Geek Squad

Cool thing: Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and his claws in X-Men

By the turn of the century, virtually every mutant, superhero and supervillain in the United States and Canada had been either slain or imprisoned....North America [was] ruled by Sentinels (giant, super-sophisticated robots programmed to stamp out mutant-kind)....Now the Sentinels prepared to expand their operations to the rest of the world. Other nations, however, viewed that as an act of war.

--The Uncanny X-Men, issue #142


Note that the clunky forecast above, lifted from a 1980 issue of The Uncanny X-Men, is jotted in the past tense. For 20 years, fascism and nuclear cataclysm have loomed as real possibilities in the pulp universe of Marvel Comics' most popular superhero franchise. Issue #142 came before Reagan's election, before the death squads, before "We begin bombing in five minutes." It came before The Road Warrior and The Terminator made apocalypse culture a preteen pizza-party favor.

So I sat reading this cyberpunk relic at a press screening of the X-Men movie, trying to remember why these embattled, misunderstood, and ultimately oppressed "mutant" superheroes once mattered more to me than any movie, more even than rock 'n' roll. Hatched just as the Sixties were becoming "the Sixties," the X-Men were imagined by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby as a sort of anti-Fantastic Four--a group feared rather than celebrated by society (as plot contrivance would have it) because their superpowers were inborn rather than conferred by accident. Reluctant saviors of a world that rejected them, the X-Men similarly dragged their feet passing into popular mythology: It wasn't until the late-Seventies, when writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne lathered the soapbox into soap opera, that sales went up, up, and away.

"This plot's a lot like the movie," I remarked to another critic at the screening, gesturing to my comic and instantly regretting it.

"Well, isn't the X-Men plot always the same, anyway?"

An old defensiveness came up in me: Those who care about comics now, as ever, are the "geeks." "It was like The Last Temptation of Batman," Michael Keaton once quipped, resenting their impotent wrath over his casting in Tim Burton's oppressively whimsical Batman. But as the lights dimmed and I carefully replaced my comic to its plastic sleeve, the superhero movie onscreen emerged as perhaps the very first to flatter its core audience. Never a comic-book nut himself, director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) brought on a few X-fans as creative advisers, and he shows them unusual reverence simply by never letting X-Men devolve into unintentional yuks--a superheroic feat, judging from Blade, et al.

In the first third of X-Men, you can even sense something of the epic Singer might have made had he been hired for any other reason than to make the FX trains run on time and under budget. Where the X-Men myth foretells a mutant holocaust, Singer begins with a real one, in which one mutant survives Auschwitz but loses his parents. The director then flashes forward to a near-future in which mutants face their own pre-Kristalnacht change of winds, with Bruce Davison playing an anti-mutant McCarthy-type.

While the Senate floor curdles with paranoid rhetoric, two observers look on with that sinking feeling as old as race itself. One is the telepathic Professor Xavier, played by Patrick Stewart, whom we've been trained to enjoy as the voice of gentle masculine authority (and a father figure to the geeks). The other is the metal-manipulating Magneto, played by Ian McKellen, an actor known to most Blockbuster customers for impersonating Nazis and evoking his own outsider status as a gay actor in Gods and Monsters. Xavier is a teacher who formed the X-Men to protect nonmutants and open their minds. Magneto is a demagogue, complete with lair, whose Brotherhood of Mutants seeks to head off humanity's iron fist (and robots) with one of its own.

This quasi-Malcolm X/Martin Luther King dichotomy was clearly a selling point in getting the picture made, with the X-Men positioned as reluctant peacemakers between their oppressors and the superwretched of the earth. A week after completing the final cut, Singer told me over the phone that producers knew from the start he was filming a war of ideas: "There wasn't any, 'Oh, my God--he's making this into My Dinner With the X-Men!'" Besides, while Stan Lee never mentioned race in his early accounts of the comic's genesis, there's no doubting this subtext helped make the revised, multiethnic Seventies team a hit among other outsiders besides the geeks.

Yet to give his theme of tolerance weight, Singer proceeds to waste his venerable Shakespearean leads on a few bad lectures, and to hand the film's only black actor, Halle Berry, a fortune-cookie-sized part--though she's not alone. All the X-Men look ready to vote claw-bearing Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) off the island for no other reason than that he has lines. Which may be a sop to fans: The sideburned, metal-boned brawler is the most popular X-Man, and the Australian Jackman is a worthy student in the Mel Gibson/Russell Crowe school of vulnerable blood-letters. But while Wolvie's early scenes are vividly shot (Singer retains cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel from his previous Apt Pupil), his initiation into the crew marks the beginning of the end of X-Men--and only a half-hour in.

Notice I haven't mentioned the plot's particulars--perhaps a similar afterthought in the movie's pitch sessions. Paced like Star Wars for two reels, Singer's tangled yarn proceeds to ravel faster than a time-crunched Buffy episode. Magneto kidnaps a young mutant, Rogue (Anna Paquin), from Xavier's safe house, and, in case we hadn't quite grasped the point, ties her to the Statue of Liberty. Even by Sixties standards, setting a battle for the souls of mutant folk on Ellis Island is a Sentinel-sized cliché (in the comics, the same point is made by letting the mutants "reclaim" the derogatory "mutie"). Executive producer Richard Donner's own bubble-brained Superman at least had its magical breather--that romantic night-flight with Margot Kidder's Lois Lane. In X-Men, all we get are Wolverine's flesh-piercing claws--which look really, really cool, by the way. For fans, perhaps being taken seriously is enough.


X-Men is playing at area theaters.

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