Director: Bryan Singer
The 1960s were a tumultuous time for the United States, and at the forefront of much of the era's turmoil was the civil rights movement. African-Americans often found themselves on the outside staring into Caucasian society, being treated as second-class citizens if they were even treated like citizens at all. It was this bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination that was eventually allegorized into its own comic book franchise, when Marvel Comics published "X-Men #1" in September 1963. The creation of industry legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the X-Men have become one of the most beloved comic franchises in history, producing dozens of spin-offs and turning many of the writers and artists involved in the series into bona fide stars. The X-Men have seen translation into numerous forms outside of comic books in the four decades since their creation, from toys to video games to animated television shows. But perhaps the most recognizable of these translations were the series of films distributed by Twentieth Century Fox. With Bryan Singer fresh off directing his critically praised thriller The Usual Suspects, X-Men can lay claim to reviving the superhero genre, and it helped turn Marvel from a Hollywood punchline to a cinematic powerhouse. Back before X-Men, movies based on Marvel properties were low-budget affairs that were laughable at best. From The Punisher and Captain America to Howard The Duck and Roger Corman's unreleased (and oft-bootlegged) Fantastic Four, they were just plain embarrassing. Since X-Men, Marvel has led the renaissance of superhero movies, achieving success with big-budget theatrical adaptations of Spider-Man, Blade, the Incredible Hulk, Daredevil, and Elektra, along with new interpretations of the Punisher and the Fantastic Four. But is the X-Men's big-screen debut really any good? You bet it is.
Our film begins with a brief narration, explaining that despite evolution's generally slow process, it sometimes takes a giant quantum leap forward. Such a leap forward has resulted in the existence of mutants, people with a certain "X-Factor" that manifests at puberty during heightened emotional stress and gives them extraordinary abilities. Two such examples of newfound mutant abilities are laid out at the beginning of the movie. First, we are taken to a Polish concentration camp circa 1944, where a young Jewish boy named Erik Lensherr (Brett Morris) frantically reaches for his parents as the Nazis lead them to the gas chamber. The trauma manifests Lensherr's mutant power, tearing up an iron gate and rips barbed wire out of its mounts before a soldier clocks him across the face with the butt of his rifle.
Flash forward to "sometime in the near future" in the small Mississippi town of Meridian, where we are introduced to the teenage Marie D'Ancanto (Anna Paquin). As she details her planned road trip through Canada to her boyfriend David (Shawn Roberts), she cuddles up next to him and they share their first kiss. The sexual tension causes her hidden "X-Factor" to reveal itself, and Marie literally sucks the life out of him. David will be in a coma for three weeks, and the deeply scarred Marie will flee to Canada in fear.
Taking the pseudonym "Rogue," Marie ends up at a truck stop in some middle-of-nowhere Canadian town called Laughlan City. In the middle of the building stands a huge cage, where the truck stop's proprietor organizes no-holds-barred bare-knuckle fights. The catch is, a particular fighter named Logan (Hugh Jackman) is nearly impossible to defeat. Fighting under the name "The Wolverine," he always manages to come out victorious despite taking hellacious beatings from fighters twice his size. After a night of successfuly defending his "king of the cage" title against numerous fighters, Logan retires to the bar, but his rest is interrupted when a fighter he beat earlier in the night tries to gain a little retribution by pulling a knife on him. Logan is up to the task, as he quickly pins the man to a wall with nine-inch metal claws protruding from between his knuckles. The bartender throws Logan out (but not before he neatly claws the bartender's shotgun in half), and Logan decides to hop in his truck and hit the road for destination unknown. He soon discovers Rogue stowing away in the back of his truck, but instead of telling her to get lost, he lets her hitch a ride instead.
Rogue and Wolverine have an awkward "getting to know you" moment (where we learn Wolverine's real name, Logan), and just as she's about to warn him about the dangers of not wearing your seat belt, a tree falls in front of them and Logan gets launched out the windshield. It's this crash that demonstrates why he never appeared to get hurt during his fights, as he heals a large bloody gash on his forehead almost instantly. Logan and Rogue are attacked by a group of mutants at about the same time, and but are just as quickly rescued by a second group. The second group takes Logan and Rogue to Westchester County, New York, where we are introduced to Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters. On the outside an exclusive private school for kids and teenagers, the school is a front for Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) to help young mutants understand their budding powers while forming his own team of mutant superheroes that the school's students have dubbed "the X-Men." These superheroes also are employed as teachers at the school, and include the telekinetic/telepathic Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), the weather-manipulating Ororo "Storm" Munroe (Halle Berry), and Jean's boyfriend Scott "Cyclops" Summers (James Marsden), whose eyes constantly emit powerful energy beams.
With all that exposition out of the way, lets get to the meat and potatoes of the movie, shall we? It turns out that the mutants that attacked Logan and Rogue in Canada were the Brotherhood of Mutants, led by the adult Erik Lensherr (Ian McKellen). Having adopted the name "Magneto" as a reference to his ability to manipulate magnetic fields, he has a deep-seeded hatred of normal humans thanks to the murder of his family during the Holocaust. Magneto and the three members of the Brotherhood the immense lion-like Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), the blue-skinned shapeshifting master of martial arts Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), and the aptly-named Toad (Ray Park) are the polar opposites of the X-Men, holding normal humans with a very low regard and seeking to take what they believe is their rightful place at the top of the food chain. Magneto has crafted a tool that will allow him to cause mutations in those who don't have them, and he plans to give evolution a swift kick in the butt to speed things along. The only bad thing about his machine is that while it causes mutations, it eventually causes its victims to melt into a watery gelatinous goo. After testing it on (and ultimately killing) the outspokenly McCarthyesque anti-mutant senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison), the Brotherhood plans to activate his device at a world diplomatic convention on Ellis Island and he needs Rogue's life-draining power to do it. The X-Men are forced to spring into duty and save a kidnapped Rogue, sparking a stunning climax on top of the Statue of Liberty.
Cramming four decades of history into a movie and expecting the non-fanboys to follow along can be rough, but it can be done and X-Men is proof of that. One can tell that the cast and crew enjoyed what they were doing and respected the source material, because it shows. The respect can be seen in several sly references to X-Men history, such as the cameo appearances from noted X-Men characters Iceman, Pyro, Kitty Pryde, and Jubilee, a very novel explanation for Rogue's trademark streak of white hair, and a humorous reference to Wolverine's famous yellow jumpsuit from the comics and cartoons. They even worked in a reference to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, just for Ray "Darth Maul" Park to twirl a staff like he did with his duel-edged lightsaber. The movie also benefits from some extremely cool effects, from the simple (Wolverine's claws) to the extravagant (Mystique's shapeshifting, Storm flying up an elevator shaft). Bryan Singer's direction is top-notch, making the movie feel like a comic book, yet still seeming oddly realistic as well. Singer presents us with some nicely put-together fight scenes and action sequences (the fight scene between Wolverine and Mystique is a must-see), and Singer's work and the astonishing effects make the movie visually astounding from start to finish.
The filmmakers made a very apropos decision in using the Statue of Liberty as the location for the finale. The mutants seek their own form of liberty and freedom in a society that hates them, and Lady Liberty once served as a shining beacon for so many immigrants who came to America in search of liberty and freedom for themselves. And while screenwriter David Hayter's script can be seen as championing gay rights (as the potential anti-mutant laws in the movie could paralell the prohibition of homosexual marriages), I prefer to look at the movie as a story about race relations. One can obviously view Professor Xavier as a version of the peaceful Martin Luther King, while Magneto and his Brotherhood serve as the militant Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. This is a comparison that I find very striking. Just like Dr. King and Malcolm X, both Professor Xavier and Magneto desire mutant equality, but through far different means. One seeks it through dignified efforts, the other intends to force equality by giving non-mutants something to justify their fear. Hayter's screenplay is also effective on an emotional level, with the developing friendship between Wolverine and Rogue. Him with no past (thanks to a bad case of amnesia), and her with seemingly no future (thanks to her mutant power), the bond between them feels very warm and real.
The cast is quite charming in their own right, because it's so apparent that they enjoyed themselves. Of course, Hugh Jackman is the most noteworthy cast member, since he plays the most popular of the X-Men characters. The movie focuses almost exclusively on both Wolverine's relationship with Rogue and the love triangle between Wolverine, Jean Grey, and Cyclops, and Jackman is up to task. If Wolverine was a foot taller and a real person, he'd definately be Hugh Jackman. Anna Paquin is stellar as well. I have to admit that despite her being an Oscar winner, I'm not too familiar with any of her work outside of the X-Men movies. But she did an absolutely spectacular job, conveying Rogue's fear and sadness, desperate for human contact but unable to truly feel close to anyone because of the curse that is her mutation. With the Wolverine/Rogue relationship and the love triangle at the forefront, it unfortunately pushes the bulk of the cast into supporting roles. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan are both superb and enjoyable as the close friends yet bitter enemies, and despite having very little dialogue, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos is fun to watch. It's her mannerisms that makes her so captivating. She accomplishes quite a lot with just a facial expression or eye movement, and the fact that Mystique has no problem picking a fight with a guy makes her quite an intriguing character. And it should be noted that her miniscule wardrobe is simply a bucket of blue paint, red hair, yellow contact lenses, and a few strategically placed scales, which is enough to make any red-blooded heterosexual male at least a little interested. Also entertaining is the movie's exciting score, composed by Michael Kamen. Outside of a certain crescendo that sounds eerily similar to the classic theme from Fox's mid-'90s cartoon, it really doesn't have any standout themes like the scores from Spider-Man or the Batman and Superman quadrilogies. But despite that, Kamen's score is quite effective.
X-Men is a fun thrill ride from beginning to end, and I have no problem listing it next to movies like The Incredibles and Superman II as one of the best superhero movies ever made. If more superhero movies could be like X-Men, we'd all be the better for it. A definite four stars for sure, and a Sutton Seal of Approval.
Final Rating: ****