Generating X

Singer had never heard of the comic book until 1995, when Tom DeSanto, his Apt Pupil coproducer and an X-fan, tried to interest his friend in an X-Men feature. Producer Lauren Shuler Donner and Fox had held the rights since 1994, but were unable to get a movie off the ground (at one point, James Cameron flirted with the project). Early attempts to nail a screenplay proved either too expensive (one envisioned Magneto turning Manhattan into a mutant homeland) or too unfaithful (another hinged on a romance between the short-tempered Wolverine and statuesque weather witch Storm).

DeSanto thought that the director of The Usual Suspects was exactly what an X-Men movie required: a stylish storyteller, adept at spinning a tricky yarn with many colorful characters. Fox and Shuler Donner thought so too, even if Singer had never handled the technical complexity of a typical superhero movie. But in the wake of the Batman series' creative flameout under Joel Schumacher, everyone agreed that a change was in order. ''The genre needed a fresh approach, and this material was right for it,'' says Tom Rothman, Twentieth Century Fox Film Group president, echoing the same rationale that had led to other recent auteur/franchise flick pairings, including John Woo/Mission: Impossible 2 and John Singleton/Shaft. ''Is Bryan a bold choice? Yes. But a necessary one.''

Yet Singer balked at this pitch twice. ''I had no interest in it because I didn't know what it was,'' says Singer, 34. ''It was just a comic book.'' But when DeSanto and Co. pressed him a third time in July '96, the director finally took a look, ''just so I could have something to say.'' Guess what? ''It was just really interesting,'' says Singer, citing the richness of the characters and the ongoing metaphor for discrimination and ostracism — something he could easily relate to. ''I had the privilege of both being a nerd and doing horribly at school, and the result was feeling completely unknown very often,'' says Singer. ''I got picked on for everything. I was weird looking. I wore the same clothes all the time. But as you get older you find that everybody has something that makes them feel different, which is why X-Men has proved so appealing.''

Singer would eventually characterize his vision as a ''terribly complex mixture'' of allegory and action-adventure, but he would struggle to bring that vision into focus. Clocking in at a lean 104 minutes, his finished product would seem to favor substance over spectacle. It took DeSanto and Singer more than three years and at least five writers (including Men in Black's Ed Solomon and The Usual Suspects' Christopher McQuarrie) to condense the comic's unwieldy lore into a screenplay. But they never truly nailed it; Shuler Donner says the script was rewritten ''drastically'' throughout production by newcomer David Hayter (who receives sole screenplay credit). Seeking to make the fantasy as plausible as possible, Singer was flummoxed by superhero conventions. Convinced that no one would ever wear skintight Spandex to a fight, he opted to refit the X-Men with ready-to-rumble black leather. Confused by some of the characters' code names, he believed the movie should provide explanations for all of them. ''He was always challenging things,'' says DeSanto. '''Because they're superheroes and that's what they do' wasn't good enough.'' There was also debate over the style of the film's fight sequences, thanks to the new standard set by The Matrix, which hit while X-Men was in preproduction. Hence, the movie features some high-flying Matrix-y martial-arts choreography by Corey Yuen (Romeo Must Die).