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Here at last, for your consideration, is a new summer-movie franchise. Like Batman, it's based on an extremely successful comic book. Like Batman, it's being kicked off by a reputable director (Bryan Singer), ready to dive into the mainstream. And, like Batman, there's plenty of potential for colourful characters, bad-ass baddies, screen-searing effects and, most importantly, sequels. But, you wonder, is X-Men more a slick, stylish Batman - - or a garish, nightmarish Batman & Robin?
Thankfully, it's no Batman & Robin. While it's certainly flawed, what we do not get is what so many feared: a big, stinkin', genetically-modified turkey. From the start, Singer (who also receives a story credit) claimed this was going to be a superhero movie with a difference. And an opening scene set in Nazi death camp Auschwitz really rams this point home; we're in a world of prejudice, terror and oppression, where our heroes are hated by the people they're trying to save, and who themselves must deal with their fear of those they protect.
X-Men also benefits from having some surprisingly strong characters. There's teen misfit Rogue (Anna Paquin), who best embodies the sense of dislocation we'd expect from mutants, as her ability to absorb people's consciousnesses and powers on touch means she's doomed to a life without skin-on-skin contact. Then there's chief baddie Magneto, played with relish by Brit stage stalwart Sir Ian McKellen, who plays up the evil overlord theatrics without turning on the ham.
Finally, there's the mutant you've all been waiting for, the X-Men's most popular character: Wolverine. It was a smart move placing the claw-popping, metal-skeletoned hard guy at the centre of the script, and Aussie unknown Hugh Jackman fits the part well - - even if he is a bit too tall and pretty. Fans will be glad to hear that everything's present and correct: the ridiculous sideburns, the fat cigars, the psychotic tendencies and the mysterious background, which even spawns a subplot, although it's one that remains unresolved at the movie's end.
And this is X-Men's main problem: it's so keen to be a franchise, it's forgotten to be a proper, self-contained movie. As a result, we're left with gaping plot holes (an illicit romance between Jean Grey and Wolverine is mentioned, yet not shown) and several grossly under-developed characters; Cyclops, Storm and all the evil henchmen are little more than bit-parts and cameos, while Patrick Stewart's Xavier is less Professor X, more Professor Xposition, mostly serving as an onscreen narrator.
Most unforgivable, however, is the sense that we're missing a few set-pieces. The couple we do get are well-executed, and the superpower clashes make for great spectacle (thunder! lightning! 12-foot-long tongues!). But even the climactic battle, which takes place on the head of the Statue Of Liberty, lacks impact, feeling more like a penultimate confrontation than a jaw-dropping finale. So, rather than giving us the lean, mean and intelligently scripted super-flick we'd expect from the first 40 minutes, Singer simply deals us what feels like part one in an ongoing serial. In so doing, he makes us just that little bit less excited about the next instalment.
At the start, you'll feel like this is something special: a blockbuster with a brain. But X-Men gradually loses focus until all that's left are the fun set-pieces, a patchy plot and the promise of a sequel you'll only want to tie up all the unanswered questions.
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