Sunday, October 16, 2011

X-Men (Marvel Entertainment/20th Century-Fox, 2000)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The night before last Charles and I watched the movie X-Men, the 2000 film directed by Bryan Singer from a script officially credited to David Hayter based on a story by Singer and Tom DeSanto, that launched the cycle based on the Marvel comic books whose most recent incarnation, X-Men: First Class (the title being a reference to the school for mutants set up by Professor Charles Xavier, the leader of the “good” mutants, played in First Class by James McAvoy and in the original film by Patrick Stewart), we had recently watched even though neither Charles nor I had ever read an X-Men comic nor watched any of the previous films. X-Men turned out to be a surprisingly good movie, even though it was a quite dark film (probably the darkest superhero movie ever made until Christopher Nolan got his hands on the Batman franchise) and hardly the sort of fun, action-filled romp I want and expect from a superhero film. It helps that the darkness is built into the material; when Stan Lee and John Kirby launched the comic in 1963 (I had thought it was later than that!), the civil rights movement was at its peak and the relationship between the mutant characters — some good, some evil — and the rest of humanity was clearly built as a metaphor for prejudice in general. As the characters and situations evolved over time — and as the Queer rights movement became a mass phenomenon after the Stonewall Inn riots in New York City in 1969 (commonly, but quite erroneously, hailed as the birthplace of Queer activism in the U.S.), the X-Men franchise started seeming more and more like a metaphor for the Queer struggle, as well as the Manicheanism of the Cold War and the idea that insidious enemies who could “pass” for the rest of us — Communists, Queers, “terrorists” — were infiltrating all the institutions of American (and human) society for their own sinister purposes and were just waiting for a signal to strike and take us over.

X-Men benefits from an excellent cast — Stewart as the head of the “good” mutants (whose school to train them and harness their powers for benign purposes couldn’t help but remind me of the special high schools being proposed, and in some cases actually run, as supposedly safe havens for Queer students who’d likely be bullied and driven to suicide, alcoholism, drug abuse or “survival sex” in regular schools); Ian McKellen as Magneto, head of the “bad” mutants (and casting an openly Gay actor in this role just heightens the mutants = Queers metaphor!); Hugh Jackman as Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine, the antisocial mutant who’s drawn as someone who could go in either moral direction and he (and we) just luck out that Xavier gets to him before Magneto does; Halle Berry as Storm, one of the good mutants; and Anna Paquin as Raven, a mutant whose touch is literally life-threatening (she’s depicted as an ordinary teenage girl — one premise of the story is that the mutants live their childhoods as normal human beings and the mutations only take hold during puberty, yet another parallel between mutants and Queers — who attempts to make out with her boyfriend, giving him shakes and facial contortions; she lets go of him but even so, he’s plunged into a coma that lasts for three weeks) and who is literally the balance of power in this story. X-Men also benefits from a far better constructed story than the norm for a superhero film — I had figured that my general field theory of cinema that the quality of a film is inversely proportional to its number of writers was holding true here, but a trivia item about the movie on mentioned that the material had in fact gone through far more scripters than the ones credited, including Michael Chabon, Ed Solomon, Christopher McQuarrie, Joss Whedon, James Schamus & John Logan.

Still, the film benefits from a well-constructed storyline that focuses on one intrigue: with the existence of the mutants provoking controversy, and a bill pending in the U.S. Congress sponsored by Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison) that would require mutants to register with the government (though this film was made in 1999 and released in 2000 — and the appearance of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in Professor Xavier’s high-tech model of New York City give it away as pre-9/11 — Kelly’s arguments for the bill have a strongly premonitory ring to them in the post-9/11 era of “special registration” requirements on legal immigrants from Muslim countries and the carefully cultivated fear, less from the government itself than from talk radio, the radical-Right churches and other propaganda centers, that Muslim = “terrorist”), Magneto, whose credo that mutants should seek justice and equal rights “by any means necessary” (a deliberate quote from the militant “Black Power” rhetoric of African-Americans in the late 1960’s), hatches a plot based on a process he thinks will be able to turn any normal human into a mutant. He kidnaps Senator Kelly and runs him through the process, and Kelly in his mutant form ends up in Xavier’s super-secret lab, where in the film’s most frightening scene (X-Men in general has enough scary moments it practically qualifies as a horror film as well as a comic-book adventure) the process goes wrong and he literally turns into water on Xavier’s examining table. It turns out that Magneto’s process doesn’t work because the human immune system cross-reacts with the mutant genes and the result is fatal, but Magneto, not knowing that, goes ahead with his plan to infect all the world’s leaders with mutant genes during a worldwide summit meeting on Ellis Island, and the “good” mutants have to figure out how to stop him.

X-Men does suffer from a common failing in the superhero genre — the villains tend to be more compelling than the heroes, and in this case the bad guys are the ones with the coolest powers: Magneto can bend anything made of metal into any shape he wants, Sabretooth (Tyler Mane) has an assortment of strengths, Mystique (Rebecca Romjin-Stamos) is a total shape-shifter, and the bad guys also have the coolest of all the mutants, Toad (Ray Park), whose prehensile tongue serves him much the way their tails serve monkeys or vines served Tarzan (the person, not the dog). Of the “good” mutants, only Wolverine, with his retractable metal claws (he confesses that it hurts him every time his claws come out, not at the ends of his fingers but from the spaces between the fingers on his hands), comes at all near Mystique or Toad on the coolness spectrum.

X-Men is a quite good movie in the superhero genre, and the metaphoric references to prejudice and “outsider” status give it depth and emotional weight even though the characterizations themselves aren’t especially multidimensional. (The irony of a Holocaust survivor like Magneto becoming a figure of evil really isn’t addressed either in this film or the most recent First Class, though the creators of this story deserve points for doing something so obviously politically incorrect!)