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Friday, Oct. 13, 2000


Marvelous mutation of the formula

Comic-book movies have sucked so hard and for so long that the prospect of having to watch another one ranks for me right up there with a visit to the immigration office. The idea of masked men in form-fitting leotards beating similarly beefy adversaries into submission just doesn't do it for me. What can I say? Maybe I'm not perverse enough, or maybe -- and here's a startling thought -- I grew up.

Let's face reality: Most comic books are targeted primarily at a market that is age 10-18, male, chafing at the strictures of parents and school, and sexually frustrated. And yet Hollywood -- while explicitly targeting that same free-spending young male demographic with its comic-book blockbusters -- also seeks to convince the rest of us to check these flicks out. But should we really wallow perpetually in a state of arrested development, quelling our fears of personal impotence with the security blanket of superhero fantasies?

Granted, a few of the comic-book films -- most notably, Tim Burton's "Batman" -- have capitalized on the medium's strengths, with enough visual style to justify their existence. But in the final analysis, unless you'd already spent your adolescence reading the comics and self-projecting onto the hero, there was just no emotional hook to draw you in. Clark Kent? Bruce Wayne? Hell, the rictus grin of Al Gore has more charisma than those bland robots.

So it's a pleasant surprise to find that "X-Men" -- the first Marvel Comics franchise to make it to the big screen -- is actually a rather fun film. "X-Men," as directed by Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects"), is sly enough to take a poke at its own conventions (even the outfits), and -- for once -- the characters have a bit of spice.

The Marvel superheroes were always more messed-up (and hence more interesting) than the DC Ubermensch, loners and misfits like Peter Parker ("Spiderman") instead of a millionaire "playboy" like Bruce Wayne ("Batman"). DC offered the Cold War hegemonic vision of enlightened perfection and omnipotence; Marvel offered a more post-Vietnam view, that power carried with it both limits and drawbacks.

Nowhere was this agenda more clear than with the "X-Men," a group of mutants whose superpowers came through genetic chance. With their special abilities -- like telekinesis and control over the weather -- came ostracism: The mutants were viewed as dangerous freaks by society at large.

Director Singer takes this theme and runs with it, trying to make the film about something a bit more than guys in tights beating each other's brains out. And, I'm pleased to say, he does it with wit, and a cast that oozes charm like some kind of narcotic incense. (Hugh Jackman, in particular, looks set to join the Aussie big league, alongside Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe.)

The film follows mutant Wolverine (Jackman) -- the classic "lone swordsman" type, living off his fighting skills -- as he forms a tentative bond with runaway Rogue (Anna Paquin, "The Piano"), a young girl who's terrified of her own powers, unable to touch anyone without draining their life force.

The pair are pursued by two groups of mutants. The bad guys -- Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), Toad (Ray "Darth Maul" Park), and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) -- are led by Magneto (Ian McKellen), who as a child survived the Nazi death camps, and holds a justifiably dim view of mankind. In the face of mounting antimutant prejudice, Magneto resolves to evolve his enemies through mutation "by any means necessary." (And the Malcolm X reference is a direct one in the film!)

The good guys are the X-Men, based around a school for "gifted youngsters" run by Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), a telepathic mutant who wishes to shelter his kind from a hostile society, and to preach benevolent coexistence with nonmutated humanity. Professor X takes Wolverine and Rogue under his wing, and introduces them to the rest of his proteges, the X-Men: Cyclops (James Marsden), Storm (Halle Berry) and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen).

While the film's eccentric special effects -- Toad's deadly darting tongue, Storm's ability to conjure up maelstroms, Mystique's slinky shapeshifting -- will certainly appeal to those looking for something as wild as "The Matrix," Jackman's Wolverine and Paquin's Rogue are fleshed out enough to grab your sympathy as well. The thing that made the X-Men comic books so much fun was the soap opera between the characters' conflicting personalities, and just enough of that has made its way onto the screen to make this film work.

If there's one complaint, it's that the film tries to cover so much ground (based on four decades' worth of comics) that it ends up playing more as a pilot episode than a complete story. But in the case of "X-Men," a few sequels might not be a bad thing. Director Singer might take the material almost a bit too seriously, but it does hint at the mythic level of relevance that so much sci-fi and comic-book storytelling claims but rarely achieves.

"X-Men" is playing at Shibutoh Cine Tower and other theaters.

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