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Directed by Bryan Singer Written by David Hayter, Christopher McQuarrie and Joss Whedon Starring Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman and Anna Paquin Classification: PG Rating: **½

Director Bryan Singer's adaptation of the venerable X-Men comic book series is respectful enough to please the comic's fans but lacking the kind of magic that could win new ones.

Created by the legendary Marvel Comics writer Stan Lee in 1963, X-Men is a tale of misfit superheroes. After a rocky early start, X-Men has emerged in the past 20 years as the most popular American comic. There's been talk of a movie since the late eighties and the Internet has been abuzz in recent months in anticipation of the movie's release date.

Singer, the former wunderkind who created The Usual Suspects, has brought X-Men to the screen in a jumbled, expensive, special-effects-heavy production. Unlike the first Superman and Batman movies, which strove to be mythic, Singer has opted, at least in stretches, for realism.

In this version, the X-men (X for extra powers) are almost regular folks, who eschew crime-fighter uniforms in favour of black leather. They're the young protégés of Dr. Charles Frances Xavier (Patrick Stewart), a powerful but benign mutant who can control others' thoughts. He wants to work with, rather than against, regular humans but the humans, typified by Bruce Davison as a McCarthy-like antimutant senator, are afraid and punitive toward the mutants.

Worse still, there is a gang of bad mutants led by Magneto (Ian McKellen) who are doing a good job living up to the worst mutant stereotypes.

Xavier's team includes Storm (Halle Berry in a blond wig) who can create storms; Cyclops (James Marsden) whose gazes can shatter walls and Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), a doctor who has telekinetic powers. Early in the movie, they are joined by two allies. Rogue (Anna Paquin) is a teenager with the unhappy ability to drain the life out of anyone she touches.

While running away to Alaska, Rogue meets the movie's main protagonist, an ornery, bar-fighting Canadian in Northern Alberta, known as Logan or Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Jackman, who looks like his fellow Australian Mel Gibson -- with an Elvis pompadour, werewolf face fuzz, metal claws and self-healing skin.

Jackman brings a mischievous charm to his part, which makes him a standout in a film that, at times, is almost numbingly poker-faced. Singer, who helped write the screenplay, wants the movie to be serious. The word "mutant" can stand in for any discriminated-against minority from Jewish (the opening scene shows the Nazi evacuation of Jews from a Polish ghetto) to black to gay.

It doesn't work. First, it perpetrates the invidious tradition that there are "good ones" and "bad ones" in minorities. Also, the X-Men are too silly, fantasy characters with maddeningly specific and odd gifts. None of that "wily Odysseus" or "Iseult the Fair" for these heroes and heroines. Instead, there are characters like Magneto who can create magnetic fields; Mystique (Rebecca Romijin-Stamos) the purple-but-sexy shape-shifter and Toad, who has a long flexible tongue and liquid cement for spit.

All these characters with their odd powers are inherently absurd and they throw a barrel of wrenches into the machinery of a coherent narrative. When it comes down to Storm Girl versus Toad Boy, it's hard to care who wins.