© 2008 by C.E. Murphy. All Right Reserved.

      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
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
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
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.

Rating:                 B+
MPAA Rating:        PG-13 for sci-fi action violence
Running time:       104 mins.