X-Men (20th Century Fox, 2000)

The quick take:
The great: Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, Anna Paquin's Rogue, Bryan Singer's direction.
The second-rate: Halle Barry's Storm. A silly plot.
The verdict: If you like superheroes or science fiction adventure films, see it soon.

Behind the quick take:

My prejudices: I grew up reading comic books, science fiction, and fantasy. I love a well-made superhero story, a tale of someone with exceptional abilities who helps others anonymously. I'll forgive a few artistic stumblings in a story that gives me most of what I want. (When I ate meat, I'd forgive soggy french fries and Wonder Bread if they came with hickory-smoked chicken and an exceptional sauce. The X-Men is that kind of barbecue.)

The story: In the near future, human mutants are feared. Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) believes humans and mutants can live together in peace; until that day comes, he gives mutants sanctuary at his school. Magneto (Ian McKellen) believes mutants are superior to humans, and will kill to get what he wants. If the X-Men can't stop Magneto and his Brotherhood of Mutants, the world's leaders will die.

The story focuses on two mutants in search of a home. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) doesn't know his past; he has great strength and a superhuman healing ability that allowed someone to give him an unbreakable skeleton and claws. Rogue (Anna Paquin) is a girl whose touch will steal the life from others -- and, if they're mutants, their abilities as well.

The casting: McKellan and Stewart are grand, as always. James Marsden and Famke Janssen suffer from the editing. So does Halle Berry, but she's still miscast. (Rumor had it that Angela Bassett wanted the part; she would've been great.) Rebecca Romjin-Stamos is surprisingly expressive as the villianous Mystique. Jackman and Paquin make this movie.

The production values: Everything looks great, except for Magneto's pinhead helmet, which he doesn't wear very often. The fight scenes are fast and satisfying. The effects do their job, with the exception of one unconvincing flame created by a mutant student.

The writing and editing: The character bits are delightful. If this was My Dinner with the X-Men, I would be happy. But there's an action plot, and while it's good enough for this superhero fan, it's not all it could be. For instance: Magneto doesn't know that his plan will kill humans instead of turning them into mutants, yet none of the heroes bother to tell him that. Jean Gray is telekinetic, yet she forgets this when her face is encased in a shell created by one of Magneto's minions. Storm, after an amazing display of her powers, delivers a lame bit of dialogue about what electricity does that the editor should have cut. (Rumor has it that the line originally built on something earlier that was cut. Often, when editors cut things without consulting the writer, they end up cutting too little rather than too much.)

The DVD: This comes with several alternate scenes. Normally, I hate directors' cuts, because they tend to be self-indulgent. The best exceptions are Peter Jackson's extended Fellowship of the Ring, which is far superior to the theatrical release, and the extended version of X-Men -- which, sadly, does not yet exist. The alternate scenes can be viewed alone, or they can be seen in a “branching” version of the movie, which pauses, then plays the alternate scene, then returns to the same point in the movie and continues. The effect is distracting. Watch the movie, then the extended scenes.

The crucial extended scene is set in Wolverine's bedroom. Jean Gray reads his mind, and Cyclops interrupts them. In the extended version, there's greater tension between Wolverine and Jean, and Cyclops comes across as a more complex character with a sense of humor to go with his jealousy. But all the additional scenes do nice things for the personal relationships in this movie.

Last thoughts: The X-Men isn't at the top of the list of my favorite superhero tales on the big or little screen -- a list which includes Peking Opera Blues, Heroic Trio, The Mask of Zorro, The Matrix, Iron Monkey, Spider-Man, and TV's Alias and Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- but I'm glad to give it a place among them.

[Will Shetterly]