Let’s get right to the point. Extremely cool special effects? Check. Highly overqualified actors bringing Shakespearian line readings to comic book dialogue? Check. Highly attractive young stars bringing sensational bodies to skin-tight costumes? Check. Really fun action sequences, at least one involving a national landmark? Check. Just the right balance of irony, self-awareness, and oh, what the heck, check your brains at the door, grab some popcorn and let’s just go with it? Check. And did I mention the extremely cool special effects? Check!!
In other words, this is the summer movie for teenagers and anyone who’d like to pretend to be one, which is just what summer movies are all about.
At a time in the not too distant future, some humans are mutating. Around the onset of adolescence, they develop strange powers (and to-die-for cheekbones and abs). Politicians are in an uproar — should they be registered, like weapons? Or are attempts to track them down a new form of McCarthyism — or worse? The movie’s opening scene hints at worse when it shows us a boy whose powers are first revealed when he and his parents are taken to a concentration camp.
But the appeal here is not to the political, but the personal. X-Men comics have been popular for decades because, like many successful comic book stories, they key into the insecurities and sense of outsiderness of adolescence. They may be outcasts, but they have great powers that their friends and families could never dream of!
The mutants have two elder statesmen, old friends and adversaries. One, wheelchair-bound Professor Charles Francis Xavier (Patrick Stewart), has established a school for mutant teen-agers. He wants to cooperate with humans and teach the mutants to use their powers for good. The other, Magneto (Ian McKellen) is after our old friend, total world domination — “We’re the future, Charles, not them! They no longer matter.”
Two mutants, Logan, known as “Wolverine” (Hugh Jackman), and a teenager named Marie, known as “Rogue” (Anna Paquin) arrive at Professor Xavier’s school after a battle with one of Mageneto’s henchmen (a wookie-looking guy played by wrestler Tyler Mane). Wolverine’s mutant strength and healing powers have enabled him to be surgically altered so that long, sharp, metal blades can pop out of his knuckles, but he has no memory of how that happened. Rogue draws the life force and powers out of anyone who touches her skin. At the school, they meet Storm (Halle Berry), who can call on lightning; Cyclops (James Marsden), whose eyes shoot laser-like beams; and Jean (Famke Janssen), who does not have a cool mutant name but does have telekinesis and telepathy. And of course great cheekbones. There are a bunch of other characters who barely show up, and may be there just for fans of the comics and to lay a foundation for big things in the sequel. If it all seems a little bit like the Justice League of America crossed with the Backstreet Boys, well, the movie has enough of a sense of humor about itself to make it work as well as possible. As usual, the villains are more fun to watch than the good guys. Magneto’s chief sidekicks are Toad, played by Ray Park of “Phantom Menace” and the shape-changing Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), both absolutely terrific. We can only hope that Storm and Cyclops and some of the others will have more interesting things to do in the inevitable sequel.
Kids will get a big kick out of the movie, and parents may even be able to entice them to talk about some of the implications of the movie, the ends-justify-the-means approach of Magneto, the way that the humans and mutants fear each other, the issue of registration of a minority group, and the way that Logan begins to learn to trust for the first time. Parents should also make sure that kids know that the creator of the X-Men and many other comic book superheroes, Stan Lee, has a brief appearance as a hot dog vendor.
Parents should know that the movie’s rating comes from comic-book-style violence that will not be upsetting to most kids of middle-school age or older. There are a few naughty words.
Families who enjoy this movie might like to watch other comic book-inspired movies like “Superman” with Christopher Reeve and “Men in Black” with Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith.