X-Men: Mutant Mishmosh
or Minor Marvel?
Hugh Jackman asWolverine
Patrick Stewart as Professor X
Halle Berry, simply awful as Storm
Famke Janssen as Dr. Jean Grey
Rebecca Romijn as Mystique
Photos courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
By C. Antonio Romero
SAN FRANCISCO, 15 August 2000 - X-Men, the latest attempt to bring a Marvel Comics property to the screen, was one of the more high-risk entries in this summer's blockbuster derby.
The movie had a lot to contend with. For starters, Marvel has shown little skill in bringing their properties to the screen - the stylish but sloppy Blade has been their best so far. And no Marvel character has achieved the universal familiarity of a Superman or Batman in popular culture, where the fun is in how each interpretation fills in the details. X-Men would have to start from scratch, laying out involved exposition for an ensemble-cast story and still managing to tell a story in its own right.
Further, the moral universe of X-Men is less clear-cut than that of DC Comics' modern myths, turning on an audacious if heavy-handed allegory of anti-Semitism. The backstory: Mutants with extraordinary powers - the next step in human evolution - are born in increasing numbers in the human population, live among normal humans, often in secret, and, it is feared, use, or could use, their mysterious powers to manipulate normals and ultimately achieve their subjugation. An anti-mutant groundswell builds worldwide - a crusading US Senator lobbies round the clock for mutant registration laws, images of internment camps hang in the air. World leaders gather at Ellis Island seeking a global solution to the mutant question.
In the face of this hysteria, "evil" mutants, led by concentration-camp survivor Erik Magnus Lehnsherr ("Magneto"), see a war between humans and normals as inevitable, and choose to defend themselves against inferior normals by any means available. (The ethics of this get rather tangled; if a Holocaust survivor embraces the idea of belonging to a genetically superior race, well... in this case he may be right; and experience past and present has left him little reason to hope for peaceful coexistence.).
The "good" mutants, then, are those who, on principle, stand in defense of the humanity that despises them against their fellow mutants. Charles Xavier ('Professor X'), an immensely powerful telepath, runs a school for "gifted children", where young mutants learn to manage their powers and live in peace with humanity. Many graduates, it seems, opt to live in the closet after graduation, but a few of his best - Scott Summers ("Cyclops"), Ororo Munroe ("Storm"), and the prosaically named Dr. Jean Grey - become the X-Men, openly defending mutants in the court of public opinion, and secretly battling the forces led by Magneto.
Into this situation stumble two new mutants - teenager Rogue, who drains the life from anyone she touches (and who can thus "borrow" the powers of other mutants), and Wolverine, an amnesiac with miraculous healing powers, a virtually indestructible metal-reinforced skeleton, and signature razor-sharp claws. These two quickly become the center of a tug-of-war between Magneto and Professor X, each of whom has his motives for gathering mutants.
And yet, marshalling all their powers of storytelling, the intrepid team that brought X-Men to the screen find a way to pull victory from this difficult material. Blade taught Marvel a few lessons: get capable direction, a solid story (Blade's greatest weakness), and a top-notch cast. What's amazing is that they get all three, more or less. The team's surprise leader, director Bryan Singer, was a perfect choice, having already run one great cast through the tortured story of The Usual Suspects. And as with Professor X, he may have been the key to assembling the rest of the team.
As for the cast, headliners Patrick Stewart (as Professor X) and Sir Ian McKellen (as Magneto) summon their considerable powers of gravitas to make the whole thing bearable. And if the supporting mutants are not up to the level of the headliners, all (except Halle Berry, simply awful as Storm) are adequate. Singer is smart enough to foreground the two strongest members of the supporting cast, who also have the most interesting roles in the story - Anna Paquin, who does a fine job as tormented teen Rogue, and Australian veteran Hugh Jackman, who captures Wolverine's short fuse and sardonic wit.
The story is the real miracle here, and the place where X-Men literally snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Singer teams with writer Tom DeSanto to build a coherent plot out of difficult material with far too many characters. Even with that hurdle cleared, though, X-Men could have fallen apart, but for a last-minute bold decision to cut the film from 150 minutes to 90. For X-Men, less was definitely more. Many scenes become telegraphic, and two jarring lines of dialogue hang oddly in mid-air, but much of the missing hour was clearly expository material that would have weakened the film's narrative focus. The scenes trimmed are well-chosen, based on how much (or little) they contribute to Wolverine and Rogue's story. (And these two really are the axis of the story - the reception that they receive from Xavier is the key to understanding his project, and they are both central to Magneto's nefarious plot.)
Like any good Marvel superhero, though, the film has its imperfections - here, unfortunately, they're mostly in the script. Whatever the strength of the story, the dialogue is uneven; if it only becomes truly awful at one or two moments, flashes of real wit, even from Wolverine, are rare. The other surprising let-down is the action - the fight scenes are... ordinary, never approaching the fever-pitch ballet of Blade, much less 1999's super-flick The Matrix. Wolverine clashes adequately with shapeshifter Mystique (supermodel Rebecca Romijn-Stamos in painted-on blue silicone), but only Ray Park (once Darth Maul, the one watchable thing in The Phantom Menace) has real superhuman moves. The inevitable sequel, which will grow from the great open question of this film - who is Wolverine, really? - will have to do much better on both counts. (Suggestions: borrow Blade's director for the action scenes, and lock him in a room with a print of The Matrix for a week before turning him loose. And send the cast to Hong Kong for action training.)
But these weaknesses, while serious, aren't enough to undo what's right about the movie - engaging central characters, a solid cast and a plot that leaves audiences wanting more. X-Men is perhaps better thought of as a pilot for a series, rather than a standalone feature film. It's far from perfect, but good enough to win audiences over for now, and good enough to evolve into a better sequel.
Best moment: Cyclops checks Wolverine's ID...
C. Antonio Romero is a writer and engineer based in Silicon Valley. He is the Nouveau editor of Culturekiosque.com