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X-Men (2000)

by on 2011/01/03

“So what do you say? Give these geeks one more shot?”

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Is it any surprise X-Men was a critical and popular success, spawning sequels, spin-offs, and prequels? Exploiting a near-perfect confluence of plotting, cast, and production opportunities, it draws from decades of comic book mythology, adjusting where necessary, yet never going astray in search of itself.

Directed by Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects), the movie weaves together the stories of several characters, though it focuses predominantly on Magneto and Wolverine.

Magneto is Erik Lensherr (Ian McKellen), the survivor of a World War Two prison camp. Endowed with the ability to control metal, he’s firmly convinced “mutants” like himself must conquer humanity in order to survive.

Wolverine is James “Logan” Howlett (Hugh Jackman), an amnesiac wanderer with the ability to age slowly, resist illness, and heal his own injuries. Despite his tendency to slice, stab, or swear at anyone around him, he’s actually one of the good guys, way deep down inside.

Their paths soon cross before a backdrop of sociopolitical intrigue, rival mutant factions, and a man evangelizing peace and the “continued search for hope”.

As headmaster of the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters, Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: The Next Generation) plays an ideal Charles Xavier. For an actor as strongly associated with another iconic role, it’s astonishing how easily he embodies Xavier, rather than “Captain Picard with another name”.

Much the same can be said of Ian McKellen as Magneto. It’s no slight on his landmark performance as Gandalf in Lord of the Rings to note he’s just as perfect here. He brings a physical resemblance to the original character, with a commanding presence, a wry charisma, and a sympathetic depth.

Other effective portrayals come courtesy of Bruce Davison (2008‘s Knight Rider), Famke Janssen (1995‘s GoldenEye), James Marsden (Superman Returns), Anna Paquin (Almost Famous), and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (2004‘s The Punisher).

Of course the standout role is Hugh Jackman’s. His interpretation of Wolverine feels self-evident now; we forget he was once the dark horse against would-be Dougray Scott. Looking, acting, and sounding like a younger, brawny Clint Eastwood, his innate charisma makes it relatively easy for us to side with an impulsive paranoiac, a rude, violent mercenary, and a generally unlovable character. When Logan informs an ally “You want to get out of my way”, we’re actually comforted to realize Jackman doesn’t intend the line as a question. Like Han Solo, this Logan strikes first.

The commitment of the cast to their roles could have been an embarrassment. We now accept comic books as a valid source of feature film inspiration, but X-Men braved the earlier days in adopting that convention. It would have been easy for financiers to skimp on funding, rendering story and performance lost onstage. Fortunately, the production values are appropriately strong . . . in props and sets, in visual effects, and even conceptual design.

Wolverine’s claws, for example, are well realized. In the comics, we usually see them protrude from custom gloves. Here, they literally burst from between Logan’s knuckles, both less gory than you’d expect and, oddly, more convincing than the visual effects of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, nine years later!

Other props and effects, like Magneto’s mutation device, are equally impressive, as are sets like Xavier’s Cerebro chamber. (In fact, the former recalls the primer device from Contact and the latter the stellar cartography set from Star Trek: Generations.)

Beyond the “things” we see, I was just as impressed by the way we see them. Singer employs a distinctly gritty approach to the film’s compelling prologue, when Lensherr is first set on his path to Magneto. However, originality is hardly abandoned after the initial hook. The filmmakers employ audio effects to indicate metal telepathy, a “virtual presence” to navigate memories, and a mixture of monochromatic and colour footage to suggest the operation of Cerebro.

These broad strokes are not alone in their care. Attention to detail appears throughout: one child teasing a helpless jellyfish; another unfazed by mutants; various “outsider” metaphors; a comparison between the movie’s black leather and comic’s spandex costumes; the clarity of Magneto’s chess pieces versus the cloudiness of Xavier’s. No single detail guarantees success but these and others, in total, elevate a competent effort to the level of exemplar.

I won’t suggest the whole is without its failings, and yet they’re minor in the grand scheme of things, frustrating mostly in comparison to the excellence around them.

  • The hairdressing, dear lord, the hairdressing! Logan’s backswept locks look more like a helmet than hair. Also, the explanation for Rogue’s white streak is as awkwardly shoehorned in as it is dramatically unsatisfying. Finally, Ororo “Storm” Munroe (Halle Berry) appears to be wearing a legitimate contender for history’s worst wig.
  • Speaking of which, Storm herself is easily the most poorly-conceived of the X-Men. With poor lines, glibly delivered, Berry is the general antithesis of her comic book model, with few of the big screen changes proving successful. She is physically unimposing, young and naive, with no authority, charisma, or wisdom on display. The prospect that her role might have gone to Strange Days’ Angela Bassett is more than intriguing; it’s downright maddening.
  • A pet peeve I’ve noticed in other action pictures appears in this one too: people thrown through the air, ignoring the laws of physics. Presumably they’re cast on a wire, hoisted across a set. Perhaps they need of a different angle of motion, an alternate camera perspective, or a quicker edit. Whether it’s 2010’s The A-Team, Blade, The Matrix, or Spider-Man, watching people glide across a room in a perfectly straight line is more distracting than impressive. An arc, an arc, my conviction for an arc!

Still, it’s far too easy to complain. Works like X-Men have made the competent commonplace, and excellence achievable. I’m impressed for all it does well, and its success is at least as worthy of celebration now as it was upon release.

For, while younger generations may take such efforts for granted, the elder geeks remember when Richard Donner’s Superman was a rare and excellent exception. Certainly, X-Men benefits from its history, script, performances, and production but, perhaps even more importantly, others have in turn benefited since: superhero movies, comic book films and, obviously, the audience.

* * * *

Rated PG-13 for language and violence

105 minutes

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