X-Men (2000)

D: Bryan Singer
S: Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen

In the not too distant future, mankind has begun to evolve. Variants in DNA have begun to produce mutants with superhuman powers, much to the suspicion and fear of certain sections of the homo sapiens community. Two groups of mutants have assembled to do battle on behalf of their kind. One group preaches tolerance, understanding, and mutual co-operation. The other calls for justice for their people by any means necessary. It is interesting to see that in a short period which has seen the return of Shaft, Denzel Washington fail to win an Oscar for portraying Rubin Carter in The Hurricane, and Spike Lee direct his most 'white' film to date (Summer of Sam), it takes a $130 million comic book adaptation to bring racial drama to the fore in mainstream American cinema. X-Men is a not very thinly veiled treatise on the ideology of social prejudice which pits varying oppositional philosophies against one another in a way that neither Dr. Martin Luther King nor Malcolm X could ever have dreamed of. Their fantastical counterparts are, respectively, Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: Insurrection) as Professor Charles Xavier, head of a special school devoted to training mutants to use their powers for good and to promote peace and understanding between humans and mutants, and Ian McKellen (Richard III) as Magneto, a powerful and charismatic mutant whose personal experience of racial discrimination has angered him past the point of compromise. Though the film focuses on internal divisions almost to the exclusion of a real sense of the prejudice itself (represented only by Bruce Davison as a racist senator trying to pass a bill to register all mutants like sex offenders or dangerous weapons), its primary thrust is most definitely towards a thematic concern with humankind's inability to accept what is different. It is a racial drama without race which acts as a moral lesson in the way of a fairy tale, or a comic book...

Director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil) brings all of the style and brooding menace of his last two films to bear on material ideally suited to it, and, in the effort produces the darkest comic book adaptation since Batman Returns. Yet what distinguishes X-Men is not necessarily its thematic coherence, or its visual style (eye-popping as it is). What is most unusual about X-Men is its structure, which mimics the classic comic book right down to choosing a serial rather than one-off format. It is episodic throughout, built around a series of self-contained set pieces which act like chapters in a story book rather than the traditional three-act structure of a Hollywood movie, and its ending practically screams "to be continued."

It begins well (following a prologue set during WWII which clearly establishes the thematic and social context of the action, but may offend some), introducing young mutant Rogue (Anna Paquin of The Piano fame) who becomes aware of her powers for the first time and flees home as a result. She meets up with the series' most popular hero, Wolverine (portrayed with relish by Australian stage performer Hugh Jackman), also a wanderer on the fringes of the burgeoning conflict. The structural conceit begins to kick in shortly afterwards with the sudden introduction of one of the villains, the giant, cat-like Sabretooth (played by former pro-wrestler Tyler Mane), and two of Xavier's prize students, Storm (Halle Berry) and Cyclops (James Marsden). An entirely new movie seems in the offing as Paquin and Jackman are whisked away to Stewart's mysterious stronghold in the futuristic, steely bowels of the old-world mansion which serves as his mutant school (where we meet Stewart himself and Famke Janssen (GoldenEye, Deep Rising) as his protege Jean Grey). With the abrupt change in surroundings and the sudden increase in the number of major characters, a great deal of exposition and meaningful dialogue begins as the script tries to give equal time everyone and make sure the audience is aware of the deeper context of any action which might occur. The film continues to be punctuated with set pieces laden with dialogue exchanges all the way until it seems to arrive at its climax too quickly for the narrative to catch up. So much attention is being paid to character development and thematic discourse that some of the more visceral pleasures of conventional crowd-pleasing action are forgotten, and when the fireworks do begin, we're almost too concerned about the characters to have fun (a weird paradox if ever there was one).

The film is also clearly incomplete. Only some of the character threads are resolved, not because of poor writing (though Halle Berry is given a bit of a raw deal as Storm), but quite deliberately, and it ends, like many a comic book or like an episode of the recent animated TV series based on these characters, with the beginning of another story which grows out of the present one. Without wanting to spoil the plot (skip the sentence if you're worried), none of the villains dies (though they are put temporarily out of commission), and a nice finale features Xavier and Magneto facing off against one another over a quiet game of chess by way of telling us that the conflict is far from over. This makes sense thematically too, of course, proving that, in contrast to what is perceived as traditional comic-book morality, that sometimes evil cannot be vanquished and some wounds never heal. Wolverine himself, who has had the lion's share of attention in this entry, looks set to be even more central to the next one, which must inevitably follow soon. After all, Marvel creator Stan Lee (featured in Kevin Smith's Mallrats) has a wealth of stories and characters to get to the screen at long last and X-Men looks set to be the flagship project.

But does it kick butt? Apart from all this grad school critic stuff, is this a movie you want to see? Well, yes. X-Men is very spectacular, well acted, never cops out, and does a nice job of combining realistic tone with its larger-than-life characters. It is fast moving, generally entertaining, and features some nice special effects, make up, and martial arts sequences (Ray Parks (Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace) plays the villain Toad). It is very stylishly designed and knows how to balance a sense of humour and serious intent without allowing the gags to get out of control or belittle the film on the whole. It is the least condescending comic book adaptation we have seen in a while, which is just as well given how much damage it must repair to restore credibility to the genre after Batman and Robin.

Yet this is a film which seems to have been made with critics in mind as much as audiences, perhaps not necessarily to its benefit at the box-office. Many reviewers have expressed bafflement at the choice of Singer as director and at the presence of McKellen in the leading villainous role. It was one thing for Jack Nicholson to go nuts as The Joker in Batman under the helmsmanship of a former Disney animator, quite another, one might think, to have this distinguished thespian of stage and screen playing a megalomaniac with magnetic powers under an indie fave capable of making provocative and stimulating films. But again here we must return to the sub-text and find McKellen using aspects of his experience as a gay man to explore Magneto's rage at the inflammatory rhetoric of Davison's senator and Singer exploring some of the same inner demons of power and will which haunted Apt Pupil. The actor has explained his motivation in interviews on the film, and though you may choose to ignore this level of cinematic resonance (or directorial authorship), the visible threads of political and aesthetic experience which inform the film add to the detail and artistry which has gone into crafting it. X-Men is a serious film, and there may be some for whom that will prove disconcerting or laughable. But, taken on its own terms, it is a successful articulation of its point of view, and quite an unconventional summer blockbuster in spite of all appearance. This has to be worth something even to the skeptics. Whether any of this means anything to audiences is another matter. It certainly doesn't leave you with a slap-happy grin and it is not what too many critics call too many summer movies 'a roller coaster ride' by any means, and though it is certainly worth seeing, it will not be to all tastes.

X-Men is a good first chapter of the prospective series, which we can only hope will not self destruct or have any episodes directed by Joel Schumacher. It skilfully tackles difficult material and challenges a range of expectation. It is not, one senses, all it might have been (it feels too short, actually), but it is solid enough as a springboard for subsequent Marvel and X-Men movies which we can only hope will continue to expand the political and social palette with which these fantastic tales are painted.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.