If we can blame anything for the superhero glut that swells the belly of the multiplex every year, we can blame X-Men.
Wisely, director Bryan Singer and an army of screenwriters ditched a formal adaptation–instead, they captured the heart of the comics, and set the film a world resembling ours. No one wears spandex. We don’t have to suffer through endless narrations that spell out the inner thoughts of our conflicted characters (a fault in the comics where long narration sequences, wrapped in bulbous thought clouds, often stretched over a multitude of panels). It also helps that it’s a relatively short film—less than two hours. This was Marvel’s first major comic release, and no one was sure how well it would work. No one calls a shot and swings for the rafters. The story keeps a tight focus on two characters—Rogue and Wolverine. Everything else on the peripheral references the greater world at large, and all of those things matter, but for the purposes of this story, the focus stays on these two.
Rogue’s real name is Marie. When we meet her, she’s just a Mississippi gal hanging out in her room with a boy. She tells him about her dream to travel the world. An awkward silence slides into a tentative kiss, but something happens. She literally sucks the life right out of the poor kid. Marie hits the road, always covered now in various layers of clothing, even gloves, all in the attempt to keep from having any physical contact with anyone. She eventually makes her way to Canada (for reasons unknown and never revealed) where she meets a pit fighter named Logan.
Everyone calls Logan the Wolverine because that’s the name on his dog tags, and also because he’s a real bad ass. He can take a pounding and still deliver far more punishment than he gets. Wolverine is another mutant—he keeps claws tucked away in his hands which he can extend should a tough enough fight ensue. Rogue stows away in his small trailer when he decides to hit the road. Once he discovers her, an unlikely friendship develops. They’re both runaways, both considered freaks in the eyes of the world, and they’re both hunted.
All of this takes place in a world slowly waking up to the fact that the “mutant phenomenon” is a real thing. An ambitious senator, Robert Kelly, wants to register mutants like people register firearms. His rhetoric, inspired by very real concern (and equally real prejudice and fear), strikes some familiar chords in the ears of Erik Lensherr. Erik remembers what the Nazis did to the Jews. He still has a number etched in his arm. He can see the way the wind is blowing, and this time, he has the power to do something about it.
The story keeps everything in very human terms, despite the heroic, often silly notion of the super powers involved. I say they’re silly, but the filmmakers do make a good effort to ground the consequences of even the most outlandish abilities in some kind of reality. For example: Scott Summers, called Cyclops, can shoot powerful force beams from his eyes, beams powerful enough to demolish buildings. So it’s no wonder he stalks through the movie with very little warmth or humor. He probably has to maintain an almost absurd level of self-control.
Lensherr’s evil plot stinks of the usual vagaries of super villain ambition, but Ian McKellan manages to sell it. He sells it so well that the actual means of accomplishing his plan seem far less ridiculous than they actually are. His plot has meaning because Lensherr is meaningful. He has a legitimate fear, and a legitimate gripe. This is no paper-thin cartoon—Magneto, as he calls himself, walks into the tale as a fully rounded individual. The same can be said about Charles Xavier, his old friend, and mentor/leader of the X-Men. These men have a past together, and it shows. They come from very different backgrounds, and while they may have shared many experiences and believe many of the same things, they’ve landed on opposite sides. It strikes just the right amounts of complexity to weigh the conflict with something much more real, and again, much more human.
Starring: Halle Berry, Bruce Davison, Hugh Jackman, Famke Jansen, Tyler Mane, James Marsden, Ian McKellan, Anna Paquin, Ray Park, Rebecca Rominj(-Stamos), Patrick Stewart
Written by David Hayter (with uncredited work by Ed Solomon, Christopher McQuarrie, Joss Whedon and others)
Directed by Bryan Singer