X-Men (review)

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The Joy of X

Boy, is this the summer of angst-ridden Australian tough guys, or what? First there was Russell Crowe as a vengeance-powered gladiator, then there was Mel Gibson as a vengeance-powered revolutionary. And now we have Hugh Jackman as a vengeance-powered mutant in X-Men… though a lot of the revenge is being stored for the inevitable — and, I’ll confess, immediately highly anticipated — sequel.

What was done to Jackson’s character, Logan aka Wolverine, to inspire such rage? It’s only that his skeleton was augmented and partially replaced by a superstrong metal so that he can now shoot wicked talons out of his hands when a situation calls for it. Pretty standard stuff, really. But getting payback for that is the bit that’s being left for the next movie.
The problem here, in director Bryan Singer’s (Apt Pupil) extremely classy superhero tale, is that Logan is one of a new breed of human suddenly popping up all over the planet. Mutants with all manner of unusual powers — the ability to walk through walls, to read minds, to, as Logan can do, heal one’s own wounds quickly — have the normals running scared. U.S. Senator Robert Jefferson Kelly (Bruce Davison: Paulie) is spearheading the fight against mutants, pushing for legislation to force them to reveal themselves and their powers, and worse. Wrap up the nastiest aspects of racial, gender, religious, and gay prejudice in one package, and you’ve got Kelly in a nutshell. (Check out the senator’s “official” site: Mutant Watch — its rhetoric is barely distinguishable from that of any other political site this election year.)

Divided over how to respond to the normals are two of the oldest mutants, one-time friends Erik Magnus Lehnsherr aka Magneto (Ian McKellen: Gods and Monsters) and Professor Charles Francis Xavier aka Professor X (Patrick Stewart: A Christmas Carol, Animal Farm). Magneto thinks it’s time to wipe out the normals before the normals wipe out the mutants, but X thinks they can live in harmony. It’s battle of the English guys with booming Shakespearean voices as these two gather their mutant followers for a showdown that’s not as final nor as neatly resolved as you’d expect from a summer action flick, and that’s not just the result of Fox’s attempt to set up a franchise. Singer knows the world he’s showing us is way too complex to fully explore in a single film, and he wants to unsettle us with a difficult issue — the discrimination parable — for which a pat resolution would ring false.

There’s a lot of smart, unexpected depth behind the delicious visual popcorn in X-Men, not the least of which are the genuine and, at the risk of sounding overblown, heartfelt performances from the large cast. It’s a fine line between clever and stupid, someone once said, and it’s likewise a fine line between drama and melodrama, between treating characters with respect despite their comic book roots and turning them into characters even more cartoonish than their graphical origins. Stewart and McKellan, it almost goes without saying, are entirely compelling and utterly believable as twisted mutant freaks who nevertheless retain their core humanity and even a hint of their former friendship. Magneto’s crew — which includes Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me) as the shapeshifter Mystique, Ray Park (The Phantom Menace) as the froggy Toad, and Tyler Mane as the leonine Sabretooth — aren’t much more than hired muscle, but X’s team, the eponymous X-Men, get a bit more chance to interact. Halle Berry (Bulworth), Famke Janssen (The Faculty, Celebrity), and James Marsden make essentially small roles seem larger, creating nice little character touches as, respectively, mutants Storm (who wields weather like a weapon), the telekinetic doctor Jean Grey, and Cyclops, from whom a simple gaze is lethal.

But I was talking about Logan’s avenging spirit. Jackman — who, like his fellow countrymen, doesn’t portray an Aussie character; Logan is Canadian, eh — stalks and glowers and swears his way through X-Men with the kind of masculine presence that makes a bloke a star. (Plus, he takes off his shirt a lot, which doesn’t hurt.) But his Logan softens his standard operating fury for Rogue (Anna Paquin: Amistad), a young mutant he finds himself protecting with righteous rage when she becomes key to Magneto’s plans to end the problem Senator Kelly represents once and for all. Rogue’s mutant talent, one that horrifies her, is that just the touch of her bare skin will drain the life force from another person — so Rogue is both terrified of physical contact and desperately craves what she can’t have. Together, Jackman and Paquin build a relationship that is the heart of the movie, and one we don’t see depicted onscreen very often: an older man and a younger girl, breaking through each other’s protective barriers to end up with a tenderness that’s not sexual, yet not quite like that of siblings or a parent and child, either, but never feels icky or wrong.

Because of the very nature of the characters in X-Men, a lot of what we see is like nothing we’ve seen before, which makes for a thrilling movie experience. Action set pieces obviously take some inspiration from films from Batman to The Matrix, and still the special talents of our heroes and villains allow them to do things that result in visually dazzling scenes: guns brandished by cops turn on them, a mutant shimmies up wall, a telepath psychically seeks out a fellow mutant.

With nonstop action, highly intriguing characters, and an uncomfortable subtext, X-Men leaves you feeling both entirely satisfied and wrung out, and wanting to know more. If that’s not a recipe for the perfect summer flick — and the perfect summer franchise — I don’t know what is.

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