Eric D. Snider

X-Men

The slickly entertaining "X-Men" suffers only slightly from "Phantom Menace" syndrome: It's a pretty entertaining film on its own, but you can tell its sequel will be even better.

Faithfully, even lovingly, re-creating the comic book, director Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects") deftly gives us the origins of the X-Men while simultaneously presenting a current conflict -- as opposed to, say, "Superman," where the first third of the movie is spent setting up who he is, and THEN he gets to fight some bad guys.

"X-Men" begins with Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) telling us via narration that while human evolution normally takes thousands of years, every now and then, it jumps forward, resulting in what we call "mutants."

Mutants are really just highly evolved people and nothing to be afraid of, but the word "mutant" has some negative connotations. As a result, Sen. Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison) is introducing legislation that would require mutants to register themselves. His reasoning, which is very popular amongst voters, is that people should have a choice whether their children are taught by mutant schoolteachers (I think I was, actually). That, along with the counter-argument that when people identify themselves as mutants, they are often greeted with "fear, hostility and even violence," gives the film its thinly veiled parallels to current issues of homosexuality.

The mutants themselves have a few different reactions. The ones who live among us and keep quiet about it are, well, keeping quiet about it, silently hoping the legislation doesn't pass. Professor Xavier, who runs a private school for "gifted" (that is, mutant) youngsters, has a team of so-called X-Men who are good guys and want the legislation to be defeated through peaceful, legal means (though, as Prof. X reminds us, any army hoping to come invade his school is to be pitied, for those mutants' powers are mighty).

Then there's the renegade group of mutants led by Magneto (Ian McKellen). There's a huge summit of world leaders coming up, and Magneto plans to turn them all into mutants -- not a natural process, but one that will no doubt change their attitudes about mutants, since they will now be part of that group.

And so it falls upon the X-Men to stop Magneto and his crew, especially since Magneto's plan involves young Rogue (Anna Paquin), one of Prof. X's newest pupils, and her friend/protector, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman).

There is plenty of action as the two groups fight each other, and though their powers are occasionally ridiculous (the evil Toad, for example, is a man with all the power of, um, a toad), the film retains credibility admirably well, especially considering how cynical we tend to be about "super powers" these days.

Wolverine's "claws" (steel blades that pop out of his knuckles), Storm's (Halle Berry) weather-creating prowess, Cyclops's (James Marsden) laser-shooting eyes -- all are used to great tension-filled effect, making for an exciting film with marvelous character possibilities.

(The only major character misstep is with Cyclops and Wolverine's rivalry, which may well be part of the comic book mythology, but which here seems forced and obligatory.)

It ends rather anti-climactically, obviously setting itself up for a sequel. Some plot points and characters are brought up and not finished -- not sloppiness, for the script is pretty tight and well-executed, but simply preparation for the sequel, which is already a done deal, unless this one tanks.

Which it won't. This is a good old-fashioned superhero action movie, unabashedly about people with absurd powers, whom we take seriously just because ... well, because they're cool. Just like the movie.

Grade: B

Rated PG-13, a few scattered profanities, mostly bloodless fantasy/action violence

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