Hollywood has a love-hate relationship with comic books -love when a movie based on a comic book soars like the original "Superman" and "Batman," but hate when one flops, as the makers of "Judge Dredd" and "The Phantom" must ruefully remember.
The bright side of such productions is that they have built-in name recognition among viewers.
The downside is that they're expensive to make, since fans expect pricey techno-effects to explode from the screen. All of which means Hollywood will be watching the box-office results of "X-Men" with the strongest X-ray spectacles it can find, pondering not only the picture's own profitability but also its predictive power for upcoming movies like "Spider-Man" and the fifth "Superman" installment.
While it's too early to forecast figures, my guess is that "X-Men" will fail to show superhero strength at the ticket window. It has lots of action, some solid performances, and a few real issues on its mind. But it's awfully dark in mood and appearance - not an ideal approach to warm-weather escapism - and its story is a little too jumpy to build the emotional momentum that might have made this a breakthrough hit.
The premise behind "X-Men" exemplifies the "mature" storytelling that Marvel Comics pioneered a few decades ago. In traditional comics, people with exotic powers automatically become superheroes in the Superman or Batman mode. But what if society regarded these gifted folks with fear and loathing,
finding them too "weird" and "different" to be tolerated?
That's the starting point for the "X-Men" movie, which focuses on a struggle between two groups of mutants with special abilities - one that wants to raise the rest of humanity to its own high level, and another that wants to punish humanity by giving it a dose of its own violence.
The constructive mutants live in a school that cultivates their powers (telepathy, telekinesis, etc.) and prepares them for a brighter future. The destructive mutants lurk in the shadows and dream of the day when they'll inherit earth from the hopelessly outmoded human race.
"X-Men" tries for a bit of social relevance, from its political beginning -the tirade of a bigoted senator who denounces the mutants with racist clichs - to its symbolic climax, a fight atop the Statue of Liberty's crown.
But the movie's well-meaning heart will matter less to young moviegoers than its high-energy action, and while director Bryan Singer delivers plenty of fast-paced mayhem, even this starts to seem repetitious and perfunctory before the end.
Die-hard action fans may cheer, but if you're looking for the romantic verve of "Superman" or the dreamlike edginess of "Batman," this isn't the comic-book movie for you.
*Rated PG-13; contains much action-movie violence.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society