''X-Men'' -- Marvel's mutants leap onto the big screen

All the blame. All the blame.

Bryan Singer slumps deeply in his director’s chair, his pallid face buried in his hands. It’s another long, grueling day on the Toronto set of X-Men, Twentieth Century Fox’s top secret, $75 million adaptation of the best-selling Marvel comic, though this day, coming late in January, is off to a particularly dispiriting start. After leading his weary cast through the first phase of the film’s climactic battle on this sawdust-strewn re-creation of the Statue of Liberty’s lobby, Singer is informed by two visiting special-effects technicians that a key shot — a crimson laser blast issued from the visored eyes of Cyclops — can’t be completed in time for the first teaser trailer Fox so desperately wants for February. Singer snaps. ”This trailer,” he says, ”is the most important thing you should be doing right now.” They ask him to be reasonable; he tersely suggests they get back on the plane and finish the shot, then falls dejectedly into his seat.

”All the blame,” he mutters. ”All the blame.”

So many different sets of expectations weigh heavily on Singer’s shoulders: the legions of comic-book fans, yearning for a movie that won’t desecrate a revered collection of characters; a studio hungry for a cost-efficient blockbuster that can spawn sequels for years to come; an eclectic cast that includes Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, James Marsden, Famke Janssen, Anna Paquin, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, and Hugh Jackman, all here to work with the man who made The Usual Suspects, and most of them preparing for a rocket ride to superstardom. And there’s the man himself, a prickly perfectionist with much to prove after following Suspects with 1998’s muddled Stephen King adaptation Apt Pupil, a box office disappointment. In many ways, Bryan Singer is an unlikely choice to bring this most unlikely band of superheroes to life; whether a phenomenon or a fiasco, the fate of X-Men lies in the audacity of that choice.

Lots of pressure.

And right now, he’s feeling it.

All the blame. All the blame.

”But all the praise, Bryan,” he is reminded by his script supervisor. ”All the praise.”

Of course, he could have said no. And he did. But then he read the comic book, and everything changed.

Launched in 1963 by Marvel Comics from the legendary writer-artist team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, The X-Men introduced the world of Charles Xavier, a wheelchair-bound telepath trying to make the world safe for mutants, superpowered beings representing the next wave of human evolution. While Xavier dreams of peaceful coexistence with Homo sapiens, his arch-rival Magneto schemes to make Homo superior earth’s dominant species. To thwart him, Xavier turns five deeply insecure mutant teenagers into the X-Men, a paramilitary unit decked out in yellow-and-blue fatigues. It wasn’t until 1975 that the comic really caught fire with readers, thanks to a new cast of complex, racially diverse heroes. Since 1980, Marvel says, its 10 different X-Men-related titles have sold more than 400 million copies, and today they sell 30 million per year, nearly propping up the industry. Cyclops, Jean Grey, Storm, Wolverine, Rogue — these names may mean as much to a whole host of freaks and geeks as do Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo.

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