Beware the genesis of a new movie franchise, namely, X-Men, adapted from the best-selling comic book series of all time. Comics aficionados have been awaiting the film since the 1980s, when the Marvel series exploded in artistic quality and sales (in the meantime, unfortunately, both have declined). Despite this underground popularity, however, the mutant superheroes have not attained the commercial or iconic vitality of other comic book characters (e.g., Superman, Batman, Spiderman), perhaps because the title characters change almost monthly or because they don’t embody the traditional American ideals one finds in the heroes so popular during the ‘40s and ‘50s.
So, unlike Tim Burton’s Batman, Bryan Singer’s X-Men is burdened not only with the task of introducing the uncanny crew to an audience who have never heard of Xavier, Wolverine or Magneto, but also with pleasing the longtime fans. To screenwriters David Hayter and Tom DeSanto and Singer’s credit, the film is a success. It’s not the best comic book movie by any means (I still think Burton’s film wins on that count), but it may turn out to be one of the most profitable Hollywood ventures of the year while retaining the socio-political themes that have distinguished the book since its creation in 1963 by the legendary Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
In both the movie and series, the X-Men are a group of super-powered individuals produced by genetic evolution, blessed and cursed with an “x-factor” that makes them scientifically “Homo sapiens superior.” One reason for the mutation is an increase in atomic activity during the Cold War (they are dubbed “Children of the Atom” in the comic book’s monthly introduction), making the X-Men a commentary on the dangers of nuclear proliferation. Like most marginal groups, the X-Men are vilified by conventional society and advocates of the status quo. The film’s anti-mutant faction is headed by Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison), whose Mutant Registration Act aims to classify them at birth and record any potential danger they pose for “normal” humanity. So X-Men is also an allegory for race and gender inequities, demonstrating a social consciousness that may surprise people who expect it to be yet another summer special-effects fest.
The film opens with an introductory voice-over by Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), the world’s most powerful mutant telepath. He describes a “not too distant future” when an increase in global radiation leads to an increase in mutant births, an evolution that is as much cultural as biological (the film references the ethnic cleansing policies of various nations whose nuclear arsenals indirectly create the subgroups that threaten them). Juxtaposed with this ominous voice-over is a scene from a period of human history when another group was seeking control of human biological development: a concentration camp where Nazi soldiers are herding hundreds of Jews to their deaths. One of these victims is a young boy whose distress at being separated from his parents is manifested by his mutant ability to control metallic substances (in particular, the barbed wire dividing him from his anguished mother and father). He grows up to be the embittered Magneto (Ian McKellan), both best friend and adversary to the idealistic Xavier.
The conflict between Xavier and Magneto is at the heart of X-Men. The former believes that through diplomacy, humans and mutants can live and work together. Magneto, on the other hand, believes that the only way for mutants to combat their oppression is to dominate and even enslave non-mutant humans, and so has organized the militant Brotherhood of Mutants. Because the film builds some sympathy for Magneto (and McKellan’s performance nearly steals the show), he is not reduced to one note, and provides a worthy opponent to the high-minded Xavier.
The Professor’s School for Gifted Youngsters trains young mutants to control their powers and to tolerate the intolerance of others. The X-Men are graduate mutants, each with two names, and so, a double identity (although these aren’t quite secret, as in the Clark Kent/Superman rift). Thus, the white-haired Egyptian Ororo Munroe (Halle Berry) is also known as Storm, a mutant who can affect the weather; the All-American Scott Summers (James Marsden) is Cyclops, able to emit a powerful yet ill-controlled optic blast; Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) works as a doctor and mutant rights activist (her codename, the campy “Marvel Girl,” is never mentioned in the film); and even the wheelchair-bound Charles Xavier is nicknamed Professor X when it comes time for superhero business.
As a means to draw distinctions between the Brotherhood and Xavier’s crew, the film focuses on the most popular X-Man, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), whose abilities include an enhanced ability to regenerate damaged tissue, super-keen senses, and an implanted metal alloy skeleton, complete with retractable claws, making him one hell of a dangerous fighting machine. He also has no memory, except for a few nightmarish flashbacks. Wolverine doesn’t fall easily into the typical good or bad guy camp, as he has both Xavier’s desire for harmony and Magneto’s inclination to brute violence. He’s the quintessential mutant, having lost his past and so, his identity; moreover, he’s an apt metaphor for the “postmodern individual,” lacking faith in a stable truth (even a socially constructed one). Jackman’s performance is right-on, depicting Logan’s combination of wisdom and berserker rage as well as his own moral ambivalence.
Rogue (Anna Paquin) encounters Wolverine in the Canadian wildness (the edge of Western civilization). She is the extreme version of the alienated teenager, having run away from her suburban home after discovering that her mutant power drains others of life when she touches them. Wolverine takes an immediate liking to Rogue, protecting her from a variety of attacks from the mostly scary-looking members of the Brotherhood. It appears that only the heroic X-Men are conventionally good-looking, while their adversaries, under the occasionally effeminate Magneto, seem animalistic and devolved, and less civil than their comic book incarnations. For example, in the movie, Sabretooth (Tyler Mane) spends more time growling than speaking; Toad (Ray Park) eats live animals with a ridiculously long tongue; and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) lurks about in shadows in a serpentine fashion. These characterizations may be just another example of movie heroes looking sympathetic because they are visually that is, sexually appealing, while all the villains seem be in dire need of a trip to the dentist. But the villains’ ugliness also demonstrates what makes individuals (mutant or no) turn aggressive and full of hate: when they’re rejected based on appearance, they feel hurt.
In keeping with its attention to such serious cultural themes, the film’s special effects are good enough to make the characters’ powers appear realistic but not outlandish, particularly the subtle bulging of veins in whatever poor soul Rogue touches (something less effectively indicated on the comics page) and the stream of electricity surrounding Storm when she’s juiced up. Best of all, there are enough plot twists (especially in Mystique’s shape-shifting) to keep anyone interested.
Still, Singer’s film does have its flaws. The characters, aside from Wolverine, are not wholly fleshed-out (it’s never clear what makes the stoic Cyclops attractive to Jean Grey) and the dialogue is occasionally grating, especially the in-jokes (Cyclops tells Wolverine, who is disgruntled by his new X-Men threads, “Were you expecting yellow spandex?”), but overall the characterizations are fitting, from the Wolvie-Jean-Cyclops love triangle to Cyclops’ devotion to Xavier to Wolverine’s unselfish caring for younger (often female, in the comics) protégés like Rogue. The weakest link in the cast is, without a doubt, Berry, who doesn’t portray Storm’s noble bearing (she’s a goddess back in Egypt) or even manage an accent.
But maybe such book-to-screen translations are inevitable. According to the X-Men’s mythology, change is inevitable, occurring biologically, psychologically, and culturally. And the desire for a static reality represses alternative lifestyles, minority cultures, new philosophies, even mutated genes. In the end, Xavier’s undaunted hope for a peaceful future makes us ask how much we’ve done to create a secure world for others. No matter what Magneto does, Xavier continues to refer to him as his friend, whom he treats with understanding and a wish to heal the wounds from the past. One leaves the theater ready to address conflict with a new ethos in mind: what would Xavier do?