Everyone's favourite mutants make it to the big screen
Twentieth Century-Fox
Directed by Bryan Singer
USA, 2000
In 1963, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby came up with what could be considered the perfect comic book concept: mutants. Not the multiple-armed leering mutants of schlock science fiction, but something a shade closer to reality: people who, usually, looked as ordinary as you or I, but for a seemingly random gene--an X-factor--which caused a mutation that often manifested as some kind of superpower, either at birth or at adolescence.

It was perfect because it was an enticing analogy for teenagers (comics' prime consumers) and the awkward hormone-fueled changes they experience. And, with mutants discriminated against by the rest of humanity, it struck a chord as civil rights issues were bubbling up into mainstream consciousness--more so considering the mutants were pretty much divided into militant and assimilationist camps. In one stroke, you had comic-book flights of fancy and more grounded present-day relevance.

In the late 1970s, Chris Claremont took over the writing chores on X-Men and in short order made it smarter and more riveting. With political elements thrown in (such as the US government considering mutant registration), parallels could now be drawn to McCarthyism, the Holocaust, apartheid, and much more. Character relationships became more mature and complex. Most enticingly, the scope ranged from the cosmic to the intimately personal with an ease that many comic creators have tried to emulate since.

And now, of course, there's a movie. And as comic-book fans are wont to do when their favorite book has been adapted to live-action, the question must be asked: can it survive the transition?

In four words, then: X-Men does not suck.

This may seem like damning with faint praise, but us comic-book fans have had ample reason to expect otherwise. More often than not, comic-book adaptations disappoint. For every Blade there's a Punisher, and for every Batman there's a Batman and Robin. Don't even get me started on the lame one-shots like the last Captain America or Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD. (Don't remember them? Good.)

On top of that, there's the matter of the long wait. By my reckoning, I first heard whispers of an X-Men movie in 1982, when Claremont's X-Men was in the middle of a years-long hot streak. That makes eighteen years in development hell. So of course, one worries: will it be worth watching?

To reiterate, it doesn't suck. In fact, it's entertaining enough that it will probably satisfy fans and non-fans alike, though fans will be paying far more attention to minutiae and playing "Spot the Stan Lee cameo."

The reason the film is watchable is because of the choices made as to what to keep and what to eliminate from the source material. Every comic-book adaptation has to make these choices, but few consider them as carefully as X-Men has. For instance, I am extremely happy about the decision to skip the spandex and go with more functional (but still cool-looking) black leather. I've long felt that superhero costumes only work on the four-color page, where the realities of human anatomy, textile physics, and plain old gravity can be overcome with a few pen strokes. More important, I like how the framing storyline is a jumbled retelling of the classic "Days of Future Past" story arc (X-Men #141 and #142, for those who want to look it up), which had repercussions which are still felt in the X-comics to this day. In short, they picked one of the few stories which would be relevant to fans old and new.

Naturally, there are some changes, which may or may not please the cognoscenti. Rogue (Anna Paquin, with a shaky southern accent) is a young teenager here, and when her ability to absorb people's essences first manifests itself she runs away to the frozen wastes of northern Canada, only to run into Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Wolvie, here, has no memory of how he came to gain his retractable claws and indestructible skeleton, but with his mutant power of rapid healing, he's near-unstoppable. They are found and recruited by Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) to join his band of mutants bent on saving mistrustful humans from themselves and not-so-friendly mutants. The latter are in the form of the Brotherhood of Mutants, who are led by Magneto (Ian McKellen) a concentration-camp survivor who sees familiar patterns in Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison) and his platform of mutant registration and general distrust.

There's a good story in here, and the visual effects are eye-catching, though sometimes a little weak. But the overall execution squarely puts X-Men into the cheap-screening category. There's simply too much happening, what with over a dozen characters that need to be introduced and back-stories that can, at best, be only hinted at. Like the comics, it's a rich playground for future expansion, but too many characters come across as ciphers simply because there's no time to fully introduce them. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos plays a picture-perfect Mystique, but the depth and intricacies of her character that I so loved in the comics is completely absent here, as she barely speaks. (Disappointing, too, is the short shrift given to Storm--though considering the excruciatingly bad accent Halle Berry gives her, perhaps it's a mercy she doesn't say much.)

What the movie needs is a focus, and it has one in fan-favorite Wolverine. The trouble is, as well as Jackman plays the feisty Canuck, he doesn't command the same surly charisma as his four-color counterpart, nor does he quite convey the menace. The end result is a movie full of interesting scenes, but it doesn't quite jell into an engrossing experience. There are plenty of fan-service moments--you know Wolverine has to call someone "bub" and he's just gotta tangle with Sabretooth--but these alone, no matter how cool, can't carry a film.

Still, fans will flock to X-Men, and I expect it will make Marvel Comics and Twentieth Century-Fox a great deal of money. I certainly hope so; in spite of my misgivings, I think an X-Men movie franchise could eventually develop into something worth a full-price ticket. And hey, after eighteen years, I don't mind waiting a bit more.

A Critical Eye exclusive (July 13, 2000)