The concept is fine: A mutant strain of humans now has extraordinary powers, and the good Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), whose mutation enables him to read minds and affect the thoughts of others, has brought them together to, let's say, do good. But his former friend and fellow mutant Magneto (Ian McKellan), who is a Holocaust survivor and wants to destroy the bad, that is non-mutant, humans, regards Xavier and his group as obstacles to be dealt with.
Each of them has a cadre of X-men and X-women with special powers. Xavier's group includes, among others, Cyclops, who sends flares of energy bolts from his eyes, and has to keep them hidden behind the kind of goggles we haven't seen since LeVar Burton wore them in "Star Trek -- The Next Generation." And there's Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), kind of a Charles Xavier-in-training, who is telepathic and telekinetic. Magneto has the Toad, who whips out his twenty-foot-long tongue to do damage, and Mystique, who's normally a deep-sea blue with scales, but who can change her shape and color to imitate any other human.
And so on. The story is triggered by the meeting of two lone mutants, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who can grow long knives out of his knuckles and can heal himself when wounded, and Rogue (Anna Paquin), whose touch sucks energy out of the one she touches. They come under Xavier's protection, but Rogue is kidnapped by Magneto as part of his dire plan to destroy all the world's leaders. He must be stopped!
Here's where things begin to go awry. Director Bryan Singer, whose work was so sly and understated in the brilliant "The Usual Suspects," has pounded every scene in "X-Men" so hard that there's no breathing room left for a whole movie to emerge. He kills scene after scene, sequence after sequence, by insisting on constant camera movement. Actors go leaping and flying around the sets, but so does the camera. We're never sure if the mayhem is caused by the characters or the director. And there are very few throwaway lines, lines that might lighten the tone, if only for a moment. Singer just hammers everything to death.
McKellan and Stewart are old pros, of course, with the most mellifluous and resonant voices in film today, and we hope that their few meetings will strike sparks. But their dialogue is flatly written and the confrontations are poorly staged, so we lose even the power they might have given the film.
The final battle sequence is set in and on the head and torch of the Statue of Liberty, and we in the audience should feel the giddy, knee-buckling vertigo that comes with dangerous height and the likelihood of death by falling. But the fear is strangely absent here, and the reason is that Singer keeps moving his camera up, down, and around the various fights, not letting the location itself do the work for him. What should have been a classic 'final' confrontation, of the sort we used to see in "Superman" or "Batman," among others, simply is lost in the confusion caused by Singer's poor staging.
The film's ending is obviously the setup for a sequel, so if the film does well at the box office we will no doubt see another one. But we'll also hope that the next director will do a better job.