X-Men (2000)

2000, 20th Century Fox. Directed by Bryan Singer. Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Famke Jenssen, James Marsden, Anna Paquin, Ray Park, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Tyler Mane.

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?A-
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? +0
Age
Appropriateness
?Teens & Up*

External Ratings

MPAA ?PG-13 USCCB ?A-II

Content advisory: Stylized comic-book violence; a few crude expressions; virtual nudity.

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X-Men (DVD | Blu-ray)

By Steven D. Greydanus

In the 1970s, Lex Luthor had kryptonite, and he failed. In the 1980s, the Joker had a really big gun, and he failed. But in the 1990s, director Joel Schumacher had Batman and Robin, one of the most spectacular movie bombs in recent memory; and, where these archvillains failed, Schumacher very nearly succeeded: he brought us closer than ever before to a world without cinematic super-heroes.

In 2000, however, the threat has been averted. Not by Superman or Batman, but by a less mainstream but still wildly popular superhero team known as the X-Men, whose film opened to the strongest opening-day and opening-weekend box-office results of all time for a new cinematic property. (A few highly-anticipated sequels — The Phantom Menace, The Lost World, and Mission: Impossible 2 — have done better.)

Perhaps, dear reader, this prospect does not fill your heart with joy. Perhaps you think of costumed heroes and super-powers as the proper study of adolescent boys and ponytailed men with goatees who work in video stores. Perhaps you have dim memories of Christopher Reeve in red and blue spandex acquitting himself well enough in two entertaining Superman movies (followed by a pair of less entertaining ones); and perhaps you saw enough of Michael Keaton’s rubber muscles and laytex jaw to satisfy yourself that this was not the franchise for you. (If you did like the Batman movies, or saw more than any two of them, chances are you have already seen X-Men, perhaps multiple times, and are not my presumed audience here.)

But should you venture to see X-Men (perhaps in the company of some adolescent boy or ponytailed man), you will find a world of surprising subtlety, complexity, and human interest; one that deserves to be taken seriously. This is a world in which characters are not larger-than-life cardboard cutouts, but human beings with affecting problems, motives, conflicts, and interests; in which opposing ideas are at least as important as clashing super-powers or martial-arts moves; in which super-powers and special abilities are more than mere arbitrary plot shortcuts or empty pretexts for colorful special effects, but are treated thoughtfully as serious story elements with logical consequences in immediate events and also wider social implications.

The story’s conflict involves not two sides but three, each of which is led by one of three older men. In one corner, Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison), a McCarthy-like demagogue who spearheads a political movement for mandatory registration of "mutants." In the world of the X-Men, mutants are a class of people who represent unpredictable leaps forward in evolution, having been born with a genetic kink that equips them with unique super-powers. "You’re in favor of registering handguns, aren’t you?" Kelly challenges another senator in a vote-canvassing cell-phone call. "Well, some of these kids possess far more power than any handgun. No, I don’t see a difference, all I see is weapons in our classrooms."

In the second corner is "Magneto" (Ian McKellen), a Holocaust survivor who as a child suffered unknown horrors for the crime of being different from those in power. As it happened he was more different than his captors initially suspected, for he had a mutation giving him the power to mentally manipulate any metal in his vicinity. In Senator Kelly’s ideology he hears echoes of the fascism that devastated his early life; he foresees a genetic war between mutants and ordinary people, and he believes mutantkind must reject humanity and look to their own interests.

The third wing is led by Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) or "Professor X" (the film follows the comic-book convention of pronouncing the name "Ex-avier," rather than "Zavier" like the missionary saint to the east), a longtime acquaintance of Magneto’s with a more optimistic vision for human-mutant relations. Xavier is a wheelchair-bound but very powerful telepath whose "School for Gifted Children" in New York state is both a training-grounds for young mutants and also a front for an elite vigilante strikeforce known as the X-Men, whose main mission in the film is to oppose Magneto and his evil mutant brotherhood.

An early scene puts all three of these old men together in a room, with Magneto and Xavier each surreptitiously observing Kelly at Capitol Hill arguing his views. Xavier spots Magneto departing and follows him, calling after him. Magneto responds without turning around. The brief but emotionally charged words they exchange, words they have doubtless spoken many times over in the past, speak volumes about their past relationship and their present opposition.

Director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) and writer Tom DeSanto had the formidable task of introducing and establishing a large ensemble cast of characters, including three of Xavier’s X-Men, three of Magneto’s allies, and two new mutants caught in the middle. To make matters more complicated, they had to do it without either confusing X-novices or boring and/or offending longtime X-fans.

This dilemma was gracefully resolved with the sensible decision to focus the story on the two mutant newcomers: Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Rogue (Anna Paquin); especially Wolverine, the most popular mutant in the mythology, whose advantages include remarkable regenerative capabilities (even more remarkable in the film than in the comic book), heightened senses, and a surgically reinforced skeleton with retractable metal claws that protrude from his forearms through his knuckles. (Who it was that outfitted him with the Terminator skeleton and Freddy Kruger claws is a riddle the film wisely leaves for a sequel to answer.)

Hugh Jackman is an Australian actor unknown to Americans, and it’s his film. His Wolverine is riveting: feral, cynical, anti-social, but wiser than he seems, and ultimately capable of protectiveness and tenderness. Among fans of the comic, both advocates of the film and detractors, there is unanimous consensus that Jackman, who once played Curly in a production of Oklahoma!, is the quintessential Wolverine. (It could easily have been different: Jackman was a second choice after Dougray Scott, whose ongoing involvement in Mission: Impossible 2 fortunately prevented him from donning the claws.)

Rogue is a runaway with a power that’s more a curse than a blessing: skin-to-skin contact with any other human being causes her to involuntarily sap the other person’s life-force, to absorb their memories, and — in the case of other mutants — to temporarily adopt their powers as well. Because of this, ordinary human contact is impossible for her; and the film depicts her plight with sensitivity and pathos.

Together Wolverine and Rogue meet Xavier’s team: Cyclops (James Marsden), whose eyes unleash kinetic energy he can’t control without special goggles or visors; Storm (Halle Berry), who commands wind and lightning; and Jean Grey (Famke Jenssen), a telepath like Xavier who is also telekinetic. (In the comic book Jean Grey began super-hero life with the rather uninspired name "Marvel Girl," but was reborn with dramatically heightened powers as "Phoenix." My guess is that Phoenix will debut in an X-Men sequel, while the Marvel Girl moniker was deemed cheesy, so the character kept her given name.)

Opposite them are Magneto’s team: Sabretooth (professional wrestler Tyler Mane), a giant brute with fangs, claws, and a nasty growl; Toad (Ray Park, best known as Darth Maul from The Phantom Menace), who possesses his namesake’s prehensile tongue as well as its leaping ability; and Mystique (model Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), a shape-shifter with blue-hued, reptilian-textured skin.

The ideological divide between the two factions recalls the fiery days of the civil-rights movement (during which the comic book debuted): Xavier is the peacemaker dreaming of a day when his students might be judged not by the configuration of their genome but by the content of their character, while Magneto is the angry separatist who has his own vision for his people that he intends to bring into existence by any means necessary.

The film is full of sharp moments and thoughtful touches. A riveting stand-off between Magneto and Xavier at a train station boldly explores the practical implications of each of their awesome powers; neither is undersold, and the character of each of the two men involved, rather than mere screenwriting expedience, determines the outcome. Wolverine’s regenerative powers are highlighted with startling directness in an early episode, and his metallic skeleton proves a liability in a later comic scene. At one point when Magneto gains the upper hand over the X-Men, he effectively turns each of their powers against them in unique and clever ways; and when one of them escapes it is with an equally direct solution.

The acting is uniformly enjoyable or better. Besides Jackman’s star-making turn as Wolverine, there is Patrick Stewart’s effortlessly formidable Charles Xavier — not much of a stretch for him. Like Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation whom Stewart has played to much acclaim through 13 years with seven successful seasons and three feature films, Professor X exudes confidence-inspiring authority, cool reserve, and commanding presence. Stewart as Xavier has been a fan dream for years; I remember the first time I thought of him in the role almost ten years ago, though at the time I never believed there would be an X-Men film, let alone that Stewart would be cast.

Ian McKellen equally captures the many facets and contradictions of Magneto perfectly: tragic but egocentric, bitterly self-righteous, monstrous, arrogant, heartless, ruthless. His plan for averting a mutant holocaust (centering on a nefarious contraption) is pure comic-book schlock, but has its own witty charm; and, unlike many such doomsday devices, isn’t even violent or deadly (except by accident). McKellen convincingly realizes the great irony of Magneto’s character: Though shaped by the tragedy of the Holocaust and determined to prevent a genetic war against mutants, his own pro-mutant/anti-human rhetoric is pure Nazi-style superior-race ideology.

Anna Paquin can’t quite manage a Southern accent, but she brings sweet appeal, vulnerability, and genuine angst to Rogue. She has a complex relationship with the older Wolverine; who is himself drawn to Famke Jenssen’s coolly intellectual Jean Grey — though she’s otherwise involved with Cyclops. (I wasn’t clear whether Jean and Cyclops shared the same quarters or had adjacent quarters.)

Straight-arrow Cyclops naturally clashes with the anarchic Wolverine, and the film somewhat shortchanges the former’s character. Marsden is never given a scene to play opposite Jenssen, so their relationship remains purely theoretical. Nor is he allowed to respond in kind to all of Wolverine’s digs; though in one very funny scene that has Wolverine simulating a rude gesture with one of his claws, Marsden gets a reaction shot that wins him more points than any comeback. Cyclops’ humanity shows most in a scene in which Xavier is unable to help them and the burden of leadership is completely on Cyclops’ shoulders. (Cyke is meant to be the field leader, though you mightn’t guess it from the film.)

Of all the X-Men, the least utilized is Halle Berry’s Storm. There was one scene which might have introduced us to the character’s deathly claustrophobia; but the filmmakers let the opportunity pass. Berry’s Storm isn’t the regal figure I remember from the comics, but it’s a rendition I can accept on its own terms; the most I can say is that I hope to see more of her in sequels. None of Magneto’s lackeys has more than a line or two of dialogue, though Ray Park has fun as Toad, even at one point emulating a signature Darth-Maul lightsaber spin.

In an age when so many action movies apparently can’t imagine anything to do with their villains but kill them (and seem to think that the audience won’t be satisfied otherwise), X-Men allows the bad guys to take their licks and live to fight another day. The fights themselves are basically bloodless, super-powered, martial-arts flavored comic-book affairs (though we initially meet Wolverine in a brutal prizefighting scheme). There’s no sex or nudity (unless you count Mystique, who, though she assumes the appearance of other people’s clothing as well as their bodies, in her own reptilian aspect appears naked; in fact Romijn-Stamos is wearing silicone prosthetics as well as a lot of blue body paint).

The first Superman movie was an updated myth; the second was a larger-than-life tragic love story. Tim Burton’s Batman movies were exercises in style, dark gothic illustrations of a story that was only ever partially realized. Those were both DC Comics properties; the X-Men, which represent rival Marvel Comics’ first real cinematic super-hero property, in some ways make the transition most successfully — a breakthrough that I hope proves a good omen for the 2002 Spider-Man film (to be directed by Sam Raimi, whose credits include A Simple Plan, and starring Tobey Maguire of Pleasantville. The details of their legend are rendered more faithfully than in previous super-hero movies, yet the result isn’t alienating to newcomers, despite the relative unfamiliarity of the characters. The psychology of the main characters is rich and more satisfying, though of course with a cast of this size some must inevitably fade to the background. The plot is taut and exciting, and the finale leaves things wide open for the now-fated sequel; which may just break even more box-office records.

Product Notes

The video/DVD release of X-Men includes some ten minutes of "never-before-seen" footage originally cut from the theatrical release by a nervous 20th Century Fox. (For some reason, the fear of leaving audiences bored with an overlong movie seems to trump the fear of leaving them unsatisfied with an overedited one; though as Roger Ebert points out no good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.) This "new" footage includes some eight sequences, which in the video appear after the film along with an interview with director Brian Singer.

The most interesting of these sequences is the first, an extended version of Storm’s classroom session at Xavier’s school, where Rogue meets Bobby Drake. Here we see Storm lecturing about the persecution of the early Christians and the subsequent legitimization of Christianity following the conversion of Constantine. Storm speaks specifically about Constantine’s vision of the cross in the sky and the crosses he had blazoned on his troops’ shields.

Besides giving place to an important turning point in Church history, this scene is noteworthy for two other reasons: First and most importantly, it provides an important foreshadowing of Magneto’s plan for ending persecution of mutants through the "conversion" of the world’s leaders; and second, it gives Storm (Halle Berry) more lines than the whole rest of the film.

Other scenes develop the budding relationship between Rogue and Bobby Drake (thereby adding emotional weight to the established scene in which Rogue is advised to leave the school) and the romantic tension between Wolverine, Jean Grey, and Cyclops. These omitted scenes usefully establish certain points that might otherwise have escaped viewers unfamiliar with the X-Men (as, for example, that Cyclops needs his visor or glasses to control his optic beams; and that he is the team’s field leader). All things considered, it’s a pity these sequences were ever cut.

Fortunately, given the impressive theatrical success of X-Men combined with what will surely prove to be an equally striking performance on video/DVD, upcoming super-hero movies such as Spider-Man (2002) and the X-Men sequel already in progress should enjoy renewed studio confidence, and filmmakers may not have to worry about nervous studio executives looking at their watches.

Tags: Make Mine Marvel, Superheroes & Comic Book Movies, X-Men, Action, Adventure

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