The place: Earth. The time: not-too-distant future. The issue: mutant humans who have tremendous power over the forces of nature.
The U.S. Congress debates whether to force mutants to register with the government. The fate of mankind rests in the hands of two British-accented elderly white men, mutant leaders with very different ideas about progress. They command fighting forces who can change shapes, send objects flying across a room, and rip apart the very fabric of the sky. This is one battle that you don't want to miss.
When mutants fight, it's an amazing thing to behold. Most have catchy names that match their individual superpowers. Storm (Halle Berry) commands the weather. Cyclops (James Marsden) shoots a beam of fire from his eyes - or is that eye? We never see him without his glasses. Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos with her costume literally painted on) can take the shape of any other person and has some seriously mean acrobatic fighting moves.
The cinematography is top-notch; sound effects engrossing. Director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) whips us through the story, driving the adrenalin home and never giving away more than we need to know. He's an expert at creating tension and mystery, from the way Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) cuts through a shotgun with a single swipe of his metal claws, to the hints at a past friendship between the rival mutant leaders.
But the true triumph is the writing, which creates characters so real that even the villain is sympathetic. While we may not agree with the plot by Magneto (Ian McKellen) to turn the world's leaders into mutants, we can understand his violent reaction to the government registering mutants. You see, he's a Holocaust survivor who saw his parents first identified with yellow stars on their sleeves and then sent to the gas chamber.
We're introduced to the world of mutants through the eyes of Wolverine and young Rogue (Anna Paquin), who have struggled with their other-ness alone. They have very different reactions to being brought into the safe haven created by Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), a secondary school atop an underground bunker with all kinds of cool equipment and steel passageways.
Wolverine remains a loner. Though he doesn't trust his would-be rescuers, he immediately puts the moves on telepath Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). Jackman, as Wolverine, brings just the right sexy, dangerous intensity that the role calls for. He's the dark, tortured beast straight from the comic pages that every woman wants to soothe, but knows she can't tame. Paquin tugs at our heartstrings as the lost orphan with powers she doesn't understand. "The first boy I kissed ended up in a coma for three weeks," is her plaintive confession.
Much of this takes place in cavernous steel rooms with long, thin metal bridges jutting out into the middle, sort of like an updated Death Star. As Wolverine says, "This sure is a big, round room."
Screenwriter David Hayter tempers the breath-stopping action with humour. He makes the most of Wolverine's rivalry with Cyclops, Jean's lover. The teenagers in Professor Xavier's boarding school (jokingly referred to as "Mutant Hight") mix levitation into their basketball games and hold impromptu races right across the top of a pond. Singer leaves us wanting more and provides plenty of grist for a second movie: the shared past of Magneto and Professor Xavier, whether Wolverine was created through mutant experiments, a possible romance between him and Jean...
I'll say it now: sign me up for the sequel!