WFTB Score: 14/20
The plot: Angry loner Logan, also known as Wolverine, is befriended by Rogue, a meeting which leads them to the door of Professor Charles Xavier. Xavier’s school for children with special gifts also serves as the base for an elite team of heroes, who not only battle for the rights of ‘mutants’ to exist alongside the ‘normal’ population, but also fight to keep in check the dangerous forces of Xavier’s power-seeking friend, Magneto.
After the commercial failure of the likes of Spawn and the Batman franchise’s seemingly terminal decline into campness with the execrable Batman and Robin, comic-book adaptations took a back seat for a year or two before 20th Century Fox brought the world X-Men, the product of the fertile imagination of Stan Lee. The key to the X-Men world is that its heroes (and, indeed, most of its villains) are not the product of mishaps like those that befall Bruce Banner or Peter Parker; instead, as is explained very early on in the film, evolution has taken a leap forward, bestowing a small number of humans with amazing skills.
There is certainly nothing camp about the style of X-Men, opening with a harrowing sequence in which a young boy is separated from his parents in the concentration camps of World War II, exhibiting phenomenal magnetic powers before he is knocked out. The film then jumps forward to ‘the near future’ where showboating Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison) aims to capitalise on the mistrust felt about mutants by enforcing a registration scheme, much to the dismay of Dr Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). Also in attendance are Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), ever conciliatory and hopeful of making progress; and Eric Lensherr (Ian McKellen) aka Magneto who, having witnessed the nadir of human cruelty – he was the young boy – can only foresee war between mutants and humans. Meanwhile, a teenager named Rogue (Anna Paquin) discovers that her touch is almost fatal to her boyfriend; upset and outcast, she escapes to Canada where she crosses the path of a bare-knuckle wrestler named ‘The Wolverine’ (Hugh Jackman) whose knuckles, when suitably roused, give way to foot-long blades of an indestructible metal called Adamantium. Wolverine reluctantly takes Rogue under his wing but when they are attacked by a beast named Sabretooth, it takes the intervention of Storm and Cyclops (Halle Berry and James Marsden) to rescue them and transport them back to the safety of Professor X’s school.
The story develops nicely, Magneto discovering a method of mutating humans – beginning with Senator Kelly, kidnapped by shape-shifting friend Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) – which he plans to put to use on world leaders convening at New York’s Ellis Island. This gives Singer scope for plenty of extravagant set-pieces, which he brings to the screen with effects of the highest quality. What also impresses is the way the script gradually unveils the characters, letting them display their skills before they are introduced formally, the background to the X-Men explained in a passage which Patrick Stewart reels off effectively, barely interrupting the flow of the action. Most impressive of all is the full life afforded to the characters, from Rogue’s perpetual alienation to the spiky rivalry that emerges between Wolverine and Cyclops over their feelings for Jean Grey. Wolverine, searching for answers as to why he is as he is, occupies the middle ground; he too has been the subject of cruelty, and whilst this has not led him on the destructive path to revenge, it makes him a wildcard in the otherwise clean-cut world of the X-Men. Needless to say, this renegade nature, together with the claws, regenerative powers and a smooth, macho wit, makes him incredibly cool.
The film pays most attention to Wolverine and his friendship with Rogue, who is revealed to be Magneto’s true target as he and his Brotherhood of Mutants put their plan into action. The plot showcases McKellen’s superb performance as the rotten but somehow still-charming Magneto, and also some more excellent CGI as Mystique transforms into a variety of people, but this does have the side-effect of sidelining some of the other characters. Storm in particular is shown to be pretty useless in a fight until suitably charged up, and when the climactic battle happens the X-Men are shown to be a poor super-hero outfit until Wolverine – okay, he gets a bit of help – saves the day. I’m also not a great fan of Ray Park’s Toad as a villain, but as he gets limited screen-time I can’t complain too much about him. Whilst I am complaining, I don’t quite understand what leads Rogue to seek out Wolverine in the first place (unless it’s a coincidence?); nonetheless, overall the film makes perfect sense in its own world and the acting all round is of such quality that minor annoyances can be forgiven.
Perhaps in a conscious effort to avoid the foolishness of the later pre-Nolan Batman movies, X-Men has few humorous moments; but this is in keeping with the serious tone of the film, placing the personal, philosophical battle between Charles and Eric in the context of a wider, social debate about acceptance or exclusion, and concluding that the enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your ally (I love the fact that the pair can be perfectly civil to each other, despite their different outlooks). For all its intelligence, though, this is Wolverine’s movie, his warmth, bravery and readiness to make sacrifices carrying the film. I think this was the right way to go, but fans of other X-Men may feel a little short-changed.