Why is this smart, handsome mutant movie so good? Director Bryan Singer says it's because he took the superhero story seriously.

By Charles Taylor

Published December 20, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

Directed by Bryan Singer
Starring Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman, Anna Paquin, Famke Janssen, Bruce Davison, Halle Berry, Rebecca Romjin-Stamos
20th Century Fox; widescreen (2.35:1)
Extras: Deleted scenes (can be viewed separately or programmed into the movie, excerpts from "Charlie Rose" interview with Bryan Singer, gallery of production sketches, storyboards for two computer-animated scenes, Hugh Jackman screen test, theatrical trailer and TV spots

Bryan Singer's gorgeous version of the Marvel Comics saga of good mutants and bad mutants is, at center, about caring for people you love no matter what the cost. In one scene, good mutant Rogue (Anna Paquin) is trying to rouse Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) from a nightmare. Believing he's under attack, he awakens and stabs her. One of Rogue's characteristics is that she is so empathetic that contact with her skin can suck the life force out of others. One touch from her can kill a human or even a mutant. Wolverine, on the other hand, possesses the power of almost immediate healing. So Wolverine allows Rogue to touch him, thus healing her and nearly killing him. The scene divides you -- you don't want to see anything happen to either of these characters, and their special powers have been brought into conflict in the most basic way.

At its best, "X-Men" invests comic-book conceits with loony, operatic grandeur. Its central metaphor -- that mutants stand in for humans who feel like outsiders -- is a simple, ingenious idea. Like all adolescents, the outsiders here are torn between the desire for acceptance and the thirst for revenge.

How did Singer pull it off? In the excerpts from the "Charlie Rose" interview that's one of the DVD extras, Singer says he simply vowed to take the material seriously, not to camp it up or make fun of it. That's why the movie enfolds you in its superhero universe. "X-Men" comes pretty close to the way we transform comic books in our imagination -- from bare-bones stories spread across panels to something dark, handsome and huge. All members of the cast (even revered scenery chewers Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) do honor to their roles, treating them as characters and not freaks, some by the simplest means. With Rebecca Romjin-Stamos as the shape-changing Mystique, it's a matter of physical grace and malevolent, preternatural calm. (Her nudity is less eye-catching than the fishlike scales that taper over her blue skin.)

The handsomely packaged DVD -- a shiny silver gatefold sleeve slides out of the cover -- features a gallery of character and scene sketches and two computer-animated storyboards prepared for two of the film's more complex sequences. But the real goodies are the deleted scenes that can be viewed separately or programmed into the movie at the point they were originally intended to be seen. Some are dispensable, but the scene of Rogue's first day at Dr. Charles Xavier's "Mutant High" (a shorter version of which appears in the finished movie) makes you wish that you could see more of the kids showing off their various talents. The other plum is film of Jackman's screen test with Paquin -- in the scene where Wolverine first makes Rogue's acquaintance. Singer must have turned cartwheels when he saw it. Even here, working with each other for the first time, Jackman and Paquin demonstrate the connection that's the heart of the movie. For all the mutant powers on display in "X-Men," the screen test reminds you that two simpatico actors are still the rarest and most precious movie magic.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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