"X-Men's" path to the screen has been long, and not the least bit straight. The comic book debuted in September 1963, the product of Stan Lee's fertile imagination--Lee had recently changed the reigning aesthetic of comics with "Spider-Man." "X-Men" chugged along for 30 years (with one brief interruption), winning wide acclaim for its mature stories and gathering a fanatically loyal following.
Since the mid-1990s, when Marvel Comics got into the movie game, "X-Men" has been in development hell. Numerous scripts, some by talented writers such as Joss Whedon from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," were written and discarded. When Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects") agreed to direct, the movie seemed to swing into gear at last, and Singer set to work with a $100 million budget and a release target of December 2000. Then studio suits told the director they were slashing his budget to $70 million and his release date would be moved up to this summer.
The movie that resulted is largely a product of its budget cut. "X-Men's" visuals are little more than adequate. The effects aren't seamless, the CGI is obvious, and the sets are often claustrophobic and chintzy looking. The movie, which was supposed to run just over two hours, has been pared down to a brisk 100 minutes. But the budget cuts may have turned out to be a blessing in disguise, forcing Singer to concentrate on his material.
In the "X-Men" universe, humanity has begun to evolve from Homo sapiens to Homo superior--mutants. Fearful of this new minority, human beings view mutants with distrust, fear, and often outright hostility. The future of the new breed falls to two powerful mutants, Charles Xavier (played by the regal Patrick Stewart) and Erik Magnus Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen). Xavier, a telepath who can read and control minds, believes humans and mutants can co-exist peacefully. Lehnsherr, who becomes known as Magneto because of his ability to control magnetism, disagrees. Magneto puts together a band of mutants called the Brotherhood to make war on the human race. Xavier organizes the X-Men to protect mankind from Magneto.
This is mighty deep thinking for a comic book adaptation. Sometimes these projects rise to the level of good brain candy--see "Batman" or "Superman II"--but most of the time they are just plain silly, like "Spawn" or "Blade" or the rest of the Batman series. "X-Men" actually carries with it some built-in moral sophistication. Xavier and Magneto are two sides of the same coin: Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Where Xavier, the King figure, is resigned to the long, slow process of bringing the species together, militant Magneto believes human prejudice makes co-existence impossible.
The movie has Magneto blasting normal humans with radiation to turn them into mutants. His plan is to mutate a group of world leaders in the hopes that once they become mutants themselves, they will use their influence to end the anti-mutant bigotry. This is a long way from the motivations of most supervillains (revenge, money, and world domination: the Lex Luthor trio). The X-Men are even sympathetic toward their oppressors. Led by a Robert Mitchum-esque Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, they fight Magneto because his mutantizing radiation machine turns out have nasty side effects.
In its own small way, "X-Men" winds up being a better meditation on the morality of resistance to oppression than other recent pieces of Hollywood schlock, like "Jakob the Liar" or the barbaric and widely acclaimed "Life Is Beautiful," both of which dodged the question of evil by making heroes of those who denied reality. However improbable it may seem, Bryan Singer has made a reasonably thoughtful movie out of a comic book, a movie with more ethical questions than CGI spectacle. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, nothing concentrates the mind so wonderfully as a $30 million budget cut.