I've always been a big Marvel fan and many a day of my youth was spent fantasising over the prospect of 'X-Men' and 'Iron Man' movies (twas an innocent youth!). Believe it or believe it not I actually had Patrick Stewart penned in as Xavier and Mel Gibson as Wolverine (which is about as close to Jackman as you can get!). 'X-Men' was finally released in 2000 and I was very excited at the prospect of seeing some of Marvel's finest in action on the big screen. The movie was directed by Brian Singer who also co-wrote the script. With the critical acclaim that Singer had previously received for 1995's 'The Usual Suspects', and the fact that he is an avid comic book fan, he seemed more than capable of stepping up to the plate. At the time that 'X1' was announced I was quietly hoping that this superhero movie might actually manage to emulate the excitement and the characterisation of the comics and graphic novels.
When the cast was announced it seemed like almost perfection. Patrick Stewart ('Star Trek: The Next Generation') is perfectly cast as Dr. Charles Xavier; Sir Ian McKellen ('Lord of the Rings triology') plays Eric Lensherr (“Magneto”); Hugh Jackman ('Australia') plays Logan (“Wolverine”); Halle Berry ('Monsters Ball') plays Ororo Munroe (“Strom”) and Rebecca Romijn plays Mystique. We've also got James Marsden as Scott Summers (“Cyclopse”), Bruce Davison as Senator Kelly and Famke Janssen (“Goldeneye”) as Dr. Jean Grey. This is a very strong cast and I suspect that Singer's previous work on 'Suspects' was a persuasive chip for many of these fine actors when approached. Anna Paquin ('The Piano') also joins the cast and turns out a strong performance as Maria D'Ancanto (“Rogue”).
The movie opens in Poland in 1944 during the Holocaust. We witness a young man and his family as they are separated and herded towards their Concentration Camp prisons. The young man attempts to resist the guards and inadvertently bends a large metal gate by merely reaching out towards it. This is the first time that we are introduced to Eric Lensherr, or Magneto as he is known to his mutant pals. We then flick to a modern day setting where humans who have developed mutant abilities are common place. Maria D'Ancanto, like young Eric, is also discovering that she is not like normal teenagers her age as she almost kills her boyfriend with her mutant powers. This is Rogue, incapable of human contact without draining the life force (and mutant abilities) of those she touches. Following this incident Rogue flees her home town to seek refuge elsewhere. In this world of the not too distant future any form of mutation is viewed with disgust and contempt, with many mutants forced to leave their homes and seek out a new existence which is often a lonely one. The scene is set early on in the movie with Singer drawing comparisons between the modern day plight of the mutants and the persecution of the Jews during the Holocaust. The outcast status that the mutants are labelled with is championed by the ever popular Senator Kelly. He argues with Dr. Jean Grey (a mutant with powerful telepathic abilities) at a conference in Washington that the powers which mutants possess could easily be turned against humans and so he wants every mutant, and their special abilities, formally registered with the state. Also in attendance at this conference are Dr. Charles Xavier (again an incredibly powerful mutant with psychic abilities) and Magneto now in his fifties, and in full control of his magnetic capabilities. Xavier and Magneto are old friends who are now on polar sides of a war which has been brewing for years. Magneto believes that mutants are not outcasts but merely humans who have taken the next step in evolution and therefore more advanced. With disdain for the human race and a vehement disgust at the proposed mutant registration act, he plans to wage a war on those who seek to enslave his kind. Xavier, although a mutant himself, believes that mutants and humans can live in harmony and disregards Magneto's concerns over another Holocaust scenario with mutants taking the place of the Jewish people. Xavier is in fact an educator and seeks to guide mutants on their path in life and also offers them refuge in his “School for Gifted Youngsters”, a sanctuary where young mutants can mature and develop their abilities in a safe environment. Some of the students, when their education is complete, seek out a normal existence among humans. Others remain in the school and continue Xavier's pioneering work but their real purpose is to continue the fight against mutants who have sided with Magneto. They are affectionately known as X-Men.
Meanwhile, in Northern Alberta, Canada young Rogue finds herself in a bar in an isolated “city” where a mutant named Wolverine is earning a living as a cage fighter. Wolverine is possibly one of the best known and exciting X-Men characters. Having lost his memory circa 1945 he has no idea what age he is (about one hundred or so) and has the power to instantly regenerate, making him almost indestructible and resistant to aging. Bone claws, which can be retracted at will from his fists, is his other mutant ability. He was the victim of mutant experimentation during the “Weapon X” programme where adamantium (a man made indestructible metal alloy) was fused to his entire skeleton, giving him new metal claws. Serum was also made from Wolverines blood to expand the lifespan of the other members of the “Weapon X” programme. Following this programme Wolverine's memory was erased and he became a nomad, completely self sufficient and sceptical of human/mutant contact. Although none of this back story is examined in any great detail Singer is obviously well aware of it and drops hints throughout the movie about Wolverines origins - it looks like the latest 'Wolverine' movie has been on the cards for quite a while!
We're quick to see Wolverine in action as he pounds a couple of competitors in the cage with some very satisfying metallic punches and head butts. Following a dispute with one of the fighters we get to see the famous claws come into play and I have to say that the special effects team really have done a superb job with these. Singer includes a slow motion close up of the claws tearing from the skin of Wolverine's fist and it looks flawless (see screenshots). Rogue and Wolverine, being kindred spirits (and as Wolverine sees some of himself in the young runaway), end up on the road together in Wolverine's modest camper van. But things are not as they seem in the secluded, snowy wilderness as Sabertooth, an enormous savage like mutant with incredible strength and agility, mounts an attack on Wolverine and his companion. He is thwarted however by the X-Men, namely Scott Summers (“Cyclopse”) and Ororo Munroe (“Storm”), who drive Sabertooth back to his master (Magneto), and retreat with Wolverine (unconscious from the ambush) and Rogue to the safety of Xavier's school.
When Wolverine comes to he meets (following some running around with his top off for the ladies) with Cylopse, Storm, Dr. Jean Grey and Xavier himself. Xavier explains that Sabertooth was working on behalf of Magneto to capture him. Following a brief synopsis of the history and purpose of his school and the X-Men, Xavier offers to help Wolverine find out “who he really is”. This investigation is put on hold with the arrival of Senator Kelly (who really is not feeling well!) and the disappearance of Rogue from the school. It transpires that Magneto has finally made his move and has developed a weapon that allows the accelerated mutation of normal humans. He plans to utilise this weapon at the World Summit on Ellis Island, where 200 world leaders will meet (the largest summit in history) to discuss the mutant registration act amongst other items, thus sparking the mutant rebellion. With mutants like the shape shifting Mystique (a practically naked Rebecca Romijn!) and the agile Toad at his side it's up to the X-Men and their latest feral member to mobilise and thwart Magneto's plans while the rest of the world remains oblivious to the secret war which is brewing before their unseeing eyes.
Throughout the movie there are some very nice stylistic touches (Magneto uses his powers to create a mid-air walkway for himself out of metal tiles) and faithful comic book references, such as a nod near the end of the movie to the X-Men's original comic book costumes (which are replaced in this movie with more realistic leather jumpsuits). Look closely during the tours of the school and you will see Iceman, Pryo, Jubilee, Colossus and a couple more familiar X-Men in their juvenille years. Singer also manages to keep the humour level high and uses Wolverine's sarcastic nature and dislike of Cyclopse to introduce most of the laughs - the scene where Wolverine retracts his outer two claws, leaving the center one extended in a gesture to Cyclopse is a prime example. There's also a pseudo love story for the romantics in the audience as Wolverine becomes enamoured with Jean, who happens to be Cyclopse's “girl”. This storyline develops as the trilogy progresses. X-Men is also a semi-intellectual movie with Xavier's voiceovers and the characters themselves providing explanation for most of the happenings in a scientific manner, which all seem fairly plausible and accurate. All of these interludes provide entertaining filler to the main plotline, which contains some cracking action sequences with some inventive application of the mutants' various powers. The standoff with Magneto controlling a platoon of police officer's weapons as Xavier uses his powers to command Sabertooth and Toad is cracking and very well thought out. The sequence in Grand Central Station is equally exciting with Magneto showing all the more junior X-Men who is boss as he literally rips a train apart and gives Wolverine a beating in the process (again with clever use of his magnetic abilities). The finale in the Statue of Liberty is an action packed climax with all the good/bad mutants showing off the majority of their abilities with the Mystique/Wolverine fight being the standout for me. The majority of the special effects do stand the test of time, with the CGI depicting Mystiques morphing still looking highly polished, although some do show their age at times (such as Kelly's globular effects).
On the whole Singer has done a fine job bringing the Marvel X-Men characters to life in a manner which is faithful to their comic book origins. Their personalities and abilities are spot on and they all look like they should which was a big plus for me. The acting, especially from Stewart, McKellwn and Jackman is impressive and they skilfully avoid any “ham” which lesser actors could have introduced. In fact the entire cast is impressive with Ray “Darth Maul” Park's depiction of Toad being the only character which seemed a little too “comic-booky” for my liking. In saying that, the rest of the acting on display more than makes up for this minor niggle. The main plotline wherein Magneto makes his first efforts towards starting a mutant uprising is both exciting and interesting with plenty of plot twists and action sequences to keep the audience occupied. My only major complaint is that there is not enough action in the movie. Singer spends a considerable amount of time on character development that could have been reduced somewhat to focus on the mutants' abilities. He tries to introduce the mutant future with a wide gamut of characters and focuses on giving the audience as much information as possible, sometimes at the expense of the action. I feel as though Singer should have jumped straight into the “Phoenix Saga” or else sought a plotline based on the later X-Men comics where the X-Men contingent is larger with characters like Iceman and Colossus fully fledged mature members of the team. This, I feel, would have allowed some of the more exciting evil mutants such as Omega Red, Apocalypse, Mr. Sinister and of course the Sentinels to enter the fray with resultant epic encounters (and much grander action set pieces). I suppose Singer was aiming this “beginnings” movie towards an audience with little knowledge of the comic books and thus devoted more screen time to explain their origins which could subsequently be built upon. While this was all going according to plan with the release of the second movie, when Singer left the X-Men project to work on the seemingly more elusive 'Superman Returns', his departure meant the resultant 'X3' finale was somewhat disjointed and disappointing. I suppose that I feel frustrated that Singer was not guided towards a bigger first and second movie by studio executives while he was still on board.
In saying that 'X-Men' is a very worthy first introduction into the world of the X-Men with plently of action and a fast paced plot to keep to audience enthralled. All the characters are well represented and well portrayed by the cast. There are also numerous sub-plots which hint at possible direction for the second movie with Wolverine's more interesting story becoming the focus later on in the presentation, blatently the obvious choice for the core of the sequel (and he really is the coolest character in this movie). Although the good guys ultimately win, the bad mutants' legacy is not completely quashed and we see Magneto et al. are poised to strike again and are more than capable of making a comeback. I think that Singer realised that the world of the X-Men was too vast to capture in one movie and so left a lot of loose ends and unanswered questions that he would address in the next X-Men outing. For a movie that was one of the first in the wave of Marvel adaptations that are currently making their way onto the big screen, and having to compete with the more popular 'Spiderman' franchise (first movie released in 2002), 'X-Men' does a fine job of holding its own with style and comes highly recommended.