July 14, 2000 -- Comic book characters brought to the big screen are usually long on style and short on substance. "X-Men" has more substance to it than you might expect, and it has a message.
Based on the enormously popular Marvel Comics series that began in 1963, the story is about social outcasts, human mutations with strange powers. They band together to find acceptance and protection, gradually forming two groups, one, a benevolent group under the leadership of Professor Charles Francis Xavier (hence the "X," he is played by Patrick Stewart) and the other, more malevolent group under the leadership of Erik Magnus Lehnsherr -- "Magneto" (played by Ian McKellen of "Gods and Monsters").
Although Professor X and Magneto are enemies, they are also old friends. They really don't want to fight, but a fundamental difference in philosophy forces them to battle each other. Magneto is convinced that a war is coming by the bulk of humanity against the mutants. He hits upon a plan to turn the world's leaders into mutants so they will understand the plight of the mutants. Professor X believes humans and mutants can co-exist peacefully.
One member of the U.S. Congress, Senator Robert Jefferson Kelly (played by Bruce Davison of "At First Sight") is stirring up trouble in a McCarthy-like way, preying upon people's fears of mutants. He is proposing a bill to register all mutants, not unlike some of the early proposals concerning identification of AIDS patients. This proposal does not go over well with Magneto, of course, and war is declared. Magneto has a number tattooed on his wrist by the Nazis to remind him what happens when groups are singled out from the rest of the population for special treatment. He knows what the final solution will be to the mutant problem. Magneto has good reason to believe that fighting back is the best policy.
The story centers around two young mutants on the run, Wolverine, real name Logan, (played convincingly by Hugh Jackman of the "Correlli" TV series) and Rogue (played by Oscar-winning Anna Paquin of "The Piano" and "She's All That"). Wolverine and Rogue find themselves under attack from Magneto operatives and take refuge at Professor X's elaborate compound.
Wolverine is the key character in the film and Jackman hits just the right note in playing the reluctant hero. He's tough-minded and independent, but also idealistic. He's got plenty of edge, but with a soft side, too. Paquin is very appealing as she exudes sensuality, vulnerability and danger. Ororo Munroe ("Storm') is played by Halle Berry of "Bullworth"). Dr. Jean Grey (the only one without a dynamic name) is played by Famke Janssen of "The Faculty" and Scott Summers ("Cyclops") is played by James Marsden of "Disturbing Behavior." Tyler Mane plays Victor Creed "Sabretooth." Rebecca Romijn-Stamos of TV's "Just Shoot Me" plays Raven Darkholme "Mystique." Ray Park, who played Darth Maul in "The Phantom Menace,") plays Mortimer Toynbee, AKA "Toad."
Patrick Stewart, a Shakespearean actor, better known as Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the "Star Trek" series and movies, is perfectly cast as Professor X. He's essentially playing Captain Picard, but that fits this role just perfectly. Stewart seems to be in the enviably position of being able to star in two "franchise" films at the same time. All he has to do is switch uniforms. McKellen, of course, is a wonderful actor, far better than is needed for his role in this movie. Needless to say, he handles it with style. He, like Stewart, is another Shakespearean actor. He starred in a devastating version of Richard III in 1995. The film has a nice combination of young and old acting talent.
The story, by David Hayter, has some depth to it. Sure, there is the set up, the explanation of the characters and the situation, but it makes a point about how fear-mongers work to divide and conquer people. The easiest comparison is Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who, in the early 1950s made a career of anti-Communist witch-hunting. Although he was never able to prove any Communists of guilty of the illegal activities he accused them of, he was able to ruin many lives and many reputations. Some have even suggested he is to blame for the Vietnam war, because Democrats in power dug themselves deeper in the mess because they were afraid of being accused of being "soft on Communism." Even though McCarthy was censured by the Senate, he still has his supporters and apologists.
In the movie, Senator Robert Jefferson Kelly is the fear-monger. He tells people that the mutants are dangerous and subversive and should be registered like handguns. The message of the film oscillates to the frequency of a number of similar issues (X-Men was created during the height of the Civil Rights Movement), such as civil rights, women's suffrage, AIDs patients' rights, gay rights and other similar issues.
The science part of the movie is another matter. It is almost total nonsense. It is more fantasy or pseudo-science than science fiction. For instance, Cyclops can shoot very powerful laser-like beams out of his eyes, yet not blast holes in his eyelids, and where is all that power coming from? The physics behind some of these stunts require gigawatts of power. These characters would have to carry their own powerplants with them and recharge themselves every few minutes. Some of these more outlandish mutations go way beyond any known biological processes. Telepathy and telekinesis, while long staples of pseudo science, charlatans and fiction writers, has yet to be proven scientifically. The film wisely uses humor to defuse some of the sillier elements of the story, such as several X-Men introducing themselves. "Hi, I'm Wolverine, and this is Rogue, and you would be Cyclops and Storm?" The absurdity of these one-name introductions is used to good comic effect.
Science fiction authors for years have predicted the next great leap in human evolution would be greeted with the kind of fear and persecution feared by Magneto. After all, what happened to the lower versions of human beings on the evolutionary scale, such as Australopithicus afarensis? They are all gone (unless there really is a Bigfoot), and that's what would happen to Homo Sapiens after the ascendance of Homo Superior. That's the theory, anyway. Whether it is true to the comic book, I don't know. I only read one, and that was some time ago. I'll tell you this, though, it is not a bad action-adventure movie. It has good acting, adequate character development, good special effects under effects supervisor Michael Fink ("Braveheart" and "Batman Returns"), good photography under the direction of Newton Thomas Siegel ("Three Kings"). The production design by John Myhre ("Elizabeth") is very impressive. The stunt work is also quite good and there are some exciting fight sequences. This film rates a B.
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