To be a teenager is to feel different, misunderstood, perhaps even a bit of a mutant. It was the gift of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the creators of the Marvel comic decades ago, to realize with "X-Men" that conflicted twentysomething and teenage superheroes would tap into that universal "I don't belong" feeling and raise it to another level.
Here are impressively powerful people saying things like "Stay away from my girl," getting crushes on cute guys and worrying what's going to happen on that first kiss. By making the individual X-Men both natural for the core audience to identify with yet potent beyond imagining (a dynamic similar to the one that helps power the Harry Potter books), Lee and Kirby came up with a comic dynasty that has now been turned into a solid summer entertainment.
Directed by the gifted Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects") and credited to screenwriter David Hayter, though several other writers were reportedly involved, "X-Men" squeezes an awful lot--maybe too much--into a brisk 95 minutes. There are 10 mutants, each with a different superpower to introduce, a plot to unfold, jokes to make, visuals complex enough to employ more than a dozen effects houses to display and enough action to keep 60 stunt people occupied. So much is happening you feel the immediate need of a sequel just as a reward for absorbing it all.
Helping make everything convincing is a diverse cast headed by British heavyweights Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as an earlier generation of mutants, the O.M.s so to speak, old friends who have turned into rival mentors for the hearts and minds of the next generation.
Stewart plays Professor Charles Francis Xavier, able to read minds, influence thought, even erase memories if it's a slow day. He runs Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, a high-tech version of Potter's Hogwarts, where mutants-in-training learn to control their powers and an inner circle of accomplished X-Men get to wander around in nifty, tight-fitting uniforms.
Those outfitted include the telekinetic and photogenic Jean Grey (Famke Janssen); Storm (Halle Berry in a striking blond wig), who need only roll her eyes to create all kinds of weather; and Cyclops (James Marsden), who wears a stylish visor to protect the world from the destructive bolts that issue from his eyes.
On the other side is Erik Lehnsherr (McKellen, who starred in Singer's "Apt Pupil"), code name Magneto, known both for his ability to do anything he wants with metal and his complete disdain for the ordinary run of humanity. He sees a war between mutants and the rest of the world as inevitable and warns Xavier ominously, "Don't get in my way."
Equally irritable are the mutants who look to Magneto for guidance. That would be the enormous Sabretooth (former professional wrestler Tyler Mane); Toad, the man with the 15-foot tongue (Ray Park, memorable as Darth Maul in "The Phantom Menace"); and the treacherous Mystique (top model Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), who can shape-shift with the best of them.
Bringing the conflict between Xavier and Magneto to a head is a movement, led by weasly U.S. Sen. Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison), to make mutants register with the government as if they were sex offenders. The senator has no qualms about manipulating a wave of anti-mutant hysteria ("Send Mutants to the Moon Forever," reads one demonstrator's sign) that leads to a U.N.-sponsored summit on "the mutant phenomenon and its impact on the world stage" that will bring 200 heads of state to New York's Ellis Island.
Holding the balance of power between these two groups are the film's most conflicted (and most interesting characters), Rogue (Oscar winner Anna Paquin) and the feral, dangerous and well-named Wolverine (Australian actor Hugh Jackman).
While Rogue is new to her ability to absorb the qualities and the very life force of anyone she touches, Wolverine has been a berserker for quite some time. You'd be angry too, if a rare metal named adamantium had been fused to your entire skeleton during a past you can't remember, giving you retractable claws that painfully shoot out from your hands whenever you feel threatened. Even a gift for instant healing isn't compensation enough for that.
With a face of fury partially covered by mutton-chop sideburns, Jackman is this film's star and brings a necessary level of acting intensity to the project. While "X-Men" doesn't take your breath away wire-to-wire the way "The Matrix" did, it's an accomplished piece of work with considerable pulp watchability to it. And having a self-referential sense of humor ("You actually go outside in these things?" Wolverine says when face-to-face with an X-uniform) makes the special effects go down that much smoother.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for sci-fi action violence. Times guidelines: disturbing images and some nudity.
Hugh Jackman: Wolverine
Patrick Stewart: Xavier
Ian McKellen: Magneto
Famke Janssen: Jean Grey
James Marsden: Cyclops
Halle Berry: Storm
Anna Paquin: Rogue
In association with Marvel Entertainment Group, a Donners' Company/Bad Hat Harry production, released by 20th Century Fox. Director Bryan Singer. Producers Lauren Shuler Donner, Ralph Winter. Executive producers Avi Arad, Stan Lee, Richard Donner, Tom DeSanto. Screenplay David Hayter. Story Tom DeSanto & Bryan Singer. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel. Editors Steven Rosenblum, Kevin Stitt, John Wright. Costumes Louise Mingenbach. Music Michael Kamen. Production design John Myhre. Art directors Tamara Deverell, Paul Denham Austerberry. Set decorators James Edward Farrell, Dan Wladyka. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
In general release throughout Southern California.