Mutant epic controls its wilder genes

Movie: X-Men

Our Rating: 3.50

The occasional box-office bonanza notwithstanding, turning a comic book into a movie is a thankless task. Deviate too far from your chosen property's established, four-color lexicon, and legions of angry readers will call for your head. Leave it as is, and you risk alienating a mass audience that's not predisposed to consider men in tights a legitimate diversion.

With "X-Men," director Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects," "Apt Pupil") travels a respectable middle ground. Following the lead of the watershed "Batman," he tones down the audacious look of his Marvel-derived heroes, mothballing their brightly colored long underwear in favor of black leather. Furthermore, he never lets action get in the way of character development, has his protagonists refer to each other by their given names as often as their code identities and doesn't allow scenes to be performed in costume when street clothes suffice.

Seen in mufti for most of the film, our chief companion down the "X-Men" rabbit hole is a bitter drifter named Logan (the terrific Hugh Jackman). An amnesiac with superhuman strength, Logan competes in bare-knuckle brawls under the alias Wolverine. When he's peeved, razor-sharp claws emerge from his knuckles; he's not quite sure why.

The picture becomes clearer when Logan meets Marie (Anna Paquin), a teen who can't help sucking the life out of any creature she touches. (With adolescent drama, she rechristens herself Rogue.) Together, the two come upon the New York state digs of Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), a wheelchair-bound telepath who tells them the truth: They're mutants, genetic oddities of the sort that Xavier lives to train and tutor. His star pupils are the fiery-eyed Cyclops (James Marsden), the weather-controlling Storm (Halle Berry) and the telekinetic Jean Grey (Famke Janssen).

They're not alone. As Xavier prepares his students to be-come the guardians of humanity, his nemesis, Magneto (Ian McKellen), mobilizes his own army of freaks to conquer the world.

"This is the stupidest thing I've ever heard," Logan says. Skeptics rejoice!

Such reality checks permeate "X-Men," but they're undercut by a few explicatory monologues -- courtesy of first-time scripter David Hayter -- that stick on the actors' tongues like bad science fiction. The plot's fantastic elements are better carried by the visual tricks and asides the witty Singer tosses around like candy.

Taking on a complex franchise with a large stable of characters means that Singer and Hayter have little time to tell an actual story; they're too busy affording introductions. But their tone is just right, keeping us involved in the cosmic drama by balancing it with more mundane concerns that range from the heartbreak of first love to Nazi atrocities. (Don't laugh: Most of it works.) "X-Men" takes place in a world much like our own, but one that's just a little bit more vivid, funny and exciting. It's a realm worth visiting.