It's A Mutant, Mutant World

Puberty can make anybody feel like a mutant. But young Rogue (Anna Paquin) has got it particularly bad: she recently discovered that if she touches people for too long, she drains their life force and they die quaking in pain. Dating, clearly, is a problem. "The first boy I ever kissed ended up in a coma for three weeks," Rogue tells her fellow mutant Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) early in Bryan Singer's smart, sleek and mordantly funny "X-Men." Wolverine, a furtive and menacing loner with a motorcycle jacket and Civil War sideburns, understands completely. He can make footlong blades flash out from between his knuckles; ordinarily he uses them to keep enemies at bay, but once in a while he stabs a friend by accident. Human contact is not his specialty either.

"X-Men," adapted from Stan Lee's enormously popular Marvel Comics series, spins out a complicated story, but all it really wants to know is, Why can't everybody just get along? Mutants can pass for regular folks. Because their DNA evolved at hyperspeed, however, each of them has developed a superpower he or she can use in the service of good or evil. At the outset of "X-Men," a braying senator (Bruce Davison) denounces the mutant underclass as a threat and calls for a kind of witch hunt. This hurts a lot of mutants' feelings. The imperious bad-guy mutant Magneto (Ian McKellen), who can do cool stuff to metal with his mind, moves to silence the senator, and prepares his followers for war. Thank heavens for the good-guy mutants. The telepathic Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) has followers of his own--among them Rogue and Wolverine--and soon the two mutant factions are battling atop the Statue of Liberty.

Geez, all that sounds sort of ridiculous. But director Singer, best known for the arty noir "The Usual Suspects," is not a typical action director, and he's made a nuanced, nonpreposterous sci-fi fantasy that makes "The Phantom Menace" and the last few "Batman" outrages seem even lamer in retrospect. By all rights, Singer's film should have been a disaster. Imagine trying to cull a single story line from 37 years' worth of comic books--knowing that hard-core fans were going to sharpshoot every frame of your movie, and that the studio was going to be wringing its hands over whether nonmutants would pay to see the thing too. For diehard fans, "X-Men" is full of in jokes and sly references (tiny throwaway cameos by Iceman and Kitty Pryde, etc.). For everybody else, there's the thrill of the unknown. David Hayter's screenplay, by turns sardonic and touching, conveys an enormous amount of information without a lot of clunky exposition--there are no lines like, "Hi, I'm Storm, and I can control the weather! What's your name?" The mutants reveal their particular gifts in battle. You know these guys are going to kick each other's butts. What you don't know is how.

The good-guy and bad-guy mutants are equally fun to behold. In the benevolent Professor Xavier's corner, we've got not just Rogue and Wolverine, but Storm (Halle Berry), the telepathic Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and her smirky, Tom Cruise-ish boyfriend Cyclops (James Marsden), whose eyes shoot lasers. (Wolverine has a thing for Jean Grey, and can't believe she digs Cyclops. "Is that your gift--putting up with that guy?") In Magneto's corner, there's the hulking Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), who has the misfortune of looking like John Travolta in "Battlefield Earth." There's Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos in blue body paint), who can morph into anyone. And there's Toad (Ray Park, formerly Darth Maul in "Phantom Menace"), who can hop really far and hang on to things by his tongue.

"X-Men," it must be said, has only a few truly thrilling moments. This is not a picture that tries to blow you out of your seat. But more than any other big movie this summer, it has a consistently inventive vision. You don't just sit there waiting for a big wave. "X-Men" has plenty of little plot twists--thanks to Mystique's constant morphing, you don't even know who's beating on whom sometimes--and a bottomless bag of special effects. Midair acrobatics. Shapes that shift. Metal that flies. Weapons that float. Bodies that rubberize and liquefy, and on and on.

You can't make any grand claims for the acting in "X-Men," but--apart from Berry's performance, which is soft and unfocused--it does have the advantage of not stinking. To their credit, the actors tend toward the minimalist, eschewing cartoony gestures. McKellen's Magneto is not the histrionic madman we're accustomed to, but a scarily sane villain. He survived a World War II concentration camp as a child, and he's not about to have another number tattooed on his arm. Magneto is simply appalled by humanity's lack of humanity; change a couple of lines in the screenplay and he could be the hero. Jackman's Wolverine, meanwhile, is a wonderful creation. Apparently, Singer once wanted Russell Crowe for the role, and Jackman, who's Australian, plays the part with a growling sensitivity not unlike Crowe's. Wolverine is off-the-charts cool as a superhero. But he's also just a screwed-up guy--the noble, conflicted soul of the whole "X-Men" universe. Late in the movie, good old Professor Xavier wakes up in an infirmary and asks worriedly, "How did we do?" Splendidly, Professor. Rest up for the sequel.

X-MenTwentieth Century Fox