X is for “X-Men,” Bryan Singer’s new film adaptation of the Stan Lee comic book series. Y is for “Like, why do these screen versions of graphic superhero fantasies hardly ever work?” Z is for the “Zzzzzz” soon to be heard around the world from those with little or no prior investment in the long-running print serial. Will dedicated fans react likewise? Tune in next week — after a no-doubt gonzo opening B.O. weekend — to see if this bigscreen incarnation is poised for a long flight or will experience quick post-launch burnout.
With no “Star Wars” behemoth in the way, and little other direct competition on the horizon (or left standing) to transfix 14-year-old boys of all ages, this estimated $75 million production does have a whole demographic more or less to itself in midsummer. But this curiously tepid adventure will likely divide auds between those grateful just to see their cult heroes faithfully translated (under 25-year-olds), and others (anyone older) for whom an overcomplicated concept is rendered so-what? by underwhelming execution. Numbers are likely to skew young and younger in the long run, with juvenile enthusiasm determining just how long that run will be.
“X-Men” is certainly no campstrosity a la “Battlefield Earth,” the sci-fi actioner that’s going to be making all others look decent by comparison for quite some time. Indeed, pic’s main plus can only be defined in a sort of backhanded compliment: It’s seldom ludicrous or laughable, no small achievement given the cartoonish material. Yet the somber tone helmer Singer shoots for here does little good, given that story, set pieces and production design never kick into an engrossing, exciting or stylish high gear.
“X-Men” plays like a so-so middle chapter of an epic series rather than a fitting kickoff. Premise and characters are intro’d in desultory fashion, with little momentum toward a climactic good vs. bad faceoff, which advances the story so little that the preceding two hours are rendered almost irrelevant.
Ominously dumb/dour first reel commences with opening-credit computer graphics illustrating the voiceover idea that once in a while species’ evolution speeds up — the only significant explanation we’ll get about humanity’s new minority “mutant” population in the “not too distant future.” After this fanciful eye candy, there’s a cut directly to 1944 Poland, where Jews are being herded into a Nazi concentration camp. Torn from his parents, who are hustled toward a building with a smokestack, young Magneto (Brett Morris) uses magnetic powers to destroy the gate that separates them.
The seg’s solemn bad taste (“Schindler’s List” + “Carrie” = Not a Good Idea) portends the pic’s biggest overall problem: It presents far-fetched incidents with a seriousness unballasted by sufficient buildup, context or emotional investment.
We then jump to present-day Mississippi, where high school teen Marie (Anna Paquin) reluctantly acquiesces to a make-out session with her b.f.; but her touch has a dangerous, if inadvertent, effect on him. Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Kelly (Bruce Davison) is fanning the flames of public hysteria, calling for all mutant humans to be unmasked, incarcerated and stripped of their rights as citizens until their powers can be analyzed and controlled.
Now called Rogue and dressed like a glum Little Red Riding Hood, Marie has become a runaway — like many maladjusted, picked-on mutant kids. She meets hirsute Logan, aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), whose extraordinary strength (from inlaid-steel musculature) pays the bills in saloon betting fights. The duo suffer a road accident and are pounced on by bad mutants, albeit saved in the nick by good ‘uns.
They wake in the lair of chief good mutant Xavier (Patrick Stewart), whose palatial School for Gifted Youngsters sits atop a subterranean mutant HQ. Xavier’s goal is developing each mutant’s special skills while engineering a peaceable integration with mainstream society. The new arrivals are relieved to find they’re not such lone freaks after all, given introduction to such fellow mutants as the telepathic/telekinetic Jean (Famke Janssen), her ocular-overachieving b.f., Cyclops (James Marsden), and the self-explanatory climate controller Storm (Halle Berry in a platinum wig).
Xavier’s biggest problem is longtime friend-turned-nemesis, Magneto (Ian McKellen), who anticipates a global mutants vs. normals war, and indeed seems to be hurrying that prospect along with a not-so-hidden agenda. Magneto’s malevolent sidekicks consist of animalistic predator Sabretooth (wrestler Tyler Mane), agile-tongued Toad (Ray Park, “Phantom Menace’s” Death Maul) and sinuous changeling Mystique (supermodel Rebecca Romijn-Stamos).
When Rogue, captured after an ill-advised runaway effort, is held in the torch chamber of the Statue of Liberty — giving “The Patriot” a run for its money in the heavy-handed flag-waving department — her fate is determined in a climactic battle as international diplomats congregate for a World Summit on Ellis Island.
When Marvel Comics mastermind Lee (co-creator of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Incredible Hulk, etc.) first cooked up the “X-Men” series in 1963, its mutants vs. normals conflict was a provocative, usually serious-minded commentary on concurrent civil rights struggles. The anti-bias message seems less novel, if no less relevant, now, and with relatively little insight into mainstream society here (this “near future” looks pretty much like right now), the intended atmosphere of paranoia and prejudice doesn’t come across vividly.
Unlike, say, Tim Burton’s “Batman” films (or such like-minded exercises as “Dark City,” “The Crow” and “The Matrix”), “X-Men” lacks directorial and visual design cohesion, and a singular, haunted emotional center to make its brooding tenor more than just a fashionable attitude.
Much of this is due to the X-Men concept itself: Since there appears no clear rhyme, reason or limitation to the mutants’ all-over-the-map gifts, they seem much less an oppressed minority than a jumble of comic-book conceits. As Wolverine, Aussie thesp Jackman (a last-minute replacement for Dougray Scott when latter was detained on “M:I-2”) gets enough screen time to create an admirably cynical, melancholy character. But Paquin has little to do except whimper for help, while the other X’s (most notably Berry and Marsden) are highlighted so little their individual powers scarcely register.
Stewart and McKellen exercise their RSC-trained perfect diction but little else; casting of these routine nemeses could have been switched with no discernible gain or loss. Visually, most striking figure is Romijn-Stamos’ slinky blue Mystique, a memorably sexy, lethal vixen. Doing a nasty Clinton impersonation, Davison livens his few scenes as the belligerent senator.
Though fast paced and reasonably entertaining, pic never exhilarates or finds a distinctive style in successive action segs, which range from straight-up road chases to f/x extravaganzas (most arresting being a bit in which Magneto turns a police legion’s weaponry against it). Whether large scale or small, effects are well handled, but their technological crazy quilt (morphing, animation, models, etc.) underlines the overall lack of stylistic-narrative focus. Most dismaying misstep is the so-what conclusion, which provides zero resolution or lingering suspense.
Newton Thomas Sigel’s widescreen lensing, John Myhre’s production design and all other design/tech aspects are glossily high grade, if unmemorable; Michael Kamen’s wall-to-wall score is routine. Polished but impersonal direction reps another disappointing failure (after “Apt Pupil”) by Singer to build on the prestige momentum of his sleeper soph feature, “The Usual Suspects.”
For the record, prior “X-Men” screen efforts have all been in the realm of TV animation, with a busted 1989 pilot and successful 1992-98 series likewise supervised by Lee (who appears here in a cameo as a hot-dog vendor).