Written by David Hayter (with numerous drafts by other writers behind him) and fashioned as an allegory about the human need to create scapegoats by director Bryan Singer, this X-Men is a dark and brooding exploration of reluctant superheroes.
Unlike the farce Mystery Men, which pokes fun at the genre’s conventions, X-Men is deadly serious, not unlike Tim Burton’s early Batman movies, which seem to overcompensate for the silly, candy-colored camp of the television series with a glumly morose Dark Knight.
In X-Men, being a mutant in a world of intolerant homo sapiens means being the ultimate outcast, albeit one with powers average people can only dream of. In the rhetoric of Sen. Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison), mutants are the catch-all fear magnets of the future, the new communists, homosexuals and even Jews. (Singer opens the film with one mutant unleashing his powers at a Nazi concentration camp.) The fact that most mutants discover they’re different during adolescence — that time when so many average kids find themselves evolving into freaks and geeks — means that the X-Men (and women) automatically gain empathy from anyone who’s ever felt different.
So what’s striking about the film is how individual the characters feel, in particular Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Rogue (Anna Paquin), two outsiders on the run who find themselves in the middle of a battle of wills between the powerful patriarchs, Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Xavier (Patrick Stewart). Magneto is not only ready for all-out war, but wants humans to feel his pain, while Xavier believes peace can come through mutual understanding. Their diametrically opposed responses to mutant discrimination mean that everyone ends up choosing sides (if you’re not with us, you’re against us): Xavier has Cyclops (James Marsden), Storm (Halle Berry) and protégé Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), while Magneto’s crew is comprised of Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), Sabertooth (Tyler Mane) and Toad (Ray Park).
Considering the diverse background of the players, there’s a remarkable cohesiveness to their performances. By approaching X-Men as high drama, Singer (The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil) roots their behavior in a feasible reality, yet it also means that no one but Park appears to be having any fun. The good mutants, in particular, seem not only tortured by their powers but burdened by the responsibility of protecting people who despise them.
Adapting a book into a movie is risky enough — readers are quick to question the film’s fidelity to the source material — but with comics or graphic novels, the devotion of fans is even more intense. (It’s comparable to the skepticism/expectations greeting upcoming movies of The Lord of The Rings and the first Harry Potter.)
This lean and mean X-Men is sharp and focused, packing quite a bit of information into less than two hours (along with a story line ready-made for a sequel). Yet there’s a distinct feeling that the need to be reverent to the comic series (created in 1963) keeps this film from feeling as vibrantly alive as, say, The Matrix, which could establish its own mythology without preconceptions.
X-Men doesn’t feel shopworn so much as stifled, even as it succinctly lays out the mutant’s complex dilemma for the uninitiated. These products of a great evolutionary leap may have a thankless job, X-Men asserts, but somebody has to save us from ourselves.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.