The standard themes of superhero movies—alienation, redemption and too-tight outfits—never change, but the technology available to moviemakers changes monthly.
That’s why superhero movies get continually better-looking, while the storytelling quality of the films steadily declines. There’s not a whole lot left to say about guys who never felt like part of the crowd; meanwhile, special effects have become so spectacular in the past decade that they usually overshadow any feeble attempts at creating deep characters and complicated plots.
The good-looking dungheap of a film known as Batman and Robin was the low point of this phenomenon. It was so bad, it killed any important attempts at a superhero picture for a half-decade. And don’t say superhero movies aren’t important; just look at the receipts and the bitter fan debates they generate. Anything that has people spending money and talking is worth doing right.
This summer, another landmark comic book has turned theaters across the country into cash machines for Fox. Marvel Comics’ stalwart X-Men finally get the big-screen treatment in director Bryan Singer’s compelling, overstuffed adaptation of the long-running story about mutants who just want to be loved.
The film is set in the Not-Too-Distant-Future, where the proliferation of mutants is causing the willies for us normal folks. A senator (Bruce Davison) is leading a movement for mutant registration. But there are good mutants like the ones led by Professor Charles Xavier, who runs a school to help mutant kids harness their powers; and there are bad mutants like the ones led by Magneto (Ian McKellen), who sees a looming war between mutantkind and the rest of civilization.
We wind through the cast of characters, lingering mostly on Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), the badass with adamantium claws that shoot out of the back of his hands, and Rogue (Anna Paquin), who absorbs the life-force of anybody she touches, making her the worst date ever. There’s telekinetic Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), laser-eyed Cyclops (James Marsden) and weathergirl Storm (Halle Berry). On the dark side, there’s Sabretooth, Toad and Mystique (ever notice how the X-Men have names better suited to pro wrestlers or speedboats?).
X-Men has a darkness to it that’s reminiscent of Tim Burton’s first Batman. It doesn’t appear to have been given the studio once-over to lighten the gray areas. None of the characters is completely likeable, and all of the good guys have their own selfish motivations as well. Because of the sheer volume of characters in the film (the writers were trying to cull down a comic series that has used more than 300 X-Men since 1963, so give them a break), we don’t get to know much about any of them except Wolverine and Rogue—and that’s just fine. We’re here for the superpowers and the fighting, not their life stories.
The good mutants end up battling the bad mutants, though the reasons for the film’s third act and its climactic confrontation are remarkably murky. There are simply too many characters and too much plot to cover thoroughly in a sub-two-hour film.
The show is stolen by Jackman, who gets most of the good lines and the good action scenes. But Jackman earns the face time with a menacing performance that taps Wolverine’s essential alienation. He finishes second in the Brooding Australian Megahunk contest to Russell Crowe, but he can always improve in the sequel.
Singer has been all over the filmic map during his brief career. The man who brought The Usual Suspects to brilliant, fast-paced life also lingered over the Holocaust images of Apt Pupil until the film ground to a halt. He’s caught in the middle here, moving quickly from one laborious special-effects scene to another, never quite sure when to run and when to stop.
Facing a compressed shooting schedule to make the summer release date, Singer broke his scenes down into sections and shot them according to which special effects would be necessary. The choppiness is obvious on screen; there are no particularly memorable action scenes, Wolverine’s pas de deux with Sabretooth on Lady Liberty’s crown notwithstanding. The fights are difficult to follow, with Singer apparently determined to get the most out of each hour of that Steadicam he rented.
Though this sprawling comic-book series is too impossibly big to be contained in one film, Singer and friends do a respectable job of filming an X-Men sampler, if you will. The success of this box-office smash—one that cries out for a sequel—will allow more chances to explore one of comic-bookdom’s greatest creations. As long as Joel Schumacher is allowed nowhere near them, the X-Men could be entertaining us well into the Not-Too-Distant-Future.
X-Men (PG-13) HH1/2 Directed by Bryan Singer. Starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and Famke Janssen.