By EW Staff
April 21, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT
©20th Century Fox
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”What would you do if superpowered people started appearing on the planet that were the next level of human evolution? Some people would be hopeful… but I think most people would react with fear.” That’s executive producer Tom DeSanto’s high-concept distillation of ”X-Men,” the Marvel Comics phenom about a team of superpowered humans who, in true superhero fashion, fight for truth, justice, and the American way — even though the American way is to treat these ”mutants” with fear and loathing.

Despite the success of the comic books, several of the filmmakers behind this $75 million adaptation (the first in a planned franchise from Twentieth Century Fox) were not hard-core fans. In fact, Stewart (”Star Trek”’s Jean-Luc Picard) had never heard of it. ”I lead a sheltered life,” quips Stewart, who plays wheelchair-bound Prof. Charles Xavier, a telepathic mutant who runs a secret school where ”gifted youngsters” learn to use their powers from X-Men like Storm (Berry), who can influence the weather, Cyclops (Marsden), the team’s energy-beaming field marshal, and his telekinetic girlfriend Jean Grey (Janssen).

Director Singer (”The Usual Suspects”), an ”X-Men” ignoramus himself until three years ago, signed on after seeing the substance underneath the spandex. In an elaborate allegory about intolerance and how to combat it, the X-Men’s ”can’t we all just get along” mandate clashes with the Brotherhood, led by Magneto (McKellen), whose childhood experience of Nazi concentration camps has shaped a ”conquer or be conquered” approach. ”Everyone has felt like an outcast,” says Singer. ”This movie dramatizes extreme examples of this — and extreme solutions.”

To root the fantasy in reality, Singer ditched skimpy costumes in favor of black leather, capable of more plausibly absorbing the film’s ”Matrix”-influenced fisticuffs. With Fox aiming to avoid the financial bloat that sinks many summer-blockbuster wannabes, Singer spent extensive preproduction time massaging the script, mapping every scene on computer (including the monument-busting finale at the Statue of Liberty), and shopping for a quality cast with affordable prices.

But the real hero may be Australian newcomer Jackman, cast in the critical role of Wolverine one month into shooting after Dougray Scott got held up on ”M:I-2.” Stewart says filming without what’s essentially the lead character was ”unsettling.” Yet by the end of the tough, top secret shoot in Toronto, the crew was chanting ”HUGH! HUGH! HUGH!” on the set, thanks to a go-for-broke commitment that had Jackman taking cold showers to find Wolverine’s berserk edge. Which is why no one rushed to his aid when he got his testicles twisted in a harness while shooting a 6-foot fall. ”I said the biggest swear word I ever let out, and then nothing happened,” says Jackman. ”Everyone thought I was just really getting into it.”

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