By Tom Gliatto
July 24, 2000 12:00 PM

Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Famke Janssen, Halle Berry, Ian McKellen, Anna Paquin

At what point did comic-book superheroes become psychologically tortured and prone to philosophical posturing? It’s as if Hamlet put on a cape, flew out a window and then sulked on a skyscraper ledge.

Batman seems to have led the way, especially with Tim Burton’s two movie adaptations. Now X-Men, based on the Marvel comic book, roots itself in one of the darkest hours of the just-vanished 20th century. In World War II Poland, a boy wails in terror as he watches two people (presumably his parents) being rounded up for a concentration camp. Restrained by guards, he stretches out a hand. As the barbed-wire gate closes behind them, he somehow emits a magnetic force that makes the fence droop like a dying flower.

Flash-forward to some time further into this new century. The boy has grown up to become Magneto (Ian McKellen), a misguided genius and member of an emerging global population of mutants with special powers. Angry at the world’s intolerance, Magneto assembles a small army of colleagues, including a man with a toad’s elastic tongue and an identity-changing woman covered in what look like blue sequins. Magneto’s plan for revenge: Warp all of mankind’s genes with a super-duper force field.

Meanwhile a telepath named Professor Xavier (Stewart) runs an academy to teach mutants to cope with life—and stop Magneto. Among the faculty are Storm (Berry), who can generate lightning, and Cyclops, whose eyes dart out explosive red rays. They’re instructing two new students: Rogue (Paquin), who saps the life out of anyone she touches, and Wolverine (Jackman), who has metal claws, miraculous healing power and Engelbert Humperdinck sideburns.

The characters, both good and evil, constantly hash over memories of prejudice, and they’ve certainly earned the right to vent. But that doesn’t help the action sequences. When the big battle between Magneto and Xavier’s forces gets going, you have lightning bolts, steel claws, magnetic fields, explosive red rays and flyaway tongues. It’s a variety show, and all the acts have rushed onstage at once. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: Too many cooks spoil the wroth