X-Men kind of set a template for Marvel films that they have stayed fairly close to and it has served them well. Get a director with some real film cred, and the rest will follow. X-Men is certainly proof that it is an effective approach.
Really, it was the hiring of Bryan Singer (then most recognized for the Usual Suspects) that got actors to take notice. Most of the actors admitted no familiarity with the comics, and Bryan was not a fan of the series when he came on board. While having a non-fanboy running the show ruffled some feathers (especially when it was revealed that none of the X-Men would be wearing costumes), it really seemed to miss the point.
A good storyteller need not be a fan to tell a great tale about these characters. Patrick Stewart’s lack of interest in Sci-Fi did not stop him from becoming a beloved Star Trek Captain or Professor X. And many of the actors opted to research their characters by reading the comics. Sir Ian McKellan devoted an extensive section of his website to Magneto, he found simple ways to connect the characters to real life.
Of course, the big issue was Wolverine. Hugh Jackman was way to tall to play the runt. Oh, the frustrations comic fans are forced to deal with. Then the news that Singer was ditching the costumes in favor of leather uniforms. So, things were stacking up against it in the eyes of fans and creators.
The film begins in the early 1940’s. A concentration camp to be specific. Weakened and fearful Jewish families are herded through an iron gate. The Nazi soldiers begin to separate out children. One young boy and his parents reach for each other, and as the young boy becomes more frantic, we notice little things. The metal in the gates starts to reach back towards the boy-and he and the soldiers holding on to him are dragged towards the warping gates. After knocking the boy out, the soldiers stare in confusion at the mangled gates before them. Next is an introduction to Rogue (Anna Paquin). She is in her room with a young man and they start to kiss…suddenly, he starts to appear sickly, veins seeming to grow across his face. She starts screaming as the boy convulses before her.
The film then jumps to what appears to be a large government gathering where Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) is giving testimony regarding the rise of mutants. Questioned by Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison) about the threat they present, Jean tries to remind them that these are people, not weapons. In the midst of this are two viewers… wheelchair bound Professor X (a wonderfully chosen Patrick Stewart) and Eric Lensherr, or Magneto (the gifted Ian McKellan). They share a brief exchange-indicating a bond of friendship that has become strained. The both see dark times ahead…but their responses are difference. And for Eric, how can he see anything but the worst options? He survived the holocaust. He has the reminder of human cruelty permanently marked upon him.
The film quickly works to bring all the characters together. Rogue has run away. She find Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) in a bar where he works as a fighter. Rogue instantly sees he may be someone sympathetic to her plight. Stowing away in his trailer, she is quickly discovered. Wolverine is gruff and not interested in her story at all. But she forces conversation out of him, and Wolverine gets slightly more personable. Suddenly, they are derailed by a tree that falls in the middle of the road. After a short tussle with with a similarly feral Sabertooth (wrestler Tyler Mane) Wolverine is knocked out. Sabertooth rips open the door to Wolverine’s vehicle to attack Rogue only to get taken out by Cyclops (James Marsten) and Storm (Halle Berry).
Meanwhile, Senator Kelly is kidnapped by Magneto’s henchmen (the Mutant Brotherhood is a small crew) Toad (played by Darth Maul-Ray Park) and Mystique (a pretty close to naked and blue Rebecca Romijn). Eventually we discover that Magneto has a rather odd little device. It is a machine that Magneto powers that, well, makes a mutant out of you. The only problem is… it really takes it’s toll on Magneto’s health.
Meanwhile, Wolverine wakes up in Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Children. He is freaked out by it all, unsure of who he can trust-though he is smitten with Jean Grey right away. With the promise of helping Wolverine discover his past, Professor X gains what trust he can.
It turns out Magneto’s machine is a Merry Mutant Making Machine. He converts the mutant hating Senator Kelly into a mutant (with amphibous gelatin powers) who escapes and runs to the one place he knows he will be safe. That Mutant School he has been trying to close down…? But once there, it is discovered there is a flaw with Magneto’s plot… the non-mutant human body cannot take the forced mutation. So, the X-Men decide they have to stop Magneto.
In the meantime, Rogue has run away-due to the crafty Mystique. Disguised as a student, she convinced Rogue that she was in serious trouble and Professor X was angry over an incident where she used her powers. Wolverine finds her on a train where Magneto shows up. All the while, everyone thought Magneto was after Wolverine, but it turns out he wanted Rogue. Her power is to absorb other mutant’s powers and life forces. And Magneto needs a mutant to transfer his power to so they can work his machine and he does not have to die in the process.
The X-Men suit up, fly out in their secret jet and take on Magneto and his Brotherhood at the Statue of Liberty. They defeat Magneto, save Rogue and she gets a white streak in her hair. BOOM! End credits!
The film, despise an easy premise, suffers from the problem from so many first tilms for a franchise…Introductoritus. It is a large ensemble, and I get wanting to put in all sorts of stuff for the die hard fan to get excited over. But it is a big cast and that means some folks will get glossed over. Halle Berry’s Storm is flat and pretty lifeless. Some of it is the writing, some is the performance. Hugh Jackman does a terrific job as Wolverine. He is convincing as a loner, yet the (sibling like) bond with Rogue is believable. As his his friction with Cyclops and the magnetism with Jean Grey. Unfortunately, Marsten’s Cyclops is often kind of boring when not interacting with Wolverine. Their verbal sparring is definitely a highlight of the film.
Both Patrick Stewart and McKellan give rousing performances, while Hugh Jackman proved that he could embody Wolverine even though he was of average height. Stewart and McKellan really provide a sense of a longstanding friendship that is needed as the foundation of the story. The effects were solid for the time, many mutant powers from the comics really came to life.
On the other hand, the film is so busy introducing the concept and the characters, the plot seems under developed. It is a pretty herculean task to try and bring a single character with over forty years of backstory to a finite two hour movie. Trying to bring the X-Men-full of hundreds of characters together cohesively? You have to choose who you want to focus on, knowing you will deal with complaints either way. Singer, Tom Desanto and David Hayter struggle valiantly to bring together character and story, but really, it fell mostly on the side of character developement. Understandable, as te X-Men have a rich cast to choose from.
Storm gets the biggest shaft in character developement. Some of the film’s worst lines come from Storm. There is the scene where she and Wolverine are discussing the coming war between mutants-those who wish to peacefully co-exist with homosapiens and those who wish to rule as homosuperior. She tells Wolverine at least she has chosen aside. As if merely choosing a side gives you some nobility (hint-it does not). I mean, yeah, she chose Professor X’s side…but what if she had chosen Magneto’s side? There is also the infamous “what happens to a frog when struck by lightning gag. It falls flat. It was a contribution of Joss Whedon, who swears that it was all Halle Berry’s delivery that resulted in it being so ridiculed.
Toad and Sabertooth come off as pretty bland and one dimensional for most of the film, not contributing much until the end.
For Singer, this was easily his most ambitious film to date. Not so much in story, but in cast size, and general scale. But he does a pretty solid job with the film overall. He seems to understand the sense of scope a film like this needed-in spite of his background in smaller films, he seemed to transition quite well to the grand scale needed for the X-Men.
The film’s overall plot is probably less memorable than it’s various character moments, and in that sense, the movie is hurt. What could have been a terrific film is simply a good start…it is just a set up.