his skeleton, giving him an unwanted power that only brings him unhappiness.
His companion is Rogue (Anna Paquin
), a young girl whose touch can destroy, rendering her incapable of intimacy with any boy. But since she can absorb the powers of other mutants, she becomes an object of desire in Magneto's plot to destroy humankind.
The high-tech battles -- the de rigueur melange of stunts, effects and explosions -- are executed well but fall curiously flat. Much more intriguing is Stan Lee's notion that these superheroes suffer from paranoia and angst. Their unwelcome powers are hurtful and troubling to them as human beings.
Indeed, this angle could have been fruitfully explored at greater length. But Singer and screenwriter David Hayter
(working from Singer and Tom DeSanto's story) get easily distracted by both the need to introduce many of the potential franchise's characters and the desire to deliver the action goods.
As a consequence, the film suffers from incompleteness. Characters are poorly sketched, and story lines dangle. When George Lucas
created his first "Star Wars" film, before anyone could tell that a series would follow, he made certain that his film stood on its own with completely realized characters and a story line that had closure.
In "X-Men", though, only fans of the comic book will understand many of the scenes and oblique references. Even the main protagonists get short shrift.
Visually, the Toronto-lensed production is impressive. In his third collaboration with Singer, cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel
goes for dark, subdued hues. The editing by Steven Rosenblum
, Kevin Stitt
and John Wright makes for a well-paced film. Only Michael Kamen
's forgettable score misses the mark.
20th Century Fox
in association with Marvel Entertainment Group
the Donners' Co./Bad Hat Harry
Producers: Lauren Shuler Donner
, Ralph Winter
Director: Bryan Singer
Screenwriter: David Hayter
Story by: Tom DeSanto, Bryan Singer
Executive producers: Avi Arad
, Stan Lee,
Richard Donner, Tom DeSanto
Director of photography: Newton Thomas Sigel
Production designer: John Myhre
Music: Michael Kamen
Co-producers: Joel Simon, William S. Todman Jr.
Costume designer: Louise Mingenbach
Editors: Steven Rosenblum
, Kevin Stitt
Xavier: Patrick Stewart
Magneto: Ian McKellen
Wolverine: Hugh Jackman
Jean Grey: Famke Janssen
Storm: Halle Berry
Rogue: Anna Paquin
Sabretooth: Tyler Mane
Toad: Ray Park
Running time -- 104 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13