It''s inspired casting indeed to plug Shakespearean greats Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen into the (literally) comic-book roles of Professor Charles Francis Xavier (aka Professor X) and evil genius Eric Magnus Lehnsherr (aka Magneto) in this thoroughly well-cast adaptation of Marvel Comics'' classic and long-running superhero series. The pair play off of each other with a pulpy nobility rarely seen these days, and it''s genuinely fun to watch them spar, both verbally and physically, as one attempts to take over the world and the other strives to save it.

There''s much about Bryan Singer''s film to love--the production design, the costuming, and some very clever effects work come to mind--but perhaps the film''s greatest strength lies in its ability to view itself as a modern moral fable of sorts. This springs, I suppose, not just from Christopher McQuarry''s (The Usual Suspects) scriptwork, but also from comic-book icon and Marvel founder Stan Lee''s empathetic storylines of yore--this was the fellow, you will recall, who gave Peter Parker, that spectacular spider/man, constant girl trouble and loads of post-pubescent angst to go with those amazing spider-powers. Ditto for the X-Men, a group of mutant/human post-teens who are led and mentored by the bald, wheelchair-bound Professor X at his New York boarding school for "gifted children."

At the compound, Prof. X trains them not only in the classics, but also in the art of self-defense and offense, tooling their unique powers and preparing them for a life outside in a world that not only fears them but also sometimes actively wants them obliterated. Imagine it: You''ve got a Poli Sci test on Monday, a sudden flare-up of teenage acne, your best girl''s being eyed by the new guy on campus, and, oh yes, the United States Senate is trying to pass a bill to ban you out of existence, and the Legion of Bad Guys wants your head on a stick. If this were set in England, it would be a Smiths song, not a movie. For the record, though, X-Men plays by a virulently domestic set of rules; it''s "Sweet Valley High" on acid-coated Pop Rocks.

Singer and McQuarry''s backstory tinkers with the nature of prejudice, racial and otherwise, as these super-kids and twentysomethings struggle to make a go of it while trapped (like that other Marvel misfit, Howard the Duck) in a world they never made. McQuarry''s script wisely focuses on the X-Men''s classic rebel-mold mutant Wolverine, a burly, hairy-chested fellow with sideburns who''d make Elvis stand back and take notice and an Adamantium endo-skeleton--complete with retractable, razor-sharp claws. Aussie newcomer Hugh Jackman gives a smoldering, glarey-eyed performance as Logan, the Wolverine. He''s all gritted teeth and squinty peepers as he struggles to figure out which side he should be on, good or bad. Once enrolled in the Professor''s school, he takes up with the other core X-Men, including the supremely handsome and self-involved Cyclops (James Marsden), who shoots power beams through his visor; weather-controlling Storm (Halle Berry); telekinetic Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen); and Rogue (Anna Paquin), whose very touch can spell death. It''s all strenuously faithful to Marvel''s series, but at only 104 minutes, I found myself wanting more: more backstory, more character development (apart from Wolverine, who gets all the best bits, there''s little to explain where everyone came from), and simply more complexity in the storyline.

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The wide-open ending practically shrieks "sequel," so rest assured this is only the beginning of a new super-franchise.

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