Graphic novels and old-fashioned comics have never combined their strengths so gracefully as in this rock-’em, sock-’em film adaptation of the popular superheroes, those ironic mutant outcasts who call themselves the X-Men. Although Bryan Singer’s movie sports the careful, dramatic compositions and smart swagger of a pen-and-ink indie tome, it’s as pulpily exciting as anything meant to be read under the covers with a flashlight. It’s probably able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, too, but mere supermandom is too 20th-century for these specialists. The very idea of the single hero—the one supersized male upon whom the trembling urbanites depend—is no longer relevant in X-Men’s “not too distant future.”

The time is soonish, the mood is that of a hanging court, and the concern is tolerance. An ambitious senator (Bruce Davison) sees anti-mutant fervor as his fast road to notoriety, whipping up hysteria among the citizenry with his shadowy premonitions of doom should “they” be allowed to teach our children or marry our daughters. Self-righteous politicians, talk of mutant registration, and homemade hate posters in the hands of American children: These signposts alert the preferred comics readership and their allies—whether they’re a sexual or ethnic minority, or the social minority of frustrated kids too smart to make cool friends—that this is a story on their side. Every weirdo, freak, and outcast can be a superhero—it’s freakishness that makes one super—and if one is of the particularly bitter sort, there are worse fates than ending up an elegant archvillain.

The persecuted mutants, actually genetically superior beings naturally selected to improve mankind’s physical evolution, have safe harbor with Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), the wheelchair-bound telepathic headmaster of a school for gifted children, sort of a sexy mutant Hogwarts. It’s there that a tremulous young girl named Rogue (Anna Paquin) washes up, in the company of the tormented, steel-lined Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Under the care of Xavier and the gorgeous, brainy Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen, growing out of her supermodel looks and into real womanly beauty), Rogue learns how to deal with her power while Wolverine tries to recollect the source of his.

X-perts will find much to love in this well-chosen slice of X-life, but it’s tailor-made for newbies. It’s basically Rogue’s origin story, with great heaping doses of Wolverine action as he clashes with hunky Cyclops (James Marsden) over Jean Grey’s attentions and battles the evil shape-shifting siren Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos in a nubbly blue bodysuit and slick red hairdo; she’d better give them back to David Bowie after the shooting). There’s a little too little of Storm (Halle Berry); and other characters, like Jubilee, aren’t depicted but hinted at among Xavier’s students and their nifty parlor tricks—this thing has about a million built-in sequels. And naturally, Charles Xavier and the haunted archvillain Erik (Ian McKellen, Euro-sexy in black turtlenecks) head toward a spectacular showdown, the kind of time-honored meeting of great cartoon powers that requires lines such as “Come! The U.N. summit is approaching; time for our little test.”

Although X-Men muddles a bit in the principles department—it’s kind of an anguished cry for law-abiding assimilation—it has the courage of its comic-book convictions. It is one beautiful movie: The digital effects are both spectacular and restrained; the chilly minimalist future it envisions manages to look impressive with its gee-whiz futurism, not at all like a bad ’80s video. The story is drawn darkly, with a deep sense of its own perversity, and the laughs are genuinely funny tension-breakers rather than moments of contrived quirkiness meant to endear the characters to us. Paquin is touchingly lost, bundled up and hair loose like a medieval princess, in her pre-Rogue-as-we-know-her days. But it’s Jackman, feral and loving it, who gives this primo action flick the rebel coolness, sharp claws, and gymnastic oomph that screams “summer blockbuster.” As Wolverine hoists his belongings and gives one last look at his mutant pals before presumably setting out to find his roots, you can’t help but hope Tom Cruise has the good sense to open M:I-3 as a Christmas movie next year.

But I’m a Cheerleader combines cutesiness and earnestness in such concentrations that the resulting concoction lies uneasily in the stomach. In fact, much of Jamie Babbit’s squeezably soft debut feature heads for the body’s quease centers—the delirious Barbie fantasy of its bubble-pink set design, the strident camp of the stunt casting, the way the shrill but sentimental pro-tolerance message melts into a fondue of gluggy softcore. The cumulative effect is roughly equivalent to the mix of pleasure and stridency of one of those Fantasyland rides at Disneyland—Alice in Wonderland, say; you lurch off relieved that the horrible high-pitched happy song is fading behind you, but vaguely wondering why the world shouldn’t be entirely composed of beautifully molded, fluorescent plastic objects.

The film opens with a montage of slowly bouncing, somersaulting cheerleaders, skirts afly and panties askew, to the tune of April March’s “Chick Habit,” an English-language version of Serge Gainsbourg’s greatest gift to France Gall, “Laisser Tombez les Filles.” Silliness, sensuality, and voyeurism all converge on the flat bellies of the nubile, often headless subjects, summing up the movie’s knowing take on teenage sexual confusion.

The confusee in this case is ultra-teen Megan (Natasha Lyonne, whose slight frogginess charges up her good looks). While all the kids around her dress in black, Megan goes about in fetishistic parodies of proper girlwear—Doris Day summer dresses, teased blond bouffant. Although Megan runs with the cool kids and dates the captain of the football team, she looks blankly over his shoulder while he mashes his mouth on hers, and, unbidden, memories of some of her teammates’ more strenuous moves pop into her head. Eventually, her family stages an intervention and packs her off to True Directions, a rehab camp for gay teens.

Babbit is a with-us-or-against-us pamphleteer with a marshmallow heart. Not satisfied with youthful sexual ambiguity, she has the interventionists trot out artifacts and behaviors with a McCarthyesque zeal, as if the satire of lame homo cliches in Heathers (designer water, a glossy of Joan Crawford) had never happened. She makes another unsettling potion by pouring protest-too-much images of heterosexuality—straight camp—into a flask of dubious cultural “evidence.” If a Melissa Etheridge poster and weird helmet hair a lesbian make, then many a high school girl and diner waitress must be guilty.

So logic isn’t the film’s forte—art direction and spoofery are. Babbit’s satire of the gay-rehab movement is depicted with such hallucinatory energy that it’s clearly fueled by naked rage. True Directions’ director, Mary (Cathy Moriarty, one of filmdom’s many sliding blondes), has enough psychosexual rigidity to make Nurse Ratched look like Clara Barton. At the camp, Megan meets mixed-up and defiant stereotypes her own age, who are for the most part thrilled to be locked in their overstuffed princess bedrooms with each other night after night, fighting their urges with the aid of a hand-held privates zapper. Cheerleader’s parody of analysis and behavior modification is often outrageous without ever being very funny; at the “roots” session, where they all reveal the things that turned them gay, Megan says, “My mother was married in pants.”

Casting seems to have been accomplished thanks to a Rolodex of cult-film names—Bud Cort and Mink Stole play Megan’s parents; RuPaul in tiny short shorts is the whistle-blowing male who brings a new meaning to the term “camp counselor.” And Babbit’s singleminded yay-gay thrust brings all the sad old stereotypes out of the closet for a distressing airing: There’s a nearby counter-haven for the teens who reject True Directions, run by a pair of aging, bickering queens festooned with prideful rainbow banners.

Stuffed into pink outfits and forced to love vacuuming and diapering, Megan and the sexy misfit Graham (Girl, Interrupted’s Clea DuVall) make goo-goo eyes at each other. Graham is rich, smart, and scandalous, a minx-faced scamp with floppy black hair, and DuVall is swell to watch even if the romance proves less that love is love no matter what than that someone in charge has watched The World of Henry Orient and its topsy-turvy, estrogen-soaked, coming-of-age madness way too many times. The straight-camp goofs, the hypersexualized atmosphere that flies under Mary’s radar, and the bewildered but resilient kids’ refusal to succumb turn out to be the movie’s chief charms, but no new converts will be made at this particular revival meeting, and Babbit’s relish for lifestyle-cliches-as-life might even lose her some congregants. CP

See Mark Jenkins’ Talking Pictures interview with Babbit on Page 42.