Where's the Wow Factor?

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Action movies need a jazzy opening scene; it gets a moviegoer's pulse racing with anxiety. So 007 went airborne off a ski slope. Lethal Weapon's Danny Glover sat on a bomb-rigged toilet seat. But until now, no one had set a teaser scene in a Nazi death camp. A Jewish boy, torn from his parents, goes into a seizure, and the camp gates are bent open. Aha! So the inmates are miraculously freed? No. It's not about the 6 million. It's about this one kid-an X-kid.

The first scene of the X-Men movie, which follows 37 years of legendmaking in Marvel comics, video games and animated TV shows, tips the hand of director Bryan Singer and screenwriter David Hayter. This will be a fantasy film with a message: the shunned are special; those seen as mutants are really superior; odd kids are good kids. And the world is a dark brown place where even the most extravagant stunt or special effect lacks the all-important Wow Factor.

Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) runs a school for exceptional young people: folks like Storm (Halle Berry), who plays tricks with weather; Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), whose fists contain adamantine blades; Cyclops (James Marsden), with a killer stare; and Rogue (Anna Paquin), whose touch is toxic. Xavier and Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) battle the bad guys led by Magneto (Ian McKellen) over the fate of the planet-that old thing.

Marsden, Janssen and Berry reward any viewer's long gaze. Toad (Ray Park), a bad mutant, makes quick use of his mile-long tongue. A dozen red roses for the blue lady Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos); this morph magician is the best weird woman in s-f movies since Daryl Hannah's android in Blade Runner.

The human villain of the piece is Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison), a suaver Joe McCarthy. He wants mutants registered because, he says, their eccentric gifts make them dangerous. Well, the mutant hunter is right! Magneto and his gang have planet-altering mischief in mind.

The other thing action movies can use is a jazzy ending. This one has a noisy climactic tussle inside the Statue of Liberty. Mightn't a few feds be guarding the premises? Again, no. It's a mistake for a fantasy film in the realistic mode to be deficient in both magic and plausibility.

But the climax is not the end. There is no ending; the whole film is the teaser to a planned trilogy. So Wolverine, searching for his roots, keeps on scratching. Xavier and Magneto speak of battles to come. A muted film ends on a minor chord. Perhaps fans will return for later episodes. But for us nonmutants, X-Men is the movie that took the e-cite-t out of excitement.