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Zzzzz-Men

Marvel's mutants are a modest squad of dullards in this frustrating adaptation.

In Bryan Singer's last movie, 1998's Apt Pupil, Ian McKellen portrayed a Nazi war criminal hiding out in the suburbs, passing himself off as an ordinary old man crouching behind drawn blinds. In Singer's new movie, X-Men, McKellen plays Erik Magnus Lehnsherr, the son of Jews who were murdered in Auschwitz. In the film's first scene, a young Eric (Brett Morris) watches as his parents are led to the ovens, and his mutant powers are revealed: With a handful of Nazi guards in tow, the boy bends the gates of the concentration camp, but his anguish can't free the doomed. He can only watch helplessly; his powers are useless. Lehnsherr grows up to become Magneto, a mutant who can control metal and create magnetic fields, and he devotes his life to destroying those who would eradicate mutants simply because they were, as he explains, "born different from those in power."

That Singer, working with a script by first-timer David Hayter and a number of uncredited writers (including The Usual Suspects' Chris McQuarrie and Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon), sets up his bad guy as a sympathetic character is X-Men's most novel conceit. In the comics, Magneto is a costume-clad baddie, obscured by helmet and cape; he's evil in hot-pink tights, archenemy to the mind-reading Professor Charles Xavier (played in the film by Patrick Stewart) and his band of mutant Boy Scouts, the X-Men. Here, McKellen plays him as a misguided victim obsessed with turning the world's leaders into mutants in order to call off Washington's witch-hunt, led by Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison, playing a modern-day Joe McCarthy). By turning Them into Us, the mutants will no longer be pursued by government officials seeking to pass the Mutant Registration Act. The "different" will become the norm, safe from persecution.

But making a movie out of a discrimination metaphor is tricky business, especially when it comes bearing nearly four decades of comic-book baggage, and Singer comes up short. He has always insisted he wasn't out to make a men-in-tights action adventure, but a character-driven drama, and the fact that he fails on both counts makes X-Men an ambitious, frustrating drag. In trying to Say Something, Singer offers barely a whisper of a film that's likely to disappoint fanboys and bore the uninitiated; it's pedantic at best and pedestrian at worst. By the time X-Men crawls to its anti-climactic finale atop the Statue of Liberty (Singer's dreary homage to Alfred Hitchcock's 1942 Saboteur), it feels disinterested and disconnected. X-Men is, in the end, nothing but an over-long setup to a sequel, raising more questions than it has smarts or guts enough to answer.

It's clobberin' time...no, wait...wrong comic book: X-Man Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) sticks it to Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos).
It's clobberin' time...no, wait...wrong comic book: X-Man Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) sticks it to Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos).

An early, abbreviated version of the script, which has floated around the Internet, hints at what the final film misses: the wonder and danger found in former X-Men writer Chris Claremont's hit comic books. The "scriptment" opens with short snippets of origin stories: Magneto at the gates of Hitler's hell; a young Ororo Munro unleashing her meteorological fury in 1978 Africa, before she grows up to become Storm (Halle Berry); and a young Scott Summers (later to become Cyclops, played by James Marsden) destroying his high-school gymnasium with eyes that "glow like embers." These short scenes, not found in the film, give us people to care for; we know their anguish as they wrestle with their powers. But by the time we're introduced to these characters in the film's hallowed hallways of Professor Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, they're just superheroes -- two-dimensional, made of ink and paper.

The only character given any background is Rogue (Anna Paquin), whose touch is lethal: She absorbs energy from those with whom she has contact, until she literally drains the life out of them. Rogue becomes the film's centerpiece -- Magneto needs her to power his mutant machine -- but Paquin's not up to the task. Her most deadly power is her ability to mope; she could whine you to death. But even the most significant hero in the film is a nonentity: Singer can't be bothered with characterization, despite his grand aspirations to make a comic-book movie without the pulp. As a result, the movie becomes one long, mundane special-effects sequence; the actors, hiding behind visors and beneath wigs, are moot -- especially Famke Janssen as Jean Grey, a telepath with absolutely nothing to do. (Magneto's Brotherhood of Mutants, including Ray Park as the tongue-lashing Toad and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos as the shape-shifting Mystique, are more intriguing; the bad guys usually are.) No wonder only the rookie Hayter is credited with the script; likely, no one else wanted the blame.

There's a reason Wolverine, who possesses a skeleton partly made of indestructible metal, was the only well-known X-Man to be given his own spin-off comic: He's the only member of the team with any charisma. Hugh Jackman -- whose face is partially obscured by sideburns and stubble, sure to please the fact-checking fetishits -- wants nothing to do with this band of mutants. At the film's onset, he's the surly loner, content to make a few bucks dueling it out with Canadian truckers in caged bare-knuckle brawls. No only is his skeleton made of steel, but his wounds heal in seconds as well. He's as close to invincibility as any of the X-Men.

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