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''X-Men'' is rewriting the rules of comic book cinema

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”X-Men” is rewriting the rules of comic book cinema

And, lo, there came the all-star Hollywood version of ”X Men” to movie screens last week, and the wailings of movie critics and various cultural commentators were heard throughout the land, saying, yea, it is a shame that a decent film has yet to be made from a superhero comic book, and, verily, this one is no different. Then there came upon the land the audience, who went to see ”X Men” to the tune of a $52 million opening weekend, and they read the reviews and heard the commentary and said, ”Verily, what the f— are you talking about? This movie doth rock! We have seen Hugh Jackman with his gnarly Wolverine talons, and it is good. We have seen Rebecca Romijn-Stamos as Mystique, and it is very good. We have seen Patrick Stewart as Professor Xavier, and, let me tell you, that is some perfect casting. Go sucketh an egg.” And there was bitterness and gnashing of teeth on both sides.

And then there came upon the land — okay, I’ll stop now, but what I wanted to say was that I, personally, tend to side with the critics (big surprise, since I am one) on the subject of comic books in general, but now that I’ve finally seen ”X Men,” I have to say it captures all that is good about the medium and precious little that’s bad. No one is more shocked about this than I am.

First, a confession: I’m really, really snotty about superhero comics. Never got into them much in my teens, other than a brief infatuation with Steve Gerber’s ”Man-Thing” series for Marvel. Instead, it was opening a copy of ”Zap” when I was 15 that flipped my lid, leading to a passion for underground comix — R. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Bill Griffith, Greg Irons, that whole crew — that lasted well into the ”Love and Rockets” alternative years of the ’80s. I’ll still take Julie Doucet, Chester Brown, Dan Clowes, and ”Jimmy Corrigan, World’s Smartest Kid” over Batman any day, and my geek pride remains encapsulated in the two cartons of double-bagged undergrounds that live in my closet. (Don’t e-mail me — I ain’t selling.)

But superhero stuff? I just couldn’t get past the silly tights, the humorless, stentorian prose, the entire adolescent power-tripping built into the form. Even a piece of deconstructive brilliance like Alan Moore’s ”Watchmen” series seemed ultimately pointless to me, since what it was deconstructing was inherently ridiculous. I know, one man’s point of view — but at least you’ll know my frame of reference when I was dragged into ”X-Men” last Friday night. Now, for the record, I have never read a copy of the comic book. Pure elitist tabula rasa. And I had a high old time. Here, the characters were grounded just enough in reality for me to buy in, but still possessed of the two-dimensional, ooh-special-powers impact that makes for good, dippy fun (I could go on about archetypes here… but I won’t). Here, the plot was taken seriously, as it should, but the tone was flippant in a way DC and Marvel rarely pull off. (Cyclops to Wolverine: ”How do I know it’s you?” Wolverine to Cyclops: ”You’re a dick.” The roar of laughter that greets that line is a recognition that some unwritten rule of comic-book earnestness has just been trampled.) And, here, thank goodness, the tights are kept to a minimum.

Add to that the great camp spectacle of Sir Ian McKellen clomping around as the dastardly Magneto, and the result is remarkably like flipping through a comic book itself — only minus the hermetic, posturing sense of solemnity that always ruined the form for me. ”X-Men” is honest piffle, served up with heart, wit, and conviction. That it was gone from my head 20 minutes after I saw it is simply further proof of how faithfully it honors its roots.