The X-Men slay Batman

JOHN POWELL

, Last Updated: 3:45 PM ET

In 1981, I bought my first comic book. It was Uncanny X-Men #141 printed by the Marvel Comics Group. On the cover stood two figures lit by a searchlight in a dirty alleyway. The person in the foreground looked like a mean son of a gun. His face was set in a hateful grimace as he stood poised to attack with a set of razor-sharp, steel claws. Behind him cowered the brown-haired woman he was defending. On the wall behind them was a poster picturing mugshots of various super heroes. They were tagged "apprehended" or "slain". It was my introduction to Kitty Pryde and the awesome Wolverine.

The issue drawn by Canadian John Byrne and written by Byrne and writing partner Chris Claremont was called "Days Of Future Past", a pivotal storyline in X-Men lore. Its impact would be felt for years to come. The storyline gave the X-Men super hero team a peak into an unmerciful future that might or might not come to pass. Fearful of those with super powers, humans have brought about another holocaust turning New York City into an concentration camp guarded by killer Sentinel robots. There, mutants are registered and imprisoned. An avid reader at age 11, I was taken aback at the maturity of the story being told. This wasn't some kiddish Superman or Super Friends romp found on Saturday morning television. This was serious business. Racism, fascism, love, death and the strength of the human spirit, all in one 30 page book! What more could you ask for?

Once I had finished the last page, I opened the comic back up and read it again. I was hooked for life. And, I wasn't alone. Created in 1963, the X-Men have consistently stayed at the top of the comic book heap propelled by its soap opera-ish elements and insightful themes.

Wisely concentrating on the mega popular Wolverine, X-Men: The Movie, tracks how and why the Canadian super hero joined the team. In the distant future, there are children being born with a special gene (The X Factor) that becomes active in their adolescence giving them superhuman powers. Treated as outcasts by ignorant and frightened humans, mutants live in constant fear of racial bias and violence. Fanning the flames of anti-mutant hysteria is Untied States Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison). It is Kelly's belief that left unchecked, mutants could pose a serious threat to humanity as we know it. Kelly's response is to do as the Nazis did. Force all mutants to reveal themselves and register in a central data base so the government can "monitor" them.

Mutants see Kelly's proposal as the beginnings of another holocaust.

Reworking a storyline in the comics that had him playing a foster dad for short time, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and a troubled mutant girl, Rogue (Anna Paquin), cross paths in Alberta. The perfect killing machine, Wolverine, is a nomad participating in barbaric fight clubs to make money.

His advanced healing factor and skeleton coated with the strongest metal known to mankind gives him a secret advantage over the poor human saps he pummels. Recently discovering her mutant ability to absorb the memories and powers of others, Rogue has run away from home scared she could harm the ones she loves.

Attacked by Wolverine's arch-nemesis - the savage Sabretooth (wrestler Tyler Mane) - Wolverine and Rogue are rescued by the X-Men and transported to their base, a school for "gifted children" which also serves as a training facility and safe haven for persecuted mutants.

The school's run by Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), a mutant telepath whose life goal is to better human-mutant relations through peace and understanding. As Professor X, Xavier is also the leader and mentor of his X-Men, a team of specially trained mutants who ironically protect a world that despises them for who and what they are. The squad consists of the weather-controlling Storm (Halle Berry), the optic laser beam shooting Cyclops (James Marsden) and the telepath Jean Grey (Famke Janssen).

Xavier reveals to Wolverine that the ambush in Alberta was sanctioned by the megalomaniac baddie, Magneto (Ian McKellen), a mighty mutant who holds power over any iron or iron-based metal. Though they were friends in the past, Magneto and Xavier disagree on how to prevent the perceived mutant holocaust. A survivor of Hitler's concentration camps, Magneto views mutants as the superior race. According to him, mutants should take control of the Earth by force and put humans in their place once and for all. To counter Xavier, Magneto has put together his own team - The Brotherhood Of Evil Mutants - which includes the merciless assassin Sabretooth, the shape-shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) and agile Toad (Ray Park - Darth Maul in Star Wars - Episode One).

As a United Nations summit in New York draws near, Magneto puts his insidious plan into action. Professor Xavier convinces Wolverine to join the inexperienced X-Men as they try to uncover and put a stop to Magneto's scheme.

Die-hard fans may quibble with the liberties that have been taken with the X-Men mythology. Iceman is portrayed as a teenager when in reality he was a founding member of the team and is the same age as Cyclops and Jean Grey. The costumes resemble something from the Matrix rather than the X-Men books. Wolverine takes Mystique's place as Rogue's adoptive parent and Pyro never attended Xavier's school. These tweakings are made tolerable by the fact that director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) has done such a credible job of transferring the spirit of the comic book series to the big screen. The tone is what's most important and it is there in every moment and every character.

To make up for the changes, fans are fed a few novel twists. The love triangle between Cyclops, Jean Grey and Wolverine is explored. Plus, we learn how Rogue got that white streak in her hair and how Wolvie acquired his motorcycle. Pretty cool stuff that.

Singer has tapped into what has made the comics so popular for so long. It's the interaction and development of the personalities. Unlike the disastrous Batman Forever, Singer juggles his large cast with grace and ease. Everyone gets their moment in the sun and there's enough information conveyed that even non-X-fans can follow along easily. You don't have to be a fan of the comics to enjoy the film.

X-Men moves along at a rapid fire pace too in absolute defiance of the colossal cast of characters. In a refreshing change, it is not a flood of raucous, Bruckheimer-esque action scenes that spur things along, though there are many good ones. For once, it's the character development fueling the fire.

The X-Men is a triumph of casting. Everyone fits into their roles perfectly. Easily the best of the bunch is Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. He's so darn good, he's made the role his own and it's impossible to imagine anyone ever taking his place. Jackman's portrayal is so uncanny it's like Wolverine stepped right out of the latest comic that's on the stands and onto the screen. Wolverine is Jackman's breakthrough role and one could expect that because of his impending popularity there might be thought to a solo Wolverine movie in the future. He's certainly up to the task. Other standouts are Patrick Stewart, Anna Paquin and Ian McKellen who gives a much needed sophistication to Magneto, though his helmet and costume are a bit goofy looking.

Upon hearing that the X-Men were getting the big screen treatment, I was very apprehensive. As a film critic, I was painfully aware of the dismal track record held by comic book-based movies. Anyone remember The Punisher, Captain America or the later Batman and Superman flicks? You had to have plenty of wine on hand to swallow that twenty tons of cheese.

Though completely justified, my fears were for naught. Singer and a fistful of scripters (including Christopher McQuarrie, Buffy The Vampire Slayer's Joss Whedon and David Hayter) have done the comic series justice and its fans proud delivering a captivating tour de force that eclipses even the incomparable Tim Burton's pair of Batman movies as the best comic book adaptation ever made.

The Powell Factor

Jackman as Wolverine + Ian McKellen for saying: "We are the future, Charles. Not them." + two Wolverine, Sabretooth duels + the Metro Toronto Harbour Police + Jackman for saying to Stewart: "What do they call you? Wheels?" + Wolverine's flashbacks + Famke Janssen + a cool Magneto, Professor X showdown + Singer's witty response to the costume criticism + Union Station gets blown sky high + Jackman for saying: "What's a Magneto?" = An X-cellent flick.

(This film is rated PG)


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