Rushed to theaters months before its hoped-for Christmas release date, X-Men proves to be a departure not only for Singer, but costumed movies in general. X-Men is a modern comic book played completely straight. It is the serious superhero film wished for by sputtering, embarrassed comic-book fans squinting in the matinee sun after Superman III--a respectful translation of this country's most popular comic book without elements of camp, knowing self-awareness, or nostalgia. While this may be great news for comic-book fans, it's not so great for everyone else for whom the experience of watching X-Men will be like seeing a less-expensive Matrix Lite with inexplicably odd plot quirks.
The movie shares with Matrix a dense, convoluted back story. In the world presented by X-Men, superpowers are a genetic anomaly developed by only a tiny fraction of teenagers. The people who develop superpowers are called mutants, oh-so-deftly illustrating America's long-standing intolerance of those with unique talents and abilities. When the movie begins, the Western world is at a saturation point; the number of mutants has become a matter of public knowledge and national interest. When a United States senator attempts to force through legislation to register mutants, there is a resulting crisis of faith in the mutant community.
The conflict breaks down like this: Master of metal Magneto (Ian McKellen), a victim of Nazi atrocities in World War II, quotes Malcolm X and prefers to strike before being struck. Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) seems to believe in persuasion and good works--although the fact that he keeps a team of superpowered ass kickers to whom he provides billions of dollars in hardware seems to suggest Teddy Roosevelt, or your average well-armed militia leader rather than Dr. King. A student of the Rod Serling school of political persuasion, Magneto has invented a device to change regular people into mutants, something he hopes to aim at a ceremony of world leaders on Ellis Island (you know it's a collection of world leaders because a couple of people wear African garb). To power his machine, Magneto needs outcast mutant Rogue (Anna Paquin), who is under the protection of another outcast mutant--the brusque, tough-as-nails Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). The film's dramatic arc follows Wolverine--the most popular character in the comic book--as he meets and then attempts to work with the X-Men in thwarting Magneto's plans.
Sound stupid? Sure. But despite that, and despite the fact that more money seems to have been spent on incidental effects (a voice-controlled surface map, an endless series of cool hideout walkways) than the fight scenes between various X-Men and Magneto's Bond-like super-hench-men, the film almost works as reasonably engrossing summer nonsense. X-Men has an easygoing inner logic, and the casting director should be made a studio head someday. Jackman is heaven-sent as Wolverine, while Stewart and McKellen sell hammy dialogue as if it were straight from Shakespeare's pen; Paquin simpers like only an Academy Award-winning actress can, and James Marsden and Famke Janssen as X-Men Cyclops and Jean Grey play all 20 of their lines more convincingly than one might believe possible. I was too busy feeling sorry for Halle Berry's white wig and West African accent to figure out if she's good as weather-controlling superhero Storm. I'm guessing not.
The reason Berry wears a wig and tries an accent is not because doing so serves the plot, but because it's faithful to the comic book. Using the same logic, the film appropriates the comic book's strained, ham-fisted metaphors for racism and bigotry. Comparing the plight of superheroes to Jews in Nazi Germany is dramatic shorthand of the worst kind, particularly because X-Men says nothing new or interesting about how one might approach or view equivalent real-world problems. X-Men's lighter moments lack the special-effects wonder or larger-than-life resolutions that work as friendly summer entertainment; its pretentious heart is flawed at the source. Heroic acting work and thwarting genre expectations may make more than a few fans happy, but it doesn't make X-Men a good film.