x-menIn the year 2000, Marvel Comics in association with 20th Century Fox officially ushered in the current age of superhero movies with the successful box office smash “X-Men”. Truthfully, out of all of their vast properties to adapt for the silver screen, the X-Men seemed in my estimation to be one of the riskiest endeavors for Marvel in terms of being a hit. I felt it was a risky choice if for no other reason than the fact that the X-Men universe is so rich and diverse that it would seem almost impossible to winnow it down to a manageable level that could easily fit into a 90 minute or two hour running time. Yet, despite a few minor flaws in the story and/or some tweaks to some characters, the difficult task was accomplished in an extremely impressive fashion under the watchful eye of talented director Bryan Singer (“The Usual Suspects”).

“X-Men” is the story of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), a mutant who has the unique ability to heal from any wound along with unsheathing razor-sharp adamantium (an unbreakable metal) claws from his hands, as he struggles to find the truth about himself, while helping a young mutant named Rogue (Anna Paquin). During their journey the two encounter a team of mutants led by the enigmatic Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who believes that somehow both humans and mutants can find a way to peacefully co-exist with one another. However, for every school of thought there is an equally strong opposing viewpoint, and this one is led by a powerful and extremely angry mutant named Magneto (Ian McKellan). As battle lines are being drawn, Wolverine and Rogue find themselves stuck in the middle of a war they never knew existed, and are forced to choose a side to stand with before time runs out.

The story for “X-Men” as written by David Hayter (“Watchmen”) provided a very nice and neat introduction into the expansive universe that these iconic characters inhabit. While this initial film featured a relatively focused story that revolved around the two pivotal roles of Wolverine and Rogue and their quest for answers and acceptance, it hinted at the potential for a much bigger story to follow on a much grander scale. For most franchises to succeed, especially those that could be deemed risky, you need the initial story to be a little smaller in scope in order to draw your audience in and establish the groundwork of relationships with which further sequels can build upon. Writer David Hayter understood this and crafted a very tight and concise script that moved along at an almost relentless pace, yet without really skimping on too many of the details. For comic book fans there were numerous nods or references to either events or characters from the comics, but this movie wasn’t just for the fanboys. The wisest decision that 20th Century Fox and Marvel made was to make these characters as accessible to those outside of the world of comics as possible, but at the same time not making such drastic changes so as to alienate your core fan base. All of this was achieved with the story for “X-Men” and as I said a moment ago, it served as the perfect jumping point for this series to expand from.

Bringing the film to life was director Bryan Singer, who with this movie brought to comic book films something that had been noticeably absent for many years…a semi-grounded sense of reality not too dissimilar from our own (apart from the whole super-powered thing mind you). Previous to this film (and for that matter the first “Blade” film), the only truly successful comic book movies were those in the initial Batman franchise, and in each of those movies we found a very eccentric, gothic-inspired reality that was more outlandish and showy. For me I appreciated the fact that Bryan chose to steep these films in a reality that was much more recognizable to our own rather than one much more fantastic. By doing this we are able to better relate to the characters, and therefore become immersed in the story, allowing for a much easier suspension of our disbelief (which every fantasy and/or sci-fi film relies upon).

Besides the look and feel of the film, Bryan also excelled in creating some really fun, entertaining action sequences that at times felt like they were the very panels of a comic book coming to life. As a fan of comic books and some of the comic book films that had come prior to this film’s release, I was pleased to watch an adaptation that knew how to blend the action elements together with intriguing character development. Generally these types of films had been written off as no more than summer fluff at the box office, and nine times out of ten this had been proven true. Not since 1989’s “Batman” (to my recollection) had a comic book movie effectively blended those two all-important elements together to such a great degree of success. So, for this adaptation to buck the established order of things (so to speak), and actually include a coherent story rife with interesting characters along with the obvious entertainment factor inherent in most visual effects movies was a bit unheard of. Thankfully, Bryan Singer and his writer David Hayter, along with everyone else involved in the decision making behind the scenes of “X-Men” were smart enough to create a film that stayed somewhat true to the notion that this was a summer blockbuster, but also a movie that contained some great drama and could please audiences for years to come beyond its stay at the box office.

Starring in this film is quite the varied group of talented actors and actresses ranging from veterans of both stage and screen, such as Sir Ian McKellan (“Apt Pupil”) and Patrick Stewart (“Star Trek: Nemesis”), to some of Hollywood’s great beauties like Famke Janssen (“Taken”) and Halle Berry (“Swordfish”) to relative new faces like Anna Paquin (“Fly Away Home”) and Hugh Jackman (“Someone Like You”). What was great about this cast is that each member brought a seriousness to the role and portrayed these comic book characters as if they were any other dramatic role, opting not to play up the camp factor that would have been the order of the day in previous years past (for example the much maligned “Batman & Robin”). For a majority of the actors and actresses chosen for the various mutants, and humans for that matter, the casting appeared to be strokes of genius and good fortune combined, as each one looked as if they had manifested directly from the comic book page.

Perhaps the biggest surprise casting choice, for me at least, would be a then unknown Hugh Jackman as the fan favorite Wolverine. Having not seen Jackman in anything prior to this film I wasn’t sure if he could do justice to the clawed hero; however, I was completely blown away by the intensity and ferocity that Jackman brought to the role. His portrayal is so spot-on that it reached the point that his interpretation became almost universally accepted by the comic book fan community as being the one true Wolverine. A move that is surprising given that this community is generally extremely finicky about sticking to the details of their beloved heroes, not to mention the fact that Jackman is over 6’ tall, lean, yet still muscular rather than being a short, and semi-stocky, but extremely muscular guy that would more closely resemble his comic book counterpart. With that knowledge one could see how surprising it is that his portrayal was so easily accepted, but I guess when it’s clear that he’s the ideal person for the role, some details can be overlooked for the greater good of the franchise.

“X-Men” was a very well written, directed, and acted movie that gave comic book fans and audiences in general something that everyone could enjoy. For comic book fans there were some minor gripes about changes made to some of the characters origins, but nothing significant enough to take away from how great this movie was, or what it would mean for other comic book characters being brought to life on the big screen. Even after all the comic book movies that have bowed since this film’s opening, “X-Men” still remains one of my all-time favorites of the genre, a fact that I don’t see changing anytime in the near future.

“X-Men” is rated PG-13 for violence and language.