Why the X-Men Movie was Nifty-Keen

I was first introduced to the X-Men in the Son of Origins of Marvel Comics book when I was in the seventh grade. A year later, I started buying comics seriously, a habit I still haven't stopped -- one of the ones I started with was Uncanny X-Men #148. I was fascinated by how much had changed since that reprint of the first issue in the book. Only three people from that team were around -- Cyclops (now Scott Summers instead of "Slim" Summers), the Angel (who quit the team), and Professor Xavier. And there was a reference to Jean Grey having died.

I was hooked.

I stuck with the X-Men for a long time after that, picking up back issues and following the monthly book assiduously. It was my favorite book for a long time, as was its sister title The New Mutants, when it debuted.

Some time in college, I finally gave up on the X-books, though. Part of it was that my tastes changed, but it's not just that -- I can still go back and read the issues I loved in high school. The book just deteriorated, and I finally gave up around #230 or so.

In 1994, I was forced to start reading the X-Men again because I was now responsible for editing a line of Marvel Comics novels. A shadow of their former selves, the X-titles still were Marvel's cash cow, and I found that I was able to (for the most part) put together novels that retained what I loved about the book in the first place, which proved -- if nothing else -- that the core concept was a good one.

Bryan Singer and his merry band of writers (only one was credited, but there were, I believe, four actual scriptwriters) have done the same thing with X-Men, the movie that was released this past Friday (and yes, dammit, I went to see it opening night) -- taken the core concept and made a fine film out of it.

First of all, this is the most faithful comics adaptation to film that I've seen since the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. Every other comic adaptation (including the TMNT sequels) feel the need to muck about with the comics in some way that is often unnecessary (like making the Joker the one who killed Bruce Wayne's parents in the 1989 Batman movie, a change that might have had some symbolic significance if they'd bothered to do anything with it). Here, some cosmetic changes were necessary -- the X-Men have a horribly convoluted history and over two dozen members -- in order to simplify it for a two-hour movie, but they kept the essence of what makes the X-Men what it is.

The heart and soul of the X-Men has always been the philosophical differences between Professor Xavier -- the X-Men's founder -- and Magneto -- their primary villain. It's basically the MLK/Malcolm X dichotomy -- peaceful coexistence between humans and mutants versus mutant rights by any means necessary. That was the basis of the first X-Men trilogy I edited (Mutant Empire by Christopher Golden), and also the basis of this movie. It begins with a shot of Auschwitz, and young Eric Lehnsherr being separated from his family in the camp -- but also first learning of his power. This serves two useful functions: it sets up Magneto's character, and also makes it abundantly clear that this is not a camp-fest, à la the last two Batman films.

(Holds back rant on the damage Joel Schumacher did to the very concept of comic book movies. If you want my opinions on Schumacher, click here.)

I have yet to dislike a Bryan Singer film -- in fact, The Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil are two of the best movies of the last ten years, IMO -- and this kept that trend going. He gets magnificent performances out of all of the principals. One expects great things from Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, of course, and Anna Paquin didn't win that Oscar for nothin'. But we also get some fine work out of James Marsden (who plays Cyclops just right), Famke Janssen (whose career has included some great performances and some total duds), Bruce Davison, Halle Berry (who seemed horribly miscast as Storm, but she pulls it off despite some Stupid Writer Tricks), Ray Park, and, most impressive of all, non-actors Tyler Mane and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos. Singer is wise in giving them as little dialogue as possible. As Sabretooth, the ironically named Mane mostly just growls, and most of the dialogue spoken by the character of Mystique (a shapechanger) is uttered by other actors -- Romijn-Stamos only has one actual line of dialogue of her own.

But the story of this movie -- and what makes it work -- is Hugh Jackman as Wolverine.

Wolverine has been an immensely popular character practically since he was introduced in 1975, and it was inevitable (and sensible) for the first X-Men movie to use him as the central character. He's our primary POV character, and Jackman perfectly embodies the "best there is at what I do, and what I do isn't nice" elements -- though the character's psychotic tendencies are somewhat downplayed. Still and all, Jackman looked, walked, talked, sounded like, embodied the character I've been reading about since the eighth grade. Thank you Stanley Kubrick!

(See, Eyes Wide Shut took forever to finish, which delayed the filming of Tom Cruise's next film, Mission Impossible 2. Because MI2 was delayed, Dougray Scott, who was supposed to play Wolverine, had to back out and Jackman was given the role of Wolverine. Given Scott's awful performance in MI2 and how perfect Jackman was, this is all for the best...)

The plot itself is pretty straightforward. The Senate wants to pass the Mutant Registration Act, a bill that could very easily be seen as a starting point to camps for mutants that are similar to the Nazi concentration camps (a parallel that the movie kindly does not beat us over the head with). This prompts Magneto into action, recruiting mutants to his side to fight the "coming war" -- and Xavier has done likewise, with his School for Gifted Youngsters, which includes several kids and three "X-Men" -- Cyclops, Jean Grey, Storm. The facets of this war are revealed through Rogue and Wolverine, the former on the run after putting her boyfriend in a coma with a kiss (when she makes any person-to-person contact, she absorbs that person's life essence), the latter drifting with no memory of his life prior to fifteen years before.

Wolverine and Rogue are useful in that they provide a vehicle for exposition (again, without overdoing it) when they arrive at the school. The movie also perfectly nails the Wolverine/Jean/Cyclops love triangle, and the enmity between Cyclops and Wolverine that was such a hallmark of the early Claremont years on the book.

The movie also perfectly nails the mutant angst without overplaying the violins to a ridiculous degree. Rogue's desire to be able to simply touch someone is handled simply by her looking with longing at a mother cradling her child. At one point, she asks Wolverine, regarding his claws, "Does it hurt when you do that?" and Wolvie simply replies, "Every time." (I'm sorry they didn't play up that element of Cyclops -- one of the things I love about that character is that he can't turn his powers off.)

The only flaw in the movie was the complete inability to get a handle on Storm's powers. (This was especially galling because they generally did such a good job of people using powers for everyday things, particuarly with the younger kids at Xavier's School.) In her fight against the Toad, the latter kicks her around for five minutes before she finally zaps him with the full brunt of her powers -- but before that, she doesn't do anything, and I can't imagine why.

Worse, later on the four X-Men are bound by Magneto inside the head of the Statue of Liberty. Everyone has been convincingly rendered helpless -- except Storm. Cyclops orders Storm to zap Magneto, but she's not about to call down lightning in a copper statue, which Magneto points out.

All right fine, what about the eight million other things that Storm can do? Suck all the moisture out of the air? Bring in a tornado? Start a hailstorm? It was a cheap, contrived way to get Cyclops, Storm, and Jean out of action so Wolverine could have the climactic fight scene with Sabretooth, and I didn't buy it.

Oh, and I figured out that Magneto was after Rogue all along and not Wolverine, so why the hell couldn't the heroes dope it out?

But those were really my only serious problems with the movie. This wasn't a great flick, by any means, but it felt like what the comic book felt like when it was good. Fine pacing, excellent acting, good directing, no overdependence on special effects (but all the effects were quite good) or slam-bang action, and set up for sequels without feeling too much like a pilot for a series of films (a trick Men in Black also pulled off).

So go see the movie. You'll be glad you did. *grin*

[First posted on sff.people.krad at SFF.net on 17 July 2000.]

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