Mutant marvels

Fashion statements aside, X-Men true to form

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There's really no reason that so many films based on comic books should basically bite. Superficially, no two 20th-century artforms have so much in common. Comics tell a story in a series of words and images; films tell a story in a series of words and images. Comics generally depict bizarre and colorful characters in utterly unbelievable situations; movies, ditto. And if that were not enough, the principle fan base for comic books — middle-class males between the ages of 12 and 24 — is precisely the demographic that has been minting box office gold since Star Wars. And yet, ever since the comics renaissance of the 1980s bred Batman, comic book films have been way more miss than hit. No wonder comic book fans have been watching the approach of the big-screen adaptation of X-Men with as much anxiety as anticipation. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, two of the Grand Old Men of the industry, in 1963, Marvel Comic's ongoing saga of a team of mutants fighting intolerance and evil is one of the most successful franchises in comics history, spawning numerous spin-offs and an animated cartoon thanks to the legions of insatiably ardent fans the book attracted in the '70s and '80s.

Ironically, those guys (OK, fine, us guys) are part of why so few superhero movies make it. Simply put, they just know too much. Like soap opera addicts, comics fans often follow a funnybook for years. As writers, artists and plotlines come and go, they enter into a complex and sometimes co-dependent relationship with characters in a constant state of flux, frequently waxing passionately nostalgic for some specific incarnation. And take it from me, if an aficionado is invested in, say, Daredevil a la Miller, no other flavor will do. Many comic book films fumble trying to keep these True Believers happy, while still making a motion picture that will satisfy someone who wouldn't know Modok from Mephisto if they were sharing a studio in the Negative Zone.

Amazingly enough, X-Men manages to walk the wire all the way across, in part by paying more attention to thematic foundations of the franchise than to the details of any one phase in the comic's 37-year evolution.

Boiled down to the basics, X-Men is sort of an allegory on acceptance and racism. Hated and feared by normal humans, two powerful mutants — Wolverine, an ass-kicking loner with unbreakable, razor-sharp claws and a mysterious past (Hugh Jackman, a pleasant surprise from Down Under) and Rogue, a teenager who sucks the life and power out of anyone she touches (fellow Aussie and former child-star Anna Paquin) — take refuge with Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), a wheelchair-bound mind-reader intent on saving mutants from mankind and vice versa. Using an upstate school for "Gifted Youngsters" as a front, Xavier has assembled a team of mutants to fight this good fight, including a fetching, telekinetic (Famke Janssen), a type-A tyro whose eyes shoot blasts of energy (James Marsden) and a white-haired African-American woman who can control the weather (Halle Berry, alas, more or less totally wasted).

Remembering its roots, when it's not indulging in its chrome-plated production design or pontificating on the importance of diversity and tolerance, X-Men keeps these crusaders busy foiling the machinations of a cartel of evil mutants bent on dominating humanity. The effects are generally pretty convincing (more convincing anyway than Berry's albino wig), the cutting assured and the combat choreography highly competent (one particularly laudable encounter pits Wolverine and a shape-changing villainess played by covergirl Rebecca Romijn-Stamos — here prickly, purple and prone to violence). Even so, it would be hard to take any of it seriously, were it not for the fact that director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) steers well away from the self-deprecating camp sensibility that has sunk so many other superhero films.

The canny casting helps as well. Stewart's understated Professor lends certain profundity to the proceedings, and Brit thespian Ian McKellen plays the hero's arch-foe Magneto, a Holocaust survivor with the ability to generate and control powerful magnetic fields (which proves awkward for surly badass Wolverine, who comes fully equipped with an alloy-laminated skeleton), with such grace and conviction that even the story's more ludicrous turns gain a certain legitimacy by osmosis.

OK. So professional nit-pickers from the far side of fandom are gonna grouse about the line-up, the hairstyles and the fact that they dressed the characters in shiny black vinyl instead of multi-colored spandex (thank God!). And no doubt the more literally minded members of the mainstream might be loath to buy a guy with a 15-foot prehensile tongue or noms-de-guerre like "Cyclops," "Storm" and "Sabretooth"; which is, ultimately, not so much further afield than an anthropologist named "Indiana" or a kid who sees dead people. But, origins aside, most of us fall somewhere between those poles, and for us, X-Men, well-played, well-made and quickly over (it's only 90 minutes or so long), has all the makings for a highly satisfactory summer cinematic quick fix.

And guys, before you pass judgment, remember: Anything's better than Batman & Robin.