Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
When a politician proposes legal limits on people who have been born with special powers, a terrorist called Magneto plots to turn everyone into mutants. Standing in his way is an old friend with a more live-and-let-live approach…
Get used to multiples names…
* The film’s point-of-view characters are Logan aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Marie aka Rogue (Anna Paquin). They learn about the lives and rules of mutants so we can too. Jackman is such an effective leading man – very Harrison Ford-ish – that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing the role. But he was only cast three weeks into filming when Dougray Scott dropped out because production of Mission: Impossible II overran. Paquin’s good too, and it’s a shame when Rogue becomes a damsel in distress in the second half. After bumping into each other in Canada and forming a touching friendship, Wolverine and Rogue end up at Charles Xavier’s school for gifted youngsters, which is also a front for a team of mutant superheroes.
* Xavier aka Professor X is played by Patrick Stewart, who brings gravitas, soul and a bald head to the role. His lieutenants are Dr Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Ororo Munroe aka Storm (Halle Berry in a dodgy white wig) and Scott Summers aka Cyclops (James Marsden). Jean has a flirtation with Wolverine, which irritates her fiancé Cyclops, but it’s not specified why she doesn’t get a cool codename. Storm is sadly a bit of a non-entity, and is also involved in the film’s worst moment. An uncredited Joss Whedon worked on a draft of the script and wrote a Bondian quip for the character – “Do you know what happens to a toad when it’s struck by lightning?” she says when facing off against an evil mutant called Toad. “The same thing that happens to everything else!” However, Halle Berry delivers it without any irony at all and the gag is lost. (Imagine a Buffy character throwing away the second half of the line.)
* Students at the school include Bobby Drake aka Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and Kitty Pryde (Sumela Kay) – both will have more to do in sequels.
* On the other side of the mutant divide is a remarkably small team of bad guys. Magneto’s real name is Erik Lehnsherr and he’s played by Ian McKellen with an American accent and an arrogant air. He has just three sidekicks: the giant Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), the creepy Toad (Ray Park from The Phantom Menace) and the blue-skinned shapeshifter Mystique (a seemingly naked Rebecca Romijn-Stamos… Wowzers).
* The only other notable character is Senator Kelly, played by the reliable Bruce Davison. He opposes mutants but is then turned into one by Magneto and dies.
Stan Lee cameo: The creator of the X-Men can be spotted in the scene where a mutated Kelly walks out of the sea and up a beach. Lee is one of the shocked onlookers.
Crossovers and continuity: There are a few elements that will be contradicted or expanded in future movies.
* Sabretooth acts like he’s never met Wolverine before, which doesn’t marry with the backstory told in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
* Kitty Pryde will be recast twice and get more to do in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006).
* Charles tells us he met Eric when they were 17 – that story will be dramatised in X-Men: First Class (2009).
* Jean Grey mindreads Wolverine and sees memories of surgery he was subjected to – both X2 (2003) and Origins: Wolverine will expand on those events.
A comic-fan writes… Because I know next to nothing about the source material, I’ve asked my friend Fraser Dickson to give a comic-reader’s view on this movie: “As a lifelong fan of the X-Men comics this film was always going to struggle to live up to expectations, but I was encouraged after hearing about some of the cast and went in feeling optimistic. It made a promising start, touching on elements of the Days of Future Past story, but the ‘death ray’ set atop the Statue of Liberty in the finale was far too B-movie cliché for me. I left wondering whether films adapted from comics could ever work and would always end up seeming just too childish and naff. Then I saw Iron Man…”
Review: At 100 minutes the film is considerably leaner than most modern superhero movies. This decade’s Avengers films, for example, are 137 and 136 minutes, while the two recent Superman movies add up to around five hours. So with only an hour and a half before the credits start rolling, X-Men doesn’t hang about. The first 10 minutes feature a prologue set during the Second World War, the introduction of Rogue and her dangerous abilities, a debate in the Senate that kicks off the plot, the establishing of Charles and Eric’s rivalry, and the first sighting of Wolverine. It’s slick, enjoyable, intriguing stuff. However, it soon becomes clear that the trade-off for the bum-friendly running time is a flimsy plot. The movie feels like the pilot episode of a TV series. A lot of screen time is spent on introducing characters and explaining superpowers, while the story’s main beats are reduced to ‘heroes guess what the bad guy is up to’ followed by ‘heroes set off to stop him’. It’s not complex and there’s not much tension to anything. But it’s still obvious how influential the film’s been. Many subsequent comic-book adaptations have followed X-Men’s lead in playing things for real, for example. That 1944 prologue – showing a young Magneto in a Nazi concentration camp – is very important. Not only does it set up the themes of prejudice and fear of difference, but it also tells us this is not a traditional superhero film. This is set in a close approximation of the ‘real’ world, not the faux 1940s of the Christopher Reeve Superman films or the gothic Gotham City of Tim Burton’s Batman. The cast are also ‘playing the truth’ of the situations. There’s no Gene Hackman or Jack Nicholson given licence to camp it up, which adds weight to everything that’s happening. There may still be comic-book conventions on show (everyone has two names, the team dress up in silly costumes) but they’re also wittily undercut (Wolverine pokes fun at the aliases, his X-Men outfit doesn’t fit properly). There are regular moments of humour or humanity, in fact. The film has *heart*. The storytelling is also impressively clear, precise and confident. It’s just a shame it’s so simplistic. It doesn’t feel very ambitious.
Seven Statues of Liberty out of 10