Racism, xenophobia and too many super-mutants to count.
We open on a quiet, haunting frame of a familiar image. Poland, 1944. As German soldiers stand on top of brick rooftops with rain pouring down their uniforms and gun barrels, soldiers at ground level file Jewish citizens from one line into another. One soldier separates a young boy from his aging parents. The mother screams out in agony, aggressively pushing against the flow of the crowd just to get to her son. Soldiers block her path, her husband trying to hold her back while desperately trying to hold back tears. The son, who is kneeling in fear as both tears and rain pours over his cheeks, rushes through the mud to get to his parents. It’s too late: the gate has already closed.
Frustrated in grief and agony, the young man reaches out to the fence as soldiers hold him back, as if he’s wishing the bars to bend so he can escape and save his parents. Before a soldier comes up and knocks him out, his desires becomes his reality: the metal fence is left as bent and tangled as a twisted paperclip.
This is how Bryan Singer’s X-men starts off, with a visual metaphor for bigotry and discrimination where we don’t quite understand what happened, but its emotional power retains itself regardless. The plot goes from the dramatic to a much more stranger turn when we’re introduced to the film’s premise: a new form of species is identified as “mutants,” who are superhuman beings who develop extraordinary abilities through a biological change in their DNA. There’s nothing they do to forcefully trigger the change: it’s as natural as a teenager going through puberty.
What does society choose to do with these mutants? They scrutinize them, convict them and force them to submit to their mutant registration program where they will be forced to reveal themselves, otherwise they will be considered enemies of the state.
The plot goes much deeper than that. The mutant race has been mostly split in between two factions. One of them is the Brotherhood of Mutants, an extremist group led by the gray-haired and calculative Magneto (Ian McKellan), who you will notice was the little boy we saw in the earlier-mentioned credits. The other organization is hidden under the secrecy of a preparatory school called “The X-men”, a group of mutants who train other mutants to control their powers rather than be afraid of them, led by the passively-oriented Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart).
There’s too many other mutants in this movie to keep track of, and even a short roll call won’t cover all of them either. There’s Rogue (Anna Paquin), a teenage mutant who absorbs the life energy out of any being that she touches. There’s Storm (Halle Berry), a silver-haired centurion who can summon lightning bolts and powerful winds through her ability to control the weather. There’s Jean Grey (Famke Jennsen), a telepath who lives with her boyfriend Cyclops (James Marsden), who can obliterate anything with a laser beam simply by looking at them (makes you wonder how they take care of their evening business in the bedroom…). Perhaps the most recognizable mutant here is Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who came into the X-men with Rogue after spending years trying to remember who he was and where he came from. Wolverine has the most unique ability out of these X-men by being able to heal at a faster rate and protrude claws out of his fists when threatened. So there’s that.
Long story short, the Brotherhood of mutants hatch a scheme against the human race, and the X-men must rise up to stop them. Doesn’t sound like any other superhero team-up action flick out there, right?
Let me start off with the positives. To put it simply, X-men is just a big ball of fun. Whether we’re laughing from a line of scathing dialogue between Wolverine and Cyclops, or watching a thrilling action scene between two mutants fighting on top of the Statue of Liberty, there’s so many memorable moments to look at and enjoy regardless of how hammy or preposterous they might be. Because of this, I think I have a good idea of who this movie was made for: it’s made for the comic-book die-hards, the kids that would freak out in glee and excitement when they get their never-before-opened copy of The Uncanny X-men #141 in the mail for the first time.
For me, my experience with the X-men comes from the 1990′s saturday morning cartoon, the one that included these characters and more in a colorful, energetic and fast-paced ensemble that had much more time and episodes to introduce these characters and delve a little more into their backstories and motivations. For me, this movie hits a few notes on that feeling of nostalgia and then misses on others. I like a lot of what this movie had to offer, from the exciting and uniquely-packaged action scenes all the way to the more dramatic, tensely-driven moments, such as when a mutant argues with a U.S. Senator on mutant rights.
Again, I know where this feeling comes from. Earlier in his career, writer and co-creator Stan Lee created the X-men as a response to the civil rights movement, as an allegory to how people are afraid and hated by other people just because they are different from them. With this movie, I was hoping it would delve into those themes as deeply as Spider-man did with his themes regarding love, guilt and responsibility. Instead, it chooses to make the makeup and visual effects the stars of the movie, showing us cool, flashy effects of people in black leather costumes instead of making the story and themes itself the focus. The movie is a playground to show off what kind of cool tricks these kids can do: not a serious drama about why the two kids are fighting on the playground in the first place.
Here’s the critical factor that saves this movie from just being another standard action flick: the cast. I’ve already mentioned how this movie touches up on some of the nostalgia from the original cartoon. This cast is the reasoning behind that nostalgia. McKellan was conniving as Magneto, a torn and hateful man who sees only one outcome in the human-mutant conflict, an extremist not too dissimilar from that of Malcolm X during the civil rights movement. If he’s Malcolm X then, Professor Xavier is Martin Luther King. Jr., a patient, kind-hearted and wise man who wishes to co-exist with the human race, and defend both of their rights for the sake of that future. I especially liked Hugh Jackman as the feral and vicious Wolverine, a man who definitely has that hardened, rough edge to him, but also that soft spot where he feels protective over those who can’t protect themselves, almost like a papa bear over his little cubs. The script is the transgressor for the silly, generic plot: the cast is what elevates this film above its mediocrity and makes it more than what it actually is.
Overall, I liked X-men. I wish it could have been better, being that the source material is among the most original and influential comic books ever conceived in print, but I’m willing to let that pass for the sake of the franchise’s potential future. If the movie aimed to be nothing else except for visually-splendid eye candy to fill the gleeful hearts of comic book nerds, this movie succeeded. Hey, at least Stan Lee’s Marvelites will be satisfied.