Halle Berry as STORM 'X-MEN' Holds its Own with the Great Comic Book Movies John Stanley Drawing by Jim Hummel
By JOHN STANLEY
FOR YEARS I had to bear the pain of being a fan of comic-book movies.
I grew up on comic books, having started my reading at the age of 8, and whenever costumed characters and superheroes became movie icons, I was always there to revel in their newfound cinematic glory. At least they had glory in my eyes.
But as loudly as I cheered at the movies with my fellow fans, critics rarely had nice things to say about such characters as Superman, Batman and Robin, Captain America and Captain Marvel when they smashed against the big screen. Just like they knocked a lot of the early science-fiction movies about flying saucers and bug-eyed monsters coming through the universe to Earth to conquer or destroy us.
These mind-boggling concepts fascinated me and other kids -- the ones who attended the same matinees I went to -- but not adults. My dad never went to a Saturday matinee with me even once. And I thought there was definitely a division going on -- them adults and us kids. We could see something that they couldn't. Us against them. You could only dream the question: Will those sleeping fools wake up one day and realize what us kids already know?
"Kid stuff," the adults would write in magazines and newspapers, dismissing the whole thing as some adolescent guilty pleasure. And I started going around feeling as if something was wrong with me because I rushed to see old serials like "Blackhawk" and "Brick Bradford," featuring characters from comic strips or comic books that I enjoyed reading, too. Even as a kid I realized that most of these movies were cheaply made and the special effects weren't the greatest, but Superman was still Superman and there he was up there bigger than life on the giant screen, fulfilling all those childhood needs we have.
I have George Lucas to thank for changing the messed-up way critics and historians treated all the kinds of material I liked at the movies. When "Star Wars" hit the screen in 1977, everyone's perception began to change about the content of movies. Suddenly, the B-movie formula was acceptable as a big-budgeted A-movie. Prestige started to penetrate science-fiction and fantasy movies.
And the kinds of movies that had once been looked down upon as terrible things for the unwashed masses of America, or "dumb kids," were now the box-office smashes and audience-pleasers of the day. Finally, we as comic-book lovers were getting some respect. Crime-fighters in costumes and all the accoutrements that went with them were being given grand treatment and the glossy class that such imaginative ideas deserved. And the adult critics were hailing them, often, as new kinds of masterpieces.
I especially felt vindicated in December 1978 when I saw "Superman--The Movie." It's still a movie-going event I haven't forgotten. From the moment that John Williams' heroic theme boomed out in stereophonic sound, I knew that Superman was going to be appreciated in a new way. And I was right. Christopher Reeve's wonderful performance was just part of the excitement. The film became a money maker, just like "Star Wars," and the trend was set.
Christopher Reeve takes flight in the 1978 'Superman'
By the early 1980s, almost 40 per cent of all new movies being produced by Hollywood (at least according to Variety, the trade journal for movies) had themes of science-fiction, fantasy and horror. Suddenly the costumed superhero was worthy of millions of dollars of production money. Four "Batman" movies, four "Superman" movies, and countless other costumed heroes bombarded the screen. The special effects kept getting better and better, and all my guilt and feelings of an inferior mind were finally stripped away. I could be a normal viewer, just like all the people who had enjoyed going to romantic love stories or musicals or melodramas over the years.
At last, the dismissed, inconsequential outsider -- me -- was part of the mainstream, and loving it.
And that brings me to "X-Men," the newest comic-book movie to smash against the big screen with a mighty impact. Rarely, I'm glad to report, have I seen a long-time comic-book favorite (Stan Lee first created the concept in 1963) so well handled by the producing-directing team, writer, special effects masters, and cast. Talk about getting some respect. (Not to mention big bucks.)
Under Bryan Singer's direction, everything came together into a frothy, mind-blowing entertainment -- and what I like best about it: you don't have to be a reader of the comic books (which are still being published today, 37 years later). The narrative is clearly spelled out as a fight between forces of human beings who have been born with unique mutative powers. One group of mutants -- under the benevolent guidance of Dr. Xavier -- is for good. The other band of mutants -- under the evil control of malignant Magneto -- stands for pure evil. Once you know that, you can settle back and enjoy meeting the larger-than-life characters and their battles royal to outwit and outfight each other. With Patrick Stewart as Xavier and Ian McKellen as Magneto, "X-Men" showcases a power-packed struggle of wits as well as brawn.
I have to tell you: The costumed characters are a marvelous lot, the very kind of thing that last year's "Mystery Men" satirized. A standout among this colorful pack is Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, a character who has enjoyed his own comic magazine. You'll also find Mystique the blue-skinned villainous shapeshifter (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), the long-tongued Toad (Ray Park, who just played Darth Maul in "The Phantom Menace") and the beastly Sabretooth (Tyler Mane) among the baddies.
James Marsden as the laser-eyed CYCLOPS in 'X-Men'
The side of good is represented by Cyclops (James Marsden), who fires laser bolts through his eyeball viser, Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), she of unique telekinetic powers, and Storm (Halle Berry), a controller of weather conditions. The indifferent Wolverine eventually joins their ranks after overcoming a lot of personal angst and self-doubt.
Caught in the middle of these powerful entities is the orphan child and roamer, Rogue (Anna Paquin), whose very touch will drain you of your lifeforce.
Whether good or bad, you can relate to them, and that's an achievement in a comic-book movie, believe me.
I really feel good when the hard-nosed newspaper critics review "X-Men" with new appreciation and understanding. Even an old curmudgeon like Bob Graham, who used to be my editor at the San Francisco Chronicle when I was an entertainment writer there, praised the film in a recent edition of the paper's Daily Datebook. Raved about it, in fact. My snap-brim fedora is off to him and the other critics who now understand all the things I already understood as a kid who went to the movies.
Now I feel as if I'm ahead of the rest of the pack, or at least running along with the swiftest of the wolves.
That stuff they used to call junk and hogwash and kid's stuff. It's now one of the most important chunks of fodder for the movies. We, the youth, knew. The adults, hah, they didn't have a clue. Thank God those old fogies finally grew up and hooked into the same wave-length us kids had understood all the while. We saved them from themselves, and now we're all enjoying ourselves, having a ball and grooving on comic-book movies.
© 2000 by John Stanley
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