Adapting X-Men into film must have seemed like a daunting task. Most super-hero movies consist of an origin story mashed, sometimes awkwardly, with an action plot involving some madman bent on world domination. This approach wouldn’t work for X-Men, an ongoing epic featuring heroes and villains who share a sociopolitical dilemma instead of an origin and fight for the same cause, just using different methods. The irony is that series creator Stan Lee was trying to simplify things when he came up with the concept roughly forty years ago, but, as with the comics, it’s these very complexities that make the movie work.
With so much ground to cover, it’s not surprising most of X-Men is devoted to exposition. First, the film has to explain the concept of mutants: individuals born with superhuman abilities, which make them the target of discrimination. Then it has to introduce the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning, a school for mutant children where the X-Men serve as faculty members. Lead by Professor X (Patrick Stewart), a wheelchair-bound telepath, the latter also moonlight as super-heroes, protecting a world that fears and hates them from the likes of Magneto (Ian McKellen) and his Brotherhood, who believe the only way to achieve mutant rights is by force. All that information, and we still haven’t addressed the actual plot.
The movie largely sidesteps this problem by adopting the pace and structure of a science-fiction thriller instead of an action blockbuster. Treating the particularities of its rich universe as mysteries to be slowly uncovered, X-Men is remarkably quiet and introspective, considering its genre and budget. The characters are given time to reflect on their actions and discuss their motivations, giving the film’s central conflict a deeper, more intimate context. I especially enjoyed the conversations between Professor X and Magneto, who refuse to let their constantly trying to kill one another for the greater good get in the way of their friendship.
As for the aforementioned plot, it centers on Wolverine, a fast-healing mutant played by Hugh Jackman with a great deal of charisma and sex appeal. Like all Canadians worthy of the name, the sardonic loner spends most of his time in bars, fighting cage matches for beer money. After one such brawl in Alberta, he encounters a young girl who calls herself Rogue (Anna Paquin), presumably because she’s a dorky emo kid. The teenager is a runaway from Mississippi (she ran very far) whose mutant gift is really more of a curse, causing harm to anyone she touches. As an aside, I find it tremendously amusing that, while Washington is basking in warm summer light, it’s somehow the middle of winter in Canada.
Anyway, the two vagabonds soon find themselves at the Xavier Institute in New York, where they meet the titular X-Men: Storm (Halle Berry), who can control the weather; Cyclops (James Marsden), who shoots energy beams from his eyes; and his wife Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who was apparently absent the day they were giving out code names. Believing him a target of the Brotherhood, the heroes recruit Wolverine in their fight against Magneto, who means to turn world leaders into mutants, using a machine powered by his own superhuman abilities. Yes, in the X-Men universe, magnetism can alter the human genome.
If you’re finding all this a tad silly, you can find solace in the knowledge that the film’s main character shares your point of view. Serving as an outlet for the most sceptical members of the audience, Wolverine groans in disbelief at the mere mention of costumed alter egos and often beats back-row hecklers to the punch with his sarcastic quips. When told of the X-Men’s arch foe, his reaction is remarkably sensible for a guy with retractable blades on the back of his hands: “What’s a Magneto?” It’s as if director Bryan Singer and screenwriter David Hayter were apologizing for the movie’s comic book roots.
In fact, it’s obvious the filmmakers struggled with some of the conventions of the super-hero genre. The action sequences are the weakest part of X-Men, with unpolished visual effects (the X-Jet looks like it was rendered by a Nintendo 64) and fight choreographies too unworldly to be truly engaging. It doesn’t help that these scenes often end prematurely, leaving the audience feeling a bit underwhelmed. Another problem worth noting is the way the dialogue stiffens whenever the X-Men discuss their mutant abilities: “I’m telekinetic. I can move things with my mind.” And I’m a reviewer. I point out awkward, stilted lines. Isn’t learning fun?
These are minor qualms though. Unlike other movies of the genre, X-Men isn’t about special effects and death-defying stunts. It’s a franchise in which the heroes fight discrimination, an evil that can’t be defeated with heat-ray vision or spider-like agility. When asked about their favourite storylines, long-time fans of the comics often mention the quiet, reflective issues following the big crossover events. That’s because past the powers and spandex, X-Men is really about relationships and ideals: the angst that comes with being different and the belief that man can be more tolerant.