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X-MEN: X-Planations

Fandom's guide to understanding the X-Men

By Matthew F. Saunders     July 12, 2000

So, you're all ready to see what's supposed to be the summer's next blockbuster, X-Men, only there's one problem. You have absolutely no idea what an 'X-Man' is. Sure, you've seen the sly Senator Kelly mock-TV ads, which warn that mutants are nasty and evil. You know that Patrick Stewart, Captain Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame, is one of the films many stars, along with such hot young actors as Halle Berry, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Ray Park and James Marsden. And from the previews you've seen, it looks like the film, if nothing else, will be another sci-fi special effects romp, a la The Matrix. But you haven't the first clue what to really expect when you plop down in the theater on Friday with your popcorn and soda.

Have no fear. Not wanting anyone to feel X-cluded, we have put together an X-Men primer for the uninitiated. We can't possibly tell you everything there is to know about the X-Men's amazing 37-year history in this short space. But, just as the movie's had to distill the entire X-Men comic book franchise down into a two-hour film, we've summarized the main points and characters you'll need to know and understand going into it. So sit back, relax and get ready to enjoy the X-citement!

The X-Men were created in 1963 by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby who, along with artist Steve Ditko, created the bulk of the Marvel Comics universe that still stands today. Mired in the early days of the Cold War, a number of early Marvel heroes were born out of the fear of the nuclear age. Young Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider, thus becoming Spider-Man. Dr. Bruce Banner was caught in an explosion of the Gamma Bomb that he created, and was transformed into the monstrous incredible Hulk. And the intrepid adventurers of the Fantastic Four were exposed to powerful cosmic rays, which granted them their amazing abilities.

Lee and Kirby took the concept one step further with X-Men. This time, instead of the heroes gaining superpowers through accidental exposure to radiation, the X-Men were born with their exotic abilities as a result of random genetic mutation. Nuclear anxiety still played a part in their initial origins, at least implicitly, as a fear of mutations was coupled with fears about radiation. However it was never uniformly condemned as the sole catalyst for the genetic changes. What mattered most, though, was that the introduction of the X-Men literally marked the birth of a new race of heroes in the Marvel Universe whose superpowers were innate, not acquired. No longer did a superheroat least a mutant superheroneed an origin story, per se. He or she simply needed to be born.

Not everyone was celebrating the birth of this new race of heroes, however. Characterized as freaks and outcasts, it was obvious from the series' start that the X-Menand mutants in generalwere not warmly received by the Marvel Universe's general populace. The existence of mutantsoften referred to as the next step in human evolution, or Homo sapiens superiorfrightens 'normal' humanity. Afraid of being wiped out or enslaved by this genetic offshoot, tensions have risen among many humans, whose condemnation of mutants has cast the well-meaning X-Men as pariahs relegated to the fringes of proper society.

If this all sounds too heavy, don't worry. The comic book stories are still firmly grounded in traditional beat-them-up superheroics. But nonetheless, the backstory thematically super-imposes the issues of mutation and genetic racism onto the template of the 1960s Black Civil Rights movement, and indeed all similar such stories of oppression and intolerance. Awash in hate crimes and the politicalization of the mutant issue, mutants are often attacked indiscriminately in the streets by fearful mobs while politicians like Senator Kelly try to legislate control of mutant rights. And the tensions aren't limited simply to a polarization between humanity and mutants. As the conflict has escalated over the course of the series, it's also splintered mutantkind into various mutant factions.

Chief among these factions are of course the X-Men, led by Professor Charles Xavier, who seek to build a world in which mutants and humans can live together in peaceful co-existence. Their chief rivals are the Brotherhood of Mutants, led by Magneto, who feel mutants should rule over regular humans, who've 'proven' their inferiority through their hatred, persecution and racism. The dichotomy that arises from the Civil Rights analogy places Magneto in the militant, aggressive Malcolm X-like role, while Xavier represents the more peaceful, reconciliatory viewpoint best expressed by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Within this framework, each believes his cause is just, and that their approach is the only way to resolve the ongoingand increasingly volatileconflict.

At the crux of it all, the X-Men long for a more idealized world, where differences are celebrated, not reviled and extinguished. Ideally, they seek to teach new mutants how to use their powers wisely and to fit into society. But circumstance has forced them to become warriors of peace as well, who hope and fight to bring harmony to mutant/human relations. In the meantime, the specter of a full-scale genetic war hangs heavy on the horizon, and it's these tensions that'll fuel the X-Men movie.

The X-Men world boasts dozens upon dozens of different characters. In the comics, the original team consisted of Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Iceman, Angel and Beast, all led by Professor X. In 1975, a new lineup was introduced, which included--among others--Wolverine, Storm, Colossus, Banshee and Nightcrawler. The team's lineup has continued to expand and evolve over its 37-year history, and in the 1980s and 1990s, Marvel began spinning off a number of related series such as The New Mutants, Excalibur, Generation X and X-Force, to name just a few.

Given that, there's no way any reasonable film could do justice to such a large cast. Inevitably, the filmmakers had to pare down the character list significantly in order to make the leap to the big screen. So, who exactly do you need to know to understand the X-movie? While some details may be altered in the translation from print to film, here're the players you'll be meeting this summer.

The X-Men

PROFESSOR X (Patrick Stewart)
The wheelchair-bound Professor Charles Xavier is one of the world's foremost geneticists. He's also a first-class mutant, possessing powerful psionic abilities. His goal is to help build a world where mutants and humans can peacefully co-exist. To achieve that, he formed Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters and the X-Men in order to teach mutants how to use their powers wisely, and to fight against prejudice and militant mutants such as Magneto.

WOLVERINE (Hugh Jackman)
A deadly fighter, Wolverine possesses enhanced senses, a heightened healing factor and superior martial skills. Additionally, his skeleton and three razor-sharp retractable claws that're housed in each wrist/hand, are laced with an unbreakable metal called Adamantium. But Wolverine's more than a simple warrior. A moral man haunted by a mysterious past and a penchant for uncontrollable rage and violence, he's unsure of who to trust in the coming mutant conflict as the X-Men and Magneto vie for his loyalties.

STORM (Halle Berry)
Noble and proud, the beautiful Storm is a weather-controlling mutant who can raise and quiet storms, fly along the winds and strike with deadly bolts of lightening. In comic book continuity, she was an orphan and thief on the streets of Cairo, Egypt, and later served as a would-be weather goddess to African tribesmen before joining the team. While many of these details may be altered in the film, look for her to be a strong, loyal member of Xavier's X-Men.

CYCLOPS (James Marsden)
Cyclops is one of Professor X's most loyal students. He brings years of experience into play as the team's field leader in the comics, but due in part to Marsden's casting, will be portrayed as slightly younger in the film. His powers will remain the same, however. His body channels solar energy through his eyes, which release it as concussive force beams. Unable to control them, he wears a special ruby quartz visor that holds the blasts in check and allows him to release them at will.

JEAN GREY (Famke Janssen)
While not as powerful as her mentor, Professor Xavier, the red-headed Phoenix also possesses psionic powers. Involved with fellow teammate Cyclops, she'll become the center of a romantic triangle between him and the older, more mysterious newcomer, Wolverine. Unlike the comics, Phoenix is also the team's resident scientist, and their attraction will likely develop when she's called upon to examine his Adamantium-laced skeleton.

ROGUE (Anna Paquin)
Of all the characters in the film, Rogue exemplifies the prejudice that haunts all mutants. A frightened young mutant, Rogue's powers to absorb the traits of anyone she touches have only recently manifested and she's struggling desperately to control them. Confused and alone, she's also unprepared for the hatred that's thrust upon her, and must rely on Wolverine and her new friends in the X-Men to survive.

The Brotherhood

MAGNETO (Sir Ian McKellen)
The master of magnetism, Magneto controls the entire electro-magnetic spectrum. He's capable of hurling cars, stopping bullets in mid-air and even realigning the Earth's magnetic poles. But even more than his powers, his mutant status is what truly defines him. He suffered numerous horrors at the Nazis' hands as a child during World War II. And as mutant persecution continues to rise, he sees history repeating itself. As a result, he's vowed to protect mutantkind and do whatever it takes to prevent similar atrocities from happening again.

In the comics, Sabretooth is a mercenary who occasionally affiliates with various mutant factions, but never Magneto's. In the movie, however, he serves as Magneto's feral henchman. More importantly, though, he's Wolverine's dark mirror image. Merciless and blood-thirsty, he shares the same heightened senses, strength and martial skills as Wolverine, but none of his conscience or compassion. Instead, he's pure, unbridled rage, who lets his immoral passions and killer instincts consume him.

TOAD (Ray Park)
A member of Magneto's Brotherhood, the ugly, deformed Toad possesses superhuman dexterity and, in the movie version, a slime-covered, 12-inch-long retractable tongue. Traditionally a spineless underling in the comics, it's been hinted that the onscreen Toad will be a much more capable and dangerous opponent. With martial artist Park of Darth Maul and Star Wars: Episode I fame cast in the role, look for Toad's martial abilities to be quite prominent and deadly.

MYSTIQUE (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos)
The blue-skinned, apparently scaly (the latter a new characteristic added for the movie) Mystique is a shapeshifter capable of morphing her entire body to resemble others with uncanny accuracy. Not to be trifled with, her mutant powers--coupled with a ruthless intelligence and deadly martial skills--make her a formidable foe. Although she's led the Brotherhood in the comics, she's a loyal member of Magneto's group in the movie, serving alongside Sabretooth and Toad.

The Anti-Mutant Voice

SENATOR KELLY (Bruce Davison)
A conservative senator, Kelly's afraid of mutants and is using his political power to rally the public against the so-called mutant threat. While not evil per se, he's blinded to the destructiveness of his policies, which allow him to perpetuate his misguided beliefs under the auspices of protecting innocents. He doesn't realize that by fanning the flames of anti-mutant sentiment and bigotry, he's actually making tensions between humans and mutants worse.


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