Great X-pectations

Cyclopean eye zaps: Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and his X-Men and X-women, battling evil.

X-Men is a rarity, a comic-book movie with a satisfying cinematic design and protagonists you want to watch. (Most such movies have one or the other.) Although the director, Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects), obviously researched the X-Men comic books and animated television series, his film doesn’t seem transposed from another medium; it has a fluidity all its own. And yet it will probably also satisfy aficionados of the Marvel comic book – if only because it bothers to take very seriously all that pop lore.

Comic books can elicit resounding emotions, and so can the best comic-book movies. The first Batman, for example, was a great big operatic squall of angst and transcendence. X-Men is “character-driven,” which means that we’re meant to care more about the perpetrators than about what they’re perpetrating. But Singer, gifted as he is, still hews somewhat to commercial convention; he doesn’t really let loose with such X-Men luminaries as the metal-clawed Wolverine (the striking Australian actor Hugh Jackman) and Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Cyclops (James Marsden), because he’s required to set up a franchise, and that means taking fewer risks. And yet he still gets far enough inside the idlike essences of his characters to make you wish he had gone even further into the kind of visionary fullness achieved by Tim Burton in Batman and Brian De Palma in Carrie and The Fury. In a Hollywood era where movies like this are arranged with the same corporate acumen as a stock portfolio, it may be that Singer’s hit-and-miss achievement is the best we can hope for. It’s a marvelous half-baked movie, leaving you feeling simultaneously full and famished.

The X-Men, presided over by mind-meld master Professor Xavier, also include a few X-women, among them Storm (Halle Berry), who can conjure up enough climatic conditions to glut the Weather Channel, and Rogue (Anna Paquin), who can absorb the powers of whomever she touches, thereby sending them into horrifying oblivion. All are genetic mutants whose powers have made them outcasts in the human world (set slightly in the future). Their dissident supermutant counterparts are led by Magneto (Ian McKellen), who can bend metal to his will, and wills to his mettle, and such recruits as the shape-shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) and Toad (Ray Park), who scales walls lickety-split and has a twelve-foot projectile tongue that doubles as whip and lasso. Xavier, a man of peace, wants to save the human race from itself and from Magneto, who believes in victory “by any means necessary.” (Stewart and McKellen seem to be carrying on a private war of their own over who has the plummiest diction.)

This Malcolm X-Martin Luther King routine, like the film’s prologue showing Magneto as a boy in Auschwitz, is a bit too dolorous for what is essentially a grand-scale adolescent fever dream. (Early on, the point is made that the mutants’ superpowers usually first show up at puberty.) The differentness and the self-loathing of the mutants, the way they lament finding a place in the world, is something adolescents will probably connect with on a primal level. It’s what gives the film its intermittent, balled-up force. Being accepted, not feared, or being accepted because one is feared – this is what underlies the film’s cyclopean eye zaps and tongue flicks and mind meltdowns. The appeal of the comic book, and, in a darker and more voluptuous way, of the movie, is that it celebrates being a freakazoid. Kids – and adults too – can watch X-Men and feel better about themselves. We’re not dorks after all. We’re the next stage in human evolution.

Great X-pectations