Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 01/17/07 11:17:55

"Smart, emotionally credible comic-book adventure."
5 stars (Awesome)

At some level, 'X-Men' -- the comic book and the movie it has spawned -- is, has been, and always will be adolescent hokum, but it's adolescent hokum that can get around your shields and get to you.

When writer Chris Claremont gave the X-Men comic a makeover in the mid-'70s, he knew exactly how to turn it into a fan favorite: tap into the average comic-book reader's feelings of being misunderstood, ridiculed, alienated from the popular crowd. The noble mutants -- superheroes born with uncanny powers, and persecuted by society for it -- were stand-ins for their audience. Whether X-Men can connect with a summer-blockbuster audience on the same metaphoric level remains to be seen, but it deserves to; it's probably the most fully-rounded and satisfying bit of popcorn entertainment we've gotten this summer, or are likely to get.

The movie opens, oddly enough, in a Holocaust concentration-camp setting; we witness a young boy, who will grow up to be the vengeful Magneto (Ian McKellen), traumatically separated from his parents by Nazi soldiers. Manifesting his powers, the young Magneto causes the camp's iron gates to bend. Some will question whether Holocaust imagery should be used to spruce up a summer comic-book movie, but the moment has surprising power; so does much of the rest of the film. Director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil), who has never worked on a blockbuster scale before, tosses off the special-effects scenes -- they're necessary, but he's not all that crazy about them -- and focuses, believe it or not, on the personalities and philosophies in conflict.

Mutants are under attack; the self-righteous Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison), using rhetoric straight out of Joe McCarthy's playbook, calls for all mutants to be registered ("Would you want your children to go to school with mutants? Be taught by mutants?"). Magneto, who has seen this sort of thing before, mistrusts humans and sees the conflict as a war that mutants must win in order to survive. His opposite, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), is more optimistic -- he runs a private school devoted to helping young mutants refine their "gifts" for the greater good. Among Xavier's recruits are Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), a brutal scrapper with claws that pop out of his fists; Storm (Halle Berry), who commands the weather; Cyclops (James Marsden), whose eyes shoot lethal lasers; Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), a budding telepath; and Rogue (Anna Paquin), whose touch robs people of their essence and/or mutant abilities.

Magneto plans to use some sort of mutating ray on the world's leaders, to turn them into mutants and therefore level the playing field. Trouble is, he's too old to run the machine himself any more; it takes too much out of him, so he kidnaps the young Rogue, and her fellow X-Men swing into action. But X-Men is less about action than about the awkward electricity passing between, say, Wolverine and Jean Grey (she's involved with Cyclops but doesn't seem very intimate with him), or the ideological opponents Xavier and Magneto. X-Men packs a lot into its 104 minutes, but still finds time for a nicely understated scene between the skittish runaway Rogue and the slowly sympathetic Wolverine in his dingy truck; the dialogue, credited to David Hayter (as many as five other writers worked on the script), has much less macho attitudinizing than Claremont's own verbiage (I revisited some back issues after seeing the movie, and winced). Singer and Hayter have taken Claremont's compelling basic blueprint -- weird heroes with wounded souls -- and streamlined it.

The movie deftly sets up each character in a way that establishes his or her powers and personalities (Wolverine is a cynical loner; Cyclops is a stiff; and so on) lightly and quickly, and then gets on to the next thing. As summer movies go, X-Men is remarkably crisp and economical; it's not overawed by its own special effects, even when an unfortunate character's too, too solid flesh melts, thaws, and resolves itself into a dew. The acting is also a lot better than it had to be -- Hugh Jackman nails the balance of brooder and berserker that Wolverine fans will demand; Anna Paquin's untouchable Rogue gives you a pang of sorrow for this poor girl -- though I wish Ian McKellen's saturnine Magneto had more lively henchmen to bounce his wit off of; his minions (Tyler Mane's animalistic Sabretooth, Ray Park's tongue-lashing Toad, and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos' shape-shifting Mystique) have little or no dialogue, yet I must admit that Mystique the freaky blue hellcat is a terrific visual.

Singer and McKellen worked magic together in Apt Pupil -- another movie that used the Holocaust as a jumping-off point quite effectively -- and McKellen approaches this comic-book villain (with the rather embarrassing pronunciation "Mag-neato") without a scrap of condescension or even conscious hamming. The role doesn't take dignity away from him; he gives dignity to the role, and to the film. Like the misbegotten Battlefield Earth, the movie ends with the promise of more to come (there's a terrific final scene between Xavier and Magneto), but in this case you want to see more.

Bryan Singer brings a casual touch to blockbuster wizardry, as in a charming classroom scene when one bored mutant idly makes a fireball and another bored student turns it into an iceball. 'X-Men' shows every sign of being a smart, truly magical adventure-movie series.

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