- The Washington Times - Friday, July 14, 2000

Watching a guy shooting laser blasts from his eyes, a woman controlling the weather and a feral fellow spouting indestructible claws from his knuckles might seem a bit far-fetched to the average movie audience.

However, comic book readers around the world have been waiting for this cinematic moment for decades as 20th Century Fox brings their heroes, the X-Men, to life.

This colorful group of Marvel Comics stars represents one possible evolution of man in which mutated genes have given individuals incredible powers. Known as the children of the atom, or Homo Superior, these beings were created in 1963, when Marvel Comics writer and editor Stan Lee sat down to pen a story about human nature and tolerance.

Mr. Lee, with the immortal artist Jack Kirby, developed an action-adventure tale with an underlying message. At the time, civil rights battles were very much a part of our national scene.

"I wanted to create a story about man's inhumanity to man, racial hatred and bigotry, which I am very much opposed to, and the message underneath the action is that prejudice, in any form, is a harmful thing," says Mr. Lee from his Los Angeles office.

"Unfortunately, today there are still people who don't like other people because of the color of their skin, religion or nationality, and the message of the X-Men is still needed."

The X-Men universe has mutated from comic book to a $75 million cinematic spectacular, which should introduce a new generation many of them sitting next to their comic-book-reading parents to the superheroes.

A star-studded cast, led by "Star Trek's" Patrick Stewart, is bringing the comic universe to life. Bryan ("The Usual Suspects") Singer directs the production.

"This is a character movie with a lot of action, and that is something that I think will surprise people," says Tom DeSanto, writer and executive producer of the film.

"We were fortunate in that we were able to obtain our very first choice, from a very short list, for Professor X. Patrick Stewart has such a presence he actually seems to be stronger than an average person, even though he is confined to a wheelchair."

In addition to Mr. Stewart are his students, the indestructible Wolverine, a k a Logan (Hugh Jackman); weather-controlling Ororo Munroe, a k a Storm (Halle Berry); the telekinetic Jean Grey (Famke Janssen); laser-eyed Scott Summers, a k a Cyclops (James Marsden); and the absorbing adolescent Rogue (Anna Paquin).

Ian McKellen plays the villainous lead character Magneto, or Erik Magnus Lensherr, a mutant who can control magnetic fields with his mind and primary adversary to Professor X.

Doing Magneto's bidding in his personal war against humans are the shape-shifter Raven Darkholme, a k a Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos); the beastlike Victor Creed, a k a Sabretooth (Tyler Mane); and leaping Mortimer Toynbee, a k a Toad (Ray Park).

"I think this film is very special in that there is real-life symbolism in a movie that is high drama, high action," says executive producer Avi Arad, from his Connecticut studio. "It is not just a bunch of guys in tights. These X-Men deal with real issues as well as the personal battles they all face because of the way people deal with those that are different."

The movie's dramatic catalyst can be found in Magneto and his overpowering vision of hate born out of the loss of his parents to a concentration camp, courtesy of the Nazis.

Comic fans will recognize that this facet of Magneto's history was devised by writer Chris Claremont, who took over the reigns of the core X-Men book in 1975. Mr. Claremont spent 16 years molding the mutants and has returned for another stint as Marvel's editorial director.

"Becoming a writer for the X-Men was one of the rare gifts that come along in a lifetime," says Mr. Claremont from his New York office. "The story, as created by Lee and Kirby, was exciting, but at the time it was below the fans' radar screen, and we were able to work without too much notice to mold the story on that great foundation without people peering over our shoulders."

In addition to overseeing and writing some of the most memorable X-Men stories, Mr. Claremont has created some of the most popular mutants and villains around, including Rogue, the sweet Southern belle who enjoys a prominent role in the movie.

"An important aspect of the X-Men that was strong then and always will be is that it is a book that acknowledged the female characters in the team as being as heroic and wonderful as the male," Mr. Claremont says.

"They are all outcasts fitting in and making a place in a world that has no use for them but needs them."

And that may be the key to the franchise's success: a diverse group of individuals trying to make the world a better place.

"This is a movie that I have wanted to make since I was 10 years old," Mr. DeSanto says. "The mythology is expansive, not unlike the tales of the Arthurian legends."

Some fans have been unhappy about the movie's look. Criticism has been leveled at Miss Berry's unrealistic-looking shock-white hair, Miss Janssen's lack of wild orangish-red locks and green eyes as Jean Grey and even the costumes. The X-Men's original garb of blue and yellow spandex has been replaced in the film with slick but subdued black leather.

"We could not translate the costumes of the comic-book page into a real world film, and finding costumes that worked with the story and the characters was one of the biggest challenges we faced," Mr. Arad says. "The second largest early challenge was which members of the X-Men to feature in this film, as they are all so interesting.

During its existence, the X-Men universe has expanded to include hundreds of mutant good guys and bad guys.

Moviegoers will want to keep their eyes open for adolescent versions of some of these mutants running throughout the halls of Professor Xavier's school.

"In creating this movie, the most important thing for me was staying true to the soul of the book, even if we could not stay within its continuity because the mythology is too dense," Mr. DeSanto says. "For readers of the comic book, they have a monthly relationship that could go back 40 years. With a two-hour film, you have to take the best of the X-Men at its core."

For everyone who touches down in the X-Men universe there always comes an understanding of the message created by Mr. Lee and Mr. Kirby.

"The story of the X-Men serves as an allegory for prejudice and how anyone who is considered different or on the outside can find a place that they belong," Mr. DeSanto says.

"This is a very strong message, especially to teen-agers who fear being unique or special. The X-Men, whether in your imagination, on the comic page or the movie screen, is a place to go where differences are embraced, and celebrated."

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