Directed by Bryan Singer

Wolverine's origin story is never revealed; it's merely hinted at in vague flashback, in dream sequences far more disturbing than anything else the movie offers. It's suggested that he's the product of a hideous experiment, yet another allusion to Nazi atrocities, but such revelations never occur. Wolverine then becomes our cynical stand-in -- the nonbeliever trapped in Fantasyland. But the movie's alive only when Wolverine's on screen; it's built around him, and it crumbles without him to prop it up. He's the smartass and the badass, leery to the point of disdain. He mocks the wheelchair-bound Professor Xavier ("What do they call you -- Wheels?") and taunts Cyclops ("Keep your eye open") with gleeful derision. He is, in some ways, the most real of the mutants.

Cyclops is simply too much of a square to hold our interest; he is, as Wolverine rightly assesses, "a dick." Storm, with her blank eyes and banal power (she whips up wind and lightning), barely exists at all. And Jean Grey is too much of absolutely nothing -- though what is one to do with a superhero whose sole power is that she can move objects and read minds? It's telling that the film's best moment comes when the Toad leaps offscreen and crushes a man to death: The audible squish makes for a terrific punchline.

What's most frustrating is that the movie hints at a brewing war between humans and mutants but never follows through: Sen. Kelly's early rants (during a speech on the Senate floor, he holds up "a list of known mutants") are merely a taunt -- an excuse. The movie plods toward a mutant-on-mutant climax, which is so badly directed that you can barely tell who's fighting whom; with their generic black outfits (a poor stand-in for the comic's bright yellow-and-blue uniforms, which are made fun of late in the movie), the X-Men all look alike in the dark. So much for metaphor.

X-men is likely to disappoint fanboys and bore the uninitiated; it's pedantic at best and pedestrian at worst.
X-men is likely to disappoint fanboys and bore the uninitiated; it's pedantic at best and pedestrian at worst.

More maddeningly, the film feels as though it's missing huge chunks; it defies its own logic (especially any scene featuring Mystique). To rectify that, Marvel has released a series of comics that fill in the blanks, and, in doing so, has turned the comic-movie tie-in into the most cynical marketing ploy this side of the Pet Rock. To understand the movie -- the characters' pasts, their motivations, their relationships -- you have to buy the comics, which explain how Professor X and Magneto met, how Wolverine came by his indestructible skeleton, how Rogue was the target of government operatives. All that may sound like mundane fanboy garbage (and it is), but it's more like lazy storytelling. It's the ultimate give-up, an admission of guilt: The movie's plot is utter nonsense ... until you read these. Turns out the most powerful mutant of all is Greed.

Opens July 14.

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