The live-action superhero film genre has earned a rather notorious reputation for producing some stinkers. The first "Batman" film was excellent but the series declined from there, the Superman movies were all fizzers, and the less said about "Spawn" & "Steel" the better. Now comes "X-Men" which gives the flagging genre a much needed booster shot and is easily one of - if not the best superhero flick ever, certainly the best of the last 5-10 years or so.
Why is that? Because its a solid movie - I'm trying to think of criticisms to make but there's hardly any - its main strength lies in the fact its surprisingly well-written. This isn't a loose story threaded around three to four action sequences (ala M:I-2), this is a proper story of which the action is merely a part of it. Nor is it a high-concept kind of project which can be summed up in 2-3 lines, you could say "Gladiator" was just a movie about an ancient Roman outcast who seeks revenge - that summary misses all the little nuances which are what make it and this film work. There may not be a particularly memorable storyline but its certainly engaging.
On the acting front the cast is completely solid. I have never read the comic so I knew little about the characters, but each was well explained and the actors were all convincing (or at least as much as is required for the genre). Hugh Jackman does a star-making turn as the gruff 'Wolverine' which is the character everyone will remember from this, but in the serious acting stakes he's actually matched by Anna Paquin in the role of Rogue.
Whereas the Wolverine character is the rough n' tumble hero you can't help but love to root for, Rogue is a sad and tragic innocent and the scenes between the pair are easily the film's emotional highs. Rogue is cursed far worse than the others - not only is she a mutant, but her power renders her unable to have physical contact of any kind (if she touches someone they're either in great pain or die) leaving her alone for all her life - her scene on the train with Logan is a real tear-jerker.
The trouble with these kind of films which have mutliple heroes & villains is that the lesser characters lack development and this is no exception. Some of the other heroes (Storm & Cyclops) and certainly some of the villain's henchmen (Mystique, Sabretooth) could've had more character development scenes - then again by doing so it may have dragged down the pace. Nevertheless the layout is surprisingly fair to each one, and all get to use their 'special powers' frequently throughout the movie in some surprisingly clever ways - especially Magneto. This is an ensemble which really feels like an ensemble.
McKellan and Stewart bring their wealth of experience to the Magento & Professor X roles and make them solid supporting characters, thankfully never stealing the limelight from the ones it should be focussing on - Wolverine & Rogue. There's also tie-ins with modern day issues in the form of Senator Kelly, a politician famous for sprouting anti-mutant rhetoric that American religious and conservative political groups apply to various minorities (especially gays & lesbians) in modern-day society.
Humour is well-spaced, mainly displayed in some great banter between Wolverine and Cyclops. The pacing is great, it never slows and the 'character talking' scenes are just as entertaining as the action ones. That said the action uses the powers well (eg. the train station & landmark foyer fight) but isn't as explosive as some might hope (then again you can only get away with so much in a PG-13 rated flick).
In fact the main scheme of the baddie is somewhat of a letdown. The film feels fresh and original throughout bar this 'scheme' which is thankfully given little screentime and when it does come to a close it feels a little anti-climatic. The main reason for this is that this is a character driven movie so the plot isn't at the forefront, thus the danger of the threat wasn't as established as it could've been and seems a little silly.
Nevertheless it's a minor quibble. The film is a refreshing 100 minutes long with not a single minute of it wasted. The 35 minutes edited out do show slightly but certainly not as much as you'd expect from such an excise. The ending is layed out in a way that all the threads are explained and wrapped up, yet a sequel is entirely possible and likely (hell with so many characters I'd like to see a live-action TV series). Forget the so-so trailers, "X-Men" is X-cellent, bring on the sequel.