Sunday, October 5, 2008


"X-Men" rules! As directed by "The Usual Suspects" helmer Bryan Singer, this top-drawer cinematic adaptation of the popular Marvel Comic series sets a whole new standard for filming superhero sagas. Unlike the gratuitously overblown, happily-ever-after, D.C. Comics inspired "Superman" and "Batman" franchises, "X-Men" (**** out of ****) differs because Marvel Comics forged superheroes with tragic flaws. Not only does Singer orchestrate an entertaining but intelligent yarn around titans of Good and Evil battling for supremacy with the fate of mankind at stake, but he also tackles important cultural issues integral to the plot that enhance its subtext about intolerance. Ultimately, "X-Men" qualifies as the best superhero comic book movie ever produced, thanks to a stellar cast led by Shakespearean heavyweights Patrick "Star Trek: The Next Generation" Stewart and Sir Ian "Richard III" McKellen, "Matrix" style special effects which compliment rather than eclipse the plot, and a literate script that parries childish pratfalls. Obviously, hardcore aficionados of either the animated TV series (1992-98) or the comic book itself may complain about the various liberties that Singer and scenarist David Hayter take with the subject matter.

Over the opening credits, Patrick Stewart narrates that "in the not too distant future" genetic mutations will trigger the "next stage of evolution." As the next evolutionary stage of life, mutants—a.k.a. Homo superior—will suffer persecution because they are not only different but also potentially dangerous. The prejudice that mankind manifests toward these mutants serves as an allegory for our current climate of political, racial, and sexual bigotry as well as the uncertainty that older teenagers and younger twentysomethings encounter as they search for their niche in society. Some critics have compared the showdown between Professor X (Stewart) and Magneto (McKellen) with the rivalry between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X during the turbulent 1960s, while others have recognized mutants as symbols of any oppressed group forced to identify themselves, whether they be classified as homosexuals, communists, Jewish, or firearms owners. Like the famous "Star Wars" prologue, Stewart's voice-over neatly encapsulates the origins of the "X-Men" and the inherent conflicts confronting them.

While "Superman" and "Batman" unfolded in linear fashion, starting from the beginning, Singer picks up "X-Men" somewhere in the middle. The setting is Poland in 1944, and the Nazis are parading helpless Jews into the gas chambers for extermination. When young Erik Lensherr (Brett Morris, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the older Ian McKellen) finds himself separated from his parents as the Nazis are about to gas them, he experiences such heretofore unknown terror that he emanates an invisible force field with his fingertips. He destroys the high, iron, barb-wired gates while several soldiers struggle to restrain him. Finally, smashing Lensherr in the face with his rifle butt, one Nazi sentry knocks him unconscious. Nevertheless, his supernatural powers stun the guards. This grim scene in Auschwitz hearkens back to "Schindler's List (1193), while the show of paranormal power recalls Brian De Palma's "Carrie." As introductions go, the concentration camp scene grips with its poignancy. Clearly, this horrific, downbeat scene is not the usual way to kick off a superficial movie about a comic book franchise.

Flash-forwarding through time, Singer brings us to contemporary Washington, D.C. Dr. Jean Gray ("GoldenEye's statuesque Famke Janssen), a telepathic mutant with telekinetic powers, address Congress on the controversial subject of mutant registration. Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davidson of "Willard") believes mutants with their extraordinary physical and mental prowess endanger humanity. The fanatical Kelly demands all mutants be required to identify themselves. Moreover, he campaigns for registering them since they cannot be trusted to supervise their powers responsibly. Some mutants, he argues, can eavesdrop on your mind and read your thoughts. While Kelly drums up support for his proposed legislation, Dr. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) watches quietly from the balcony. Although confined to a wheelchair, Xavier is a super-telepath that can do what Kelly fears the most. Not only can Xavier read your innermost thoughts, but he also can exert control of another person's body and speak through them with the ease of a ventriloquist.

Unlike the cynical Erik Lensherr, a.k.a. Magneto, who insists war between humans and mutants is inevitable, Xavier contends that mutants and humans can co-exist in harmony. As far as Xavier is concerned, people like Kelly are well-meaning but misinformed. Xavier has established a School for Gifted Youth in Westchester, New York, where he teaches young mutants to curb their potentially destructive urges. Some of his long-time students, Cyclops (James Marsden of "27 Dresses") who sports special sunglasses to shield his lethal laser beam eyes; Storm (Halle Berry of "Die Another Day") who controls weather and deploys lightning bots; and Dr. Jean Grey serve as instructors when they aren't running errands for Xavier. Concisely, in a model of economy, Singer establishes the characters and creates the overall conflict between them while broaching questions about the enormity of segregation! Moreover, he inserts several amusing tidbits of humor that flesh out the characters without detracting from the storyline.

The conflict in David Hayter's screenplay that prompts Magneto and Xavier to clash again concerns tow mutants thrown together by fate. A teenage girl in Meridian, Mississippi, Marie (Anna Paquin of "The Piano") discovers her touch can kill. Also known as 'Rogue,' she can drain the life out of people. Horrified by her inexplicable power, she hits the road and eventually meets Logan (Hugh Jackman), a rough-hewn cage fighter nicknamed 'Wolverine,' an anti-social amnesia-stricken loner searching for his past.

Director Bryan Singer toils throughout "X-Men" to dispel any notions that it is just another disposable comic book epic. He triumphs in every department from superb casting to thoughtful plotting. Stewart and McKellen embellish "X-Men" and provide it with the kind of dignity that Alec Guinness brought to "Star Wars." When Magneto and Xavier speak, their conversations sound like the oral equivalent of a chess match. "X-Men" hits the mark because Singer and Hayter fuse superior dramatic elements in the best Aristotelian fashion; its heroes experience a tough time winning.

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