Hollywood never got that popular comic books are lapped up because of their pervasive simplicity, in terms of characters, conflicts, storyline and text and pictorial depictions. Even the good-vs.-evil divide tends to be as bold and clear as the bubbled, monosyllabic wording. But, following in the overproduced steps of the Batman and Superman franchises, comes X-Men, an adaptation of the popular Stan Lee and Jack Kirby comic-book characters and stories, transferred to the big screen with a reported $75 million budget and 470 visual-effects shots.

With regard to playoff, X-Men, the first mass-market feature from acclaimed director Bryan Singer, may have even more in common with its first cousin The X-Files, the similarly titled actioner from the same studio and adapted from yet another popular franchise. Like the David Duchovny starrer, X-Men is sure to make big splashes in early weekends, bringing in hordes of fans under 35. But filmgoers unfamiliar with the hero mutants may line up elsewhere, leaving X-Men, like The X-Files, short of the $100 million box-office benchmark.

Faithful to its origins and set in the near-future, X-Men tells the story of a group of ultra-gifted mutants who are outcasts of society, thanks largely to the ultra-right-wing campaigning and fanatical McCarthy-like tactics of Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison), who regards them as a supreme menace that must be closely monitored. (In this cinematic retelling, the mutants and their battle with the status quo suggest a metaphor for gay rights.)

The mutant faction includes Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who runs a school for mutants, and his arch-rival Magneto (Ian McKellen), a malevolent figure who believes that mutants and ordinary humans cannot co-exist. Among the good 'guys' on Xavier's side are his colleague Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), one of earth's most powerful telepaths and telekinetics; Storm (Halle Berry), who manipulates weather conditions; and Cyclops (James Marsden), whose gaze is so strong it can release an optic blast that can barrel through a mountain. New recruits to Xavier's side-mavericks Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), with very long claws of steel, and Rogue (Anna Paquin), who absorbs the powers of anyone she touches-suggest a subplot of emotional exploration that never delivers.

Xavier's faction must band together and fight Magneto, whose evil Brotherhood of Mutants also includes the growling Sabretooth (Tyler Mane) and jump wizard Toad (Ray Park). Appearing to give Magneto's side a definite edge against Xavier is another Brotherhood member, Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), who can transform herself into anyone or anything she sees.

The Xavier/Magneto showdown, which builds up throughout the film via newscasts of the impending event, takes place at New York's Ellis Island, where 200 of the world's top leaders have gathered for a U.N. convention. Magneto wants to wipe out these high-powered politicos, and New York City while he's at it. Xavier and his team must thwart these dastardly plans.

At film's end, there's a detente between the rivals that blatantly sets up the possibility for sequels. Unfortunately, this rapprochement also destroys a basic narrative catharsis that results from the traditional triumph of good over evil. Or is this Singer's cynical statement for the new millennium?

Though failing to achieve Matrix-like proportions, X-Men does offer some great fight scenes and plenty of showy special effects that will satisfy thrill-seeking fans. But the Terminator-like morphing and the clanking metal of the thick doors, vast chambers and metal claws, and the many tricks of these gifted mutants won't be to everyone's taste.

David Hayter's screenplay, his first produced work, has only one or two witty moments and no emotional tugs within the serviceable whole. With so many of the mutant heroes so outrageously gifted, it's hard to believe that anyone is ever in any real danger. Finally, there's the nagging question of why these mutants are called 'X-Men,' when females are so prominent among them.

--Doris Toumarkine