Ever since the early days of Hollywood, turning a comic book into a live-action feature film has proven alluring. While it might seem easier to adapt comics as animated fare (and that has been done as well), the idea of finding a three-dimensional, living, breathing counterpart to a drawn figure prevailed. Over the last 70-plus years, to varying degrees of success, there have been franchises based on everything from Blondie and Gasoline Alley to crime fighters like Superman and Batman. The 1970s and 80s versions of the latter (at least in the original and first sequels) were two of the more recent successes. It was only when the studios pushed too much and allowed third or fourth installments to proceed without the participation of some of the major players that those serials deteriorated.
In that spirit, director Bryan Singer and credited screenwriter David Hayter have undertaken the daunting challenge of translating the popular X-Men to the screen. While some purists may find fault with some of the dramatic choices, fans can generally relax and savor this movie. Thanks to the work of Oscar-nominated production designer John Myhre (1998's ELIZABETH), editors Steven Rosenblum, Kevin Stitt and John Wright, the visual effects team and director of photography Newton Thomas Sigel, X-MEN looks terrific. Hayter's script -- which reportedly underwent uncredited rewriting by Christopher McQuarrie (Oscar winner for THE USUAL SUSPECTS) and Ed Solomon (MEN IN BLACK) -- nicely captures the flavor of Stan Lee's original. Back in 1963, Lee created The Uncanny X-Men, a comic about five seemingly normal teenagers who through genetic mutation developed extraordinary powers. The brilliance of the conceit was that there was no teen who had not at one time or other experienced feelings of being "different". Historically, of course, Americans were still processing the events of WWII and the near extermination of European Jewry as well as others deemed "unsuitable" (i.e., Gypsies, homosexuals) and the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s promulgated by Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.
One doesn't have to be a student of history to see the sly references in the screenplay particularly as embodied by Bruce Davison's Senator Kelly who wants to pass legislation to track mutants, especially targeting those who serve as teachers. It's the classic "Us versus Them" argument that almost every minority has experienced in history and that theme is cleverly and subliminally integrated throughout the story. (The film opens in a German concentration camp where the young Eric Lensherr -- who grows into the villain Magneto (played as an adult by Ian McKellen) -- is separated from his parents. This event forever scars the young man who later professes a distrust of government and who plots a revenge that involves the leaders of the world.)
Singer brings an assured touch to his direction. Juggling about a dozen major characters, nearly all are allowed their moment, but the filmmakers have wisely chosen to focus on the two most popular figures in the series -- Rogue (played with understated grace by Oscar-winner Anna Paquin) and Wolverine (Australian musical stage actor Hugh Jackman in a star-making turn). Wolverine, especially, is allowed to emerge as the key figure (his mythology has been altered slightly which may upset some of the fans, but the choices make dramatic sense and set up the possibilities for the inevitable sequels). The relationship that develops between Rogue and Wolverine forms the nucleus of the story and is believably tender and touching. Similarly, the romantic rivalry established between Wolverine and James Marsden's Cyclops over Famke Janssen's Jean Grey rings true and adds much of the scarce levity to the film. Rounding out the forces for good are Patrick Stewart as Professor Xavier, who operates a school for mutant children, and Halle Berry as Storm (the one weak link in the cast). Beyond McKellen's Magneto, the villains aren't all that developed -- they are certainly characters of few words -- but as played by former wrestler Tyler Mane (Sabretooth), stuntman and actor Ray Park (Toad) and former model Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (whose Mystique has the power to assume the likeness of anyone), they are a scary bunch.
Singer and company approached the material with reverence but also with a willingness to take risks. (How many other movies are there where the chief villain was a concentration camp inmate?) Like a production of Shakespeare, X-MEN may disappoint ardent fans who will be upset over casting issues or the choice to drop the look of the originals (no yellow tights for Wolverine). Those willing to bend a little (and overlook its minor flaws) should enjoy this thrilling version of a popular comic book.