I've been listening to people talk about The X-Men my entire life. My husband, who collects comic books, liked the mutants struggling to use their powers for good in the world that doesn't want them, while my best friend in grad school liked the convoluted love story in which (if I have this straight) Scott/Cyclops met and married Jean Grey's double after Jean died, but then the real Jean came back in an alternate timeline, and both their kids traveled through time so that they could attend their parents' wedding. I must admit I've always been curious, but before this summer, I'd never looked at a single X-Men comic book.
When they started work on The X-Men movie, I knew I wanted to see it as soon as Patrick Stewart was cast. But I was somewhat intimidated, not having all the years of knowledge that most of my friends brought to the film. Would it make sense to a neophyte like me, or was I destined to be one of those people who just didn't get it, like some of the people I know who saw The X-Files movie without ever having seen an episode of the TV show?
I was also given warning signs that the movie was going to suck. First Joss Whedon, champion of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, slammed the final version of the script, which he said did not fix any of the errors he'd addressed while working on it. Then long-time fans informed me that Famke Janssen was all-wrong for Jean Grey, that they should have waited for Dougray Scott rather than recasting an unknown in his part, that Magneto was either an anti-Semitic stereotype of a bad Jew or a symbol of how no one takes the effects of the holocaust seriously...all topics about which I could have no opinion, having no background with the comic.
Well, I saw the movie. And guess what? I loved it. Perhaps I am shallow in that my three favorite things about the film were Wolverine, Logan, and Hugh Jackman, but it wasn't just the unknown actor's electric energy and sexy chemistry with both Anna Paquin's Rogue and Janssen's Jean that grabbed me. I love the idea of a mutant, feared for his inborn characteristics, whose greatest threat and greatest burden nevertheless arise from something done to him by his fellow humans.
I gather that we're supposed to identify with the mutants, which are ostracized for their unusual qualities the way people have been ostracized for race, gender, religion, sexual preference, or anything else that can be demonized and subversive. Despite the horrors of their childhoods, which we're shown only in bits and pieces, Professor X's mutants seem well-organized and largely well-cared for. Has education for the rest of the children in the world improved as markedly, have kids stopped ostracizing one another over any little difference? Logan's plight grabbed me more than any of the other mutants -- even more than Magneto's, since the greatest tragedy of his life apparently stemmed from his ethnic origin rather than his ability to warp magnetism.
The film opens with Nazis herding Jews to concentration camps, separating a boy from his parents. The Nazis don't understand the child's power to bend metal gates by the force of his will, nor does it make an impact on their behavior towards him or his family -- the parents die, Magneto lives -- apparently no one catches on to his unique power or tries to harness it. The theme of human intolerance is manifest, and we understand the villain's motivation in a visceral way, but it's not his status as a mutant that has caused his suffering. It's a more fundamental attribute of people's inhumanity to one another.
The next mutant we meet is also a child, Rogue, whose first kiss ends with her boyfriend passing out as she inadvertently drains the life force from him. Fleeing her home town she meets up with Wolverine, who looks like an adult but is missing the memories of several years of his life. He looks wolfish, both because of his unshaven appearance and because of his hungry eyes, but we get indications right away that Logan has a heart under all the metal that has been fused to his skeleton by some unknown autocrat. Jackman has to be convincingly strong, bitter, violent, yet sympathetic. Somehow he is, perhaps because we've been reminded in the opening that the ability to shoot knives from one's fingers is by no means the worst of human attributes.
Despite its PG-13 rating and the overall absence of sex and gore, The X-Men is an adult-oriented film. There's unusual, uneasy sexual tension between Wolverine and Rogue, fed by the fact that she looks so much younger and more innocent than he does, but she's probably more dangerous to him than he is to her. They both take inordinate risks for one another, bound together as outsiders even among Professor X's mutant colleagues. The overt love triangle pits Logan against Scott for Jean's affections, but his flirting with Jean seems more a matter of pride than love; even though she lives with Scott, her attraction seems deeper than Logan's, whereas he seems mostly to be looking for assurance that even this beautiful mutant could find him desirable.
The physical struggle between Professor X's followers and Magneto's team looks fine on film, but makes little emotional impact and isn't even very exciting to watch. People get beaten, smashed into walls, trapped under machinery, and walk away without a scratch, which seems unreasonable even for mutants with superior strength. Bad girl Mystique steals the latter half of the film, in part because she looks so spectacular in her own form, but mostly because we're never sure anyone is who he or she seems with the shapeshifter around. (That aspect reminded me of several Star Trek episodes involving shape-shifters, though I'm sure Trek borrowed from X-Men more than the other way around).
The central dilemma of whether mutants can live and work productively with non-mutants or whether they will always need to fear them remains, and will probably never be solved satisfactorily because the real issue isn't the mutants per se. It's whether old-fashioned humans will ever get past the timeless tendency to hate, fear, and oppress anything perceived as different by a majority. Is Wolverine a victim of such mentality, or a symptom of it? It may take several more X-Men movies to find out, which is just fine with me.
I, too, would like to see several more X-Men movies ... sort of. Like Michelle, I enjoyed the X-Men movie, not least because, unlike her, I had expectations, and they weren't good. Marvel's proven to have a remarkable tin ear when it comes to translating its characters into visual media, both live-action and cartoon. The Fox X-Men cartoon series was a happy exception, as was the old Spider-Man series before it, so there were grounds for hope, but nothing more than that. It was nice to see them get it right ... sort of.
At least they aimed the film at teenagers and adults who care a little about serious issues like racism and the plight of the minority in a democracy, from the Holocaust through the present. Although some Marvel execs tried to make X-Men be a series about a school for superheroes, its best comic-book stories were about the Outsider confronting the Tribe who fears him because he is different, one of humanity's oldest literary themes. And the movie succeeds best when it takes that suspicious alienation as its text.
I agree that Wolverine is the unrivalled star of the movie, and not because of plot necessity, either; if Rogue had found Xavier on her own, the plot would have played out exactly the same. But Wolverine, more than most, is the living exemplar of alienation: he's a mutant who's been mutilated by the human establishment for their own purposes, has chosen to live outside organized society, and is suspicious, violently so, of anyone who approaches him -- until one of them turns out to be a fellow mutant, with a version of the same sad story. And against them, be they Rogue or the X-Men, he has no defense, because at bottom, he doesn't want to.
That's a pretty deep emotional subtext for a comic book, and unheard of for a comic book movie. It could have been handled as poorly as Batman's childhood trauma was in the Batman movies (occasionally mawkish, usually unmentioned, but never really compelling -- I think Batman works best when he's driven by demons, and none of the screen Batmans have been) or just ignored altogether, as in the Fox cartoon, where Wolverine's a superhero first and a mutant several steps thereafter. Out-groups, be they mutants, telepaths as in Babylon 5, Jews in the Third Reich or the modern Middle East, blacks in America, or any despised minority anywhere, have the same set of basic choices: try to assimilate into the Man's system, try to live within the larger society without being a part of it, or fight. Or in other words, their choices are Charles Xavier's, Wolverine's, or Magneto's.
Because everyone has been in an out-group (teenagers) at one time in their lives, everyone can identify to some extent with the X-Men. It's no accident that teenagers prefer the X-Men to all the adult superheroes out there, even when the X-Men themselves are clearly no longer teenagers -- how old is Wolverine, anyway? And on that level, the important level of viewer identification and sympathy with outcasts against a world that seems to offer insurmountable odds, the movie did a surprisingly, commendably good job.
But the fights sucked. Every time someone went flying, they were way too slow and way too obviously hanging on wires. Cyclops' eye beams never seemed to actually have any weight behind them -- they were more like a projected grenade, in that when he blasted Sabretooth and later Magneto, they didn't seem to be being hit with a massive impact that would knock them down, but just an annoying, painful imposition. The Wolverine/Mystique fight was the exception, fast, hard and inventive, as was the entire 'is that really (fill in the blank) or Mystique?' sequence, which used her powers to good effect.
None of which is the writers' or actors' fault. No, this rests on the director, Bryan Singer, who in many ways was up to the job but didn't deliver convincing superhero fight scenes. Which isn't just his fault -- neither the Batman nor Superman movies did, either. But the fact that he succeeded with the Wolverine-Mystique fight shows he can do it -- now next time, let's just do all the fights that well, and all will be well.
This column was originally written for AnotherUniverse.com.