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The Boston Phoenix No Brand X

The blockbuster evolves

By Peter Keough

JULY 17, 2000:  "There aren't many people who understand what people like us are going through," says Logan (Hugh Jackman), a/k/a Wolverine, as he consoles the waif-like Rogue (Anna Paquin). Well, yes and no. True, not many people have 18-inch claws protruding from their knuckles and must shun other people to avoid draining their life force. On the other hand, adolescents of all ages have always understood what the mutants of the Marvel comic book X-Men have been going through since it first started publication, in 1963. After all, the onset of symptoms at puberty render one monstrous, freakish, ostracized -- and just like everyone else.

These fans no doubt worried that the big studio version of their anti-heroes would be just like every other summer blockbuster -- noisy, gaudy, and inane. This film, however, is no Batman and Robin. It's even better than Tim Burton's original Batman. X-Men is the best movie made from a comic book and the notable exception to a summer of forgettable Hollywood releases.

Not that it doesn't take some suspension of disbelief to get into the film's implausible, trading-card nonsense and digest the detail and jargon of a four-decade-old back story. But director Bryan Singer turns these handicaps into advantages, transforming the cartoonish pratfalls and angst into a kinetic, witty, ultimately moving allegory about intolerance, evolution, identity, proper superhero style, and the other questions that bother the adolescent in us all.

Any comic-book movie that opens with the Holocaust must take itself seriously. In a camp in Poland in 1944, a young Jew, Erik Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen), the future Magneto, is being separated from his parents. It takes a dozen guards to do so, since the boy has suddenly discovered powers of magnetic attraction that rip the barbed-wire gates apart. This early introduction to genocidal hatred steels Magneto for a future of intolerance for his kind -- not Jews, but mutants, who have inexplicably proliferated in an evolutionary surge.

Grown bitter, ruthless, and vastly powerful, Magneto forms a brotherhood of mutants to defeat the normal oppressors. They are hybrid prodigies with names like perfumes or men's magazines: the troglodytic Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), the tongue-flicking Toad (Ray Park), the shape-shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos). When Senator Robert Jefferson Kelly (Bruce Davison) unleashes his McCarthyite campaign to register mutants, Magneto knows it's time to make his move. Since he can't beat the humans, he plans to make them join him -- through a device that spreads mutations and has creepy connotations of Christian sacrifice and the AIDS virus.

Meanwhile, Magneto's former friend Professor Charles Francis Xavier (Patrick Stewart), a wheelchair-bound telepath, has set up his own mutant force at the tony Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters, which upstairs is a manse-like academy for nerdy mutant teens (like those in the audience) and downstairs houses a fortress full of high-tech Tinkertoys that would make Bruce Wayne envious. The Xavier School's star pupils -- Cyclops (James Marsden), whose eyes emit a devastating ray; Storm (a perfect Halle Berry), who can summon wind and lightning; and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Professor Xavier's telepathic protégée (apparently, the psychic mutants don't warrant cheesy monikers) -- get to wear neat leather outfits and fight for an ungrateful human race.

Abetted by newcomer Wolverine (superb in a terrific cast -- look for the smoldering Australian Jackman to be the next Russell Crowe), the X-Men set out to rescue the kidnapped Rogue (she's mutant as ultimate female victim, one of the film's few sexist notes) and face off against Magneto and company in a showdown at the Statue of Liberty that combines the surreal absurdity of North by Northwest's Mount Rushmore sequence with the exhilarating Hong Kong-style acrobatics and state-of-the-art f/x of The Matrix. This is just the culmination, though, of a tautly scripted (despite having eight writers, five non-credited), visually dense narrative. Singer (The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil) knows how to elicit unexpected performances and utilize every inch of the screen. The editing is predictably breakneck, but what's most exciting are the abrupt, outlandish, comic-book images: a kid on the beach playing with a jellyfish just before a surprising metamorphosis of Senator Kelly; Magneto crossing a void, plates of metal flying up from nothingness to form a bridge at his feet. Singer uses these images to compress the complications of plot and the echoes of meaning into haunting conceits.

Admirable in its inclusiveness, X-Men has a little trouble with resolution. The episodic ending calls out a little too blatantly for sequels and spinoffs; it's more X Files than X-Men. There could be worse things, though, than an X-Men II, or even an X-Men X. The species of the summer blockbuster, long stagnant, has taken an evolutionary leap forward.

X on the ballot?

Contrary to what happens in most election years, the movies seem to be taking stronger positions than the candidates are. Countering the right-wing patriotism of The Patriot is the ambiguous liberalism of X-Men, Bryan Singer's adaptation of the popular, long-running comic book about contending teams of good and evil mutants battling over the future of the human race. It can be read as an allegory of racial and sexual intolerance, of reactionary witch hunts, of fascist elites, even of AIDS anxiety. It has a pseudo- political campaign within the film itself -- Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison) with his anti-mutant movement riling up the public's fear and hatred of the unknown -- that has spilled into the "real" world of the film's promotion through bumper stickers and fake demonstrations. Do the filmmakers hope that the movie will win the vote of viewers turned off by the bland platforms of Bush and Gore?

"The advantage the X-Men have is that they're not politicians," muses Singer. "They're superheroes. So it's a lot more fun. It's entertaining. But I think the social aspect of the film is a big draw, touching on the fear of being alone, of being an outcast, the fear of the unknown."

The X-Men were an unknown to Singer when he was offered the project as a follow-up to his hit The Usual Suspects and the disappointing Apt Pupil. "I was reluctant because I didn't know anything about it. As soon as I learned what the X-Men were, I became very fascinated and involved. It wasn't just the characters, the amazing powers, but the underlying philosophy. Trying to find your place in the world despite discrimination and fear. It dealt with very universal concepts using the superhero genre."

Singer makes the genre his own with the opening sequence, a flashback to the way Magneto discovers his powers while being separated from his parents at Auschwitz. A twist on the Holocaust background of the bad guy in Apt Pupil (also played by Ian McKellen), it calls to mind the nightmarish past of The Usual Suspects' Keyser Soze.

"A bit coincidental, this relationship with Apt Pupil," demurs Singer. "Because actually in the comic book, Magneto's parents were killed in Auschwitz, and a lot of the comics focused on that history. But I do see the similarities with films I've done. Good and evil in them are not easily defined or black and white, as with the criminals in The Usual Suspects, the boy in Apt Pupil, and now the heroes and villains in X-Men. It's no surprise that the comic-book X-Men emerged in the '60s, when social upheaval was everywhere, society was changing, things were becoming more complex, and people were realizing the world was more complicated than they thought. Before, there was always a do-good, good-versus-evil mentality in popular art. In the '60s, with the civil-rights movement and the Vietnam War, things became gray. Then along came the X-Men. I don't think it was a coincidence."

Since the '60s, the X-Men have accumulated four decades worth of fans, many of them now with access to the Internet and all very protective of their mutant maverick role models. No film since Titanic or The Phantom Menace has undergone so much pre-release scrutiny and debunking, much of it Web-based. Because of budget and schedule constraints and the need for secrecy, Singer was unable to test-screen the film, so when it was unveiled last weekend in New York for a promotional junket, he was understandably anxious. Did the critics and fans vote favorably?

"Quite overwhelmingly," is the response. "It's taken me off guard. It's very vindicating."

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