X-men is the most recent piece of evidence that summer movies are increasingly self-important. It's not enough to be a $100-million live-action cartoon. You've got to make a statement.
When this works, we get something like The Matrix. When it doesn't, we get The Patriot.
Bryan Singer's long-awaited adaptation of Marvel's X-Men comics has a top-heavy cast that features classy English actors (Patrick Stewart, Sir Ian McKellen), stunningly beautiful young actors (Halle Berry, Hugh Jackman and supermodel Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, a goddess even when painted blue and morphing) and even an Oscar-winner in Anna Paquin. It also has more special effects than you can shake a digital stick at.
It's pretty much a humour-free zone. Singer, the director of The Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil, isn't exactly a barrel of laughs to begin with, and while it's nice to see a young director who doesn't have the irony gene, X-men could use a bit of the dark comedy that Tim Burton brought to the first two Batman films.
Humourless teens Given the status of the X-Men as the ultimate alienated teens, though, Singer may simply be playing to his natural audience, for there is almost nothing as humourless as an alienated teen.
Very quickly, for those unfamiliar with the X-Men comics, the X-Men are sort of a cosmic science project, human mutations into the next stage of whatever, who inspire fear among the normals because of their strange powers: telepathy, telekinesis, uncanny recuperative powers, the ability to control weather.
The good mutants are clustered around Professor Xavier (Stewart), the bad mutants around Magneto (McKellen). The good mutants have Halle Berry's Storm, who can control the weather. The bad mutants have Rebecca Romijn-Stamos's Mystique, who keeps morphing into other people.
The good mutants live in a classy school in suburban New York. The bad mutants live in an island fortress. (One half-expects Magneto to inform us, a la Dr. Evil, that they're surrounded by liquid-hot magma.) A war is brewing between the two groups as the American Congress threatens to pass a mutant registration law in which Magneto sees echoes of the Holocaust he survived as a young man.
In its favour, X-Men is admirably compact amidst a summer of bloated running times, and when the effects work, they are jaw-dropping -- Magneto walking across a bridge that he constructs as he crosses it, for example, or Storm walking through and destroying a room with self-induced bad weather.
No condescension When they don't quite work -- I don't think they ever got the stuff with the villainous Toad to work satisfactorily -- they're OK. One never gets the feeling that Singer for a second condescends to the material the way, say, Joel Schumacher did to the last Batman film.
Aside from humour, the other thing the film lacks is sex. The only whiff of romance is between Hugh Jackman's Wolverine and Anna Paquin's Rogue, but it's rendered moot by her inability to touch anyone without half-killing them.
X-MEN, directed by Bryan Singer, written by David Hayter, Christopher McQuarrie and Joss Whedon from the Marvel Comics, produced by Lauren Shuler Donner and Ralph Winter, with Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos. 102 minutes. A Twentieth Century-Fox release. Opens Friday (July 14). For venues and times, see First Run Films, page 66. Rating: NNN