a review by Jeffrey Overstreet
I’ve never been a fan of comic books. While there’s nothing wrong with the medium itself, I have a difficult time finding stories that are engaging. Violence seems to be the main focus of too many issues; thinly “drawn” characters are often thrust into compromising situations merely for each particular comic artist’s style of visual violence to ensue. Worse, most seem preoccupied with generously-bosomed female characters.
Of the big screen adaptations of comic books, only a handful have done enough storytelling to make decent movies. The original Superman is still entertaining and pleasantly tongue-in-cheek. The primary colors of Dick Tracy were as memorable as campy performances. Batman Returns had memorable moments as well, but the Burton-directed films were more about Burton’s weird imagination than the Batman of the comics. A dozen other franchise adaptations were forgettable failures.
But, thanks to Bryan Singer’s big screen adaptation of a popular and long-running comic book franchise, I’m now an X-Men fan.
X-Men is set in the not-too-distant future, when a race of mutants begins to worry the world. Mutants are freaks of evolution, people who have suddenly developed incredible psychic ability, physical prowess, and other various innovations. The world is afraid. The government is in an uproar about how to keep track of these strange humans, how to control them and prevent them from running amok. Senators lobby for “mutant registration”.
Meanwhile, the mutants themselves are split over what should be done. One side desires to strike back at humankind and subdue the nay-sayers with force, the other seeks a more peaceful compromise.
Leading “the good guys” is the soft-spoken, wheelchair bound Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). Xavier has developed a secret sanctuary and school for mutant children, raising them among their peers, teaching them compassion as well as training them in their specific skills. In chambers even better concealed, the best and the mature work together to resist the methods of the angrier, more reckless branch of mutants.
The villains are led by the melodramatic and vengeful Magneto (Ian McKellan). Magneto has the power to shape and control metal, and he uses this to great effect, even stopping bullets in mid-air. He is accompanied by a burly Chewbacca-like henchman called Sabretooth, a shape-changing reptilian supermodel called Mystique, and a vicious little goggle-eyed goblin called Toad.
One of the most interesting qualities of this conflict is that Magneto and Xavier are longtime acquaintances, and they respect each other enough to argue their differing perspectives over chess games. Through these conversations, which are some of the film’s strongest scenes, we come to care even about the wicked mutants, for we are given a window on their suffering, the injustices of their oppressors, the things that they have lost. Magneto’s own passion is deeply personal, stemming all the way back to the holocaust. Since the film opens with a flashback of this young man being separated from his family through Nazi-inflicted genocide, we are haunted by the possibility that such a fate might await the mutants if the world decides they are expendable. Thus, we can understand Magneto’s perspective, even if we don’t agree with them.
Any time a good guy/bad guy myth invites the audience to understand the villains, I am encouraged. Christ’s call for people to “love their enemies” has always been a difficult one, but to close our minds and hearts towards our enemies is to de-humanize them, to give ourselves the idea that we are superior beings and can thus act without mercy or care towards them. Bryan Singer expertly develops our sympathies for Magneto while presenting clear problems with his tactics. This gives action-movie audiences a rare and wonderful metaphor for a healthy perspective. Fighting evil is more than just a matter of brute force. It is a matter of compassion.
Thus, Xavier is an admirable leader. He’s not just a crime-fighter. He’s a conscience. He has a tough job. He must recruit mutants to help him withstand the world’s “mutant-phobia”, while separating himself from those mutants who violently retaliate against such persecution.
It is astonishing how well Singer develops these characters considering the breakneck pace of the film, which barely clears 90 minutes in duration. The brutish mutant Wolverine fares best. Ill-tempered and unsure whether to take up Xavier’s invitation to join the peaceful effort, Wolverine is a comical and charming central character. Actor Hugh Jackman gives him the gruff charisma and the explosive temper that might have made Russell Crowe or Mel Gibson a good choice, but he also has a softer sense of humor that wins our sympathies.
It must have been hard to write this film, knowing every X-Men fan has his or her favorite character. Wolverine’s journey leads us to a cast of colorful characters like Rogue (Anna Pacquin), a young girl who cannot touch others without damaging them; Cyclops, whose eyes blast a sort of red energy; Storm, a woman who can stir up just about any kind of weather; and Jean Gray, a psychic who is an apprentice to Xavier himself. He doesn’t have long to choose sides before battle breaks out.
I could go into the specifics of the struggle, but why bother? It’s a comic book adventure, full of implausibility and over-the-top hand-to-hand combat scenes. What makes this film such a success is its seriousness on the subject of proper and improper responses to oppression, its unique and memorable characters, its cleverness and visual imagination, and its refusal to degenerate into a bloodbath like The Matrix eventually did. While there is violence, there are no gratuitous killings, no glorified gunplay. The focus remains on the characters and the interplay of their various talents.
It is easy to see the parallels between the mutants’ plight and that of any sort of minority, be it a case of sexual, religious, or racial prejudice. The attitude of the religious right toward homosexuality is clearly echoed, but then again, so one might also hear the attitude of Hollywood toward anyone with Christian ethics. I resonate with X-men for my own reasons: I feel alienated from the world because it hates Christians, while I also feel alienated from the church because most of it has become a huge, evangelical, self-righteous, political machine, just as Christ warned it would become: “Many will come in My name, and deceive many.” The film might have become heavy-handed and preachy, drawing attention to its relevance, but things move along quickly, focusing on character development and action instead of political posturing. Thank goodness.
You don’t have to have lived as an oppressed minority to appreciate the appeal of X-men. Everyone remembers the awkwardness of puberty, the intense desire to “fit in” and “belong” while the body takes on alarming transformations. There’s a universal story between the lines here. We’re all X-Men, uncomfortable with some of our gifts and some of our weaknesses, desiring compassion, tolerance, and understanding.
These guys are heroes worth cheering for.
Director – Bryan Singer
Writer – David Hayter, based on a story by Tom DeSanto and Bryan Singer
Director of photography – Newton Thomas Sigel
Editor – Steven Rosenblum, Kevin Stitt and John Wright
Music – Michael Kamen
Production designer – John Myhre
Producers – Lauren Shuler Donner and Ralph Winter
STARRING: Hugh Jackman (Wolverine), Patrick Stewart (Xavier), Ian McKellen (Magneto), Famke Janssen (Jean Grey), James Marsden (Cyclops), Halle Berry (Storm), Anna Paquin (Rogue), Tyler Mane (Sabertooth), Ray Park (Toad), Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (Mystique), Bobby Drake (Iceman) and Bruce Davison (Senator Kelly).
20th Century Fox in association with Marvel Entertainment Group. 105 minutes. Rated PG-13.
Tags: Review Archive - X