Review by Jason Morrison
Okay, I admit it. Days before I went to see X-Men I scoured the web for advance reviews of the film. Most of them started off with some sort of admission. "I've never read one of the comic books, but it's the best selling comic ever," "I only caught the cartoon once or twice, but X-Men has hardcore fans much like Star Trek." And so on. Some of the reviews even included sidebars with a history of the title, each history mentioning the ironic fact that the book was canceled for a while due to poor sales, but now is a sales powerhouse.
All the reviews I've read by people who have read the comics were suspect-they were on sites like countingdown.com and upcomingmovies.com. Both are magical lands where most of the news is usually good. So what's a well-read, casual fan to do?
The reason I read all those reviews is, well, nervousness. For one thing, this is director Bryan Singer's first foray to really-big-budget, and The Usual Suspects was too good a film to see him ruin his career with some kind of "Batman and Robin" or "Lost in Space." What's more, I am an X-Men fan, though I haven't read the books in a while. So I know how good the series can be, and how terribly it can be mutilated. It would be very, very easy to do a crappy X-Men movie, and that would spell doom for a really promising series as well as any other Marvel project like the upcoming Spider-Man movie.
But tonight, I sleep easy. For I have seen the film, my brothers, and it was not bad. Actually, quite good.
The story combines elements of the last 30 years of books to get the audience up to speed and, well, rewrite history in a way more conducive to moviemaking. Erik Magnus Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen) watches his parents torn away to be gassed in a Nazi concentration camp. As he reaches for them, the metal fence begins to bend, as if by sheer will. The guards knock him out, and his parents are gone.
A young girl (Anna Paquin) talks with her boyfriend, leading to a kiss. With a shock, he becomes weak, then comatose. The girl is scared-what did she do? How did this happen? On TV a certain Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison) dominates a hearing about genetic mutation in humans-like sending children to school with handguns, he says-the girl, calling herself Rogue, runs away. She ends up in Canada where she watches a bar fighter, "The Wolverine" (Hugh Jackman), take hits and get up like nothing happened. The two are forced to leave the bar, and just as they begin to talk, are ambushed by a creature more beast than man (Tyler Mane).
They're rescued by a couple of mutants in black leather and taken to upstate New York. The mutants, of course, are the X-Men, and the place, of course, is Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters. Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), the world's most powerful telepath, has built the school to help mutants learn to control their mutations and the strange powers than often come with them. The X-Men are basically grad students, preparing to fight the kind of threats that Erik Lehnsherr now represents. Calling himself Magneto, Lehnsherr-once Xavier's friend-now believes mutants are in store for the same treatment the Jews received at the hands of the Nazi's. Though Xavier believes it can be worked out, Magneto is not going to wait and see. He is plotting something big, and it includes Wolverine and Rogue.
Wolvie is neither pleased to be there nor impressed by the funky costumes. He stays only when Xavier promises to help him find out about his past-Wolvie has lost his memory of anything past 15 years ago. Mysterious pasts aside, what is Magneto up to?
I must mention that the first act of the film, where Magneto, Rogue, and Wolverine are introduced, is by far the best part of the film. I can't recall another summer action movie that was so enthralling-the characters were defined by each moment. Also, this is the only part of the film where the pace is dead on. Singer supposedly cut as mush as a half-hour from the film to make it more audience-friendly. It's noticeable, though not too terribly, in the rest of the film. The action and dialogue seem to end just as it's about to get really deep. I can't wait for the DVD director's cut.
Stewart and McKellen really are impressive as the opposite sides of the same coin. Both are really incredible actors, though Stewart probably feels a bit pigeonholed by his portrayal of Captain Picard on Star Trek. He seemed the only choice for the roll, though-about 8 years ago some friends and I came up with a list of who we'd like to see in an X-Men movie, and he was the only one we all agreed on. More than a few fans were worried about McKellen, but he understood Magneto better than Stan Lee did when he created him back in the 60's.
Jackman's Wolverine is a good take on the character. He's sarcastic, gruff, and able to fall into a berserker rage right out of the comic book. Blended in, though, is a desire to care for Rogue and protect those who can't defend themselves. Jackman looks the part, too, even if he's a bit young (we had picked Clint Eastwood for the role).
Part of the difficulty with making a movie like this is giving everyone in the cast enough time to develop. Cyclops (James Marsden), the team's leader, perhaps suffered most from this. While we saw a bit of his relationship with Xavier, he did little else than rub Wolvie the wrong way and lose his glasses. Halle Berry, as Storm, may have had even less screen time than Marsden, but she didn't seem very into the character anyway. She also has the only really corny line in the whole film.
Anna Paquin and Famke Janssen shined as Rogue and Dr. Jean Grey, respectively. Paquin blended a touch of teenage angst with some real self-fear, and hopefully we'll see more of her in the sequels. Janssen nailed Jean Grey-she seemed comfortable handing DNA models and medical equipment while struggling to control her still-developing powers. She's never been the kind of character you could nail down with one sentence, and Janssen has responded to that by making her the most down-to earth character in the bunch.
Magneto's Brotherhood (read henchmen), at least on paper, seem no match for the X-Men. Optic blasts, unbreakable bones and claws, lightning and telekinesis versus a shape shifter, a manimal and a guy called "the Toad?" But both Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) and Toad (Ray Park) attack with such savage martial arts and Magneto plans so well ahead that the X-Men find themselves outmatched at each turn. Mystique, in particular, is going to sell a lot of movie tickets. Decked out in blue scales and body paint, she's managed to beat out Berry, Janssen and Paquin as guy fantasy material. She has almost no real lines, but Romijn-Stamos exudes a calculating confidence throughout the whole film. Park makes the Toad much more of a threat than I could have possibly imagined, though his tongue attacks were a tiny bit cheesy. Why not just give the guy super-strong legs and let him kick the crap out of everybody?
The film's overarching impression is that of a prequel. So much time is spent on introduction that is seems assured we will have at least two more films coming up. You don't build up characters like that just to have them play around a bit, destroy a few cop cars, and disappear. The action, too, seems just a little bit sedate; they do justice to the comics and the fighting is pretty spectacular, but every attack seems to be winking and saying, just wait till you see what we do next. I left the theater wanting to see more. I think Singer could have left in his half-hour without losing the audience. It was probably mostly dialogue, which would have added to both the characterization and the tension. There's nothing like a good ideological debate while lives hang in the balance.
I can only hope the general public is suitably taken by X-Men. It's not like any other summer action movie-it's darker and more philosophical than most, and much more character driven without relying on stereotypes. It really is a good movie, and barring some kind of Joel Schumacher-esque disaster, the best is yet to come.
(Out of five)