Los Angeles There are mutants among you. They may look the same as everyone else, dress the same, walk and talk the same.
But they share one notable difference. They are "X-men" fans, and their day has finally come.
"I sometimes have to pinch myself to make sure I'm not dreaming that the X-men movie is actually coming out next week!" read a recent Internet posting, one of tens of thousands of fan messages floating around the Web about "X-men," which opened Friday.
Born in the wildly popular Marvel Comics series, the X-men are outcasts whose genetic mutations give them such powers as telepathy, rapid healing and shape-shifting. Fans have awaited a big-screen treatment of their favorite comic heroes and villains for as long or longer than audiences yearned for a new "Star Wars" flick.
Countingdown.com, which sets up Web sites for hotly anticipated movies, has found "X-men" fans' eagerness "leap years ahead" of that for other big films, according to site co-founder Phillip Nakov.
About 71,000 "X-men" notes had been posted on Countingdown.com's message board in the past month and a half, compared with just a few hundred for movies like "Mission: Impossible 2" and "The Perfect Storm," Nakov says.
Hoping for a cross-over
The real question for "X-men" is whether the story of genetic mutants living among bigoted "normal" humans will have crossover appeal for mainstream moviegoers.
Marvel, which launched "X-men" in the early 1960s, has embarked on a merchandising blitz pegged to the movie, counting on its potential beyond comic-book readers.
Avi Arad, chief executive of Marvel Studios, said the thoughtful themes of discrimination and alienation should help attract movie viewers who have never read the comic.
"We've all felt like outcasts in one way or another," Arad says. "Being smart or stupid, too tall or short, the feeling of 'Oh, I'm different.' We're all mutants in our own way."
"It's based on powerful, universal themes of people trying to make their place in a world that to a certain extent doesn't want them," says Chris Claremont, a longtime writer for the "X-men" comic books. "It's about the search for family and identity and making a home."
To broaden the movie's appeal, filmmakers lined up a diverse ensemble cast including Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Famke Janssen and Anna Paquin, who won an Academy Award for "The Piano."
Costume designers also dispensed with the characters' gaudy comic-book attire, developing more low-key, realistic outfits. That understated approach should help attract non-comic fans, says Rob Worley, who runs the Web site Comics2Film.com.
"They didn't set out to make a campy adaptation, like the 'Batman' TV series. They didn't put a canary yellow suit on a guy with blue underwear on the outside, like in the comic book," Worley says.
Efforts to widen the audience, however, have led to Internet criticism from die-hard fans, who have complained about the characters' look, the casting and the exclusion of many comic-book mutants from the film.
Some have griped that Janssen's hair and eyes do not match those of her character, Jean Grey, who had flaming orange locks and green eyes in the comic books. One fan last week suggested that drag queen RuPaul would have been a better choice than Berry for the mutant Storm. Another would have preferred Tom Cruise to Australian actor Hugh Jackman for the mutant Wolverine.
Cruise is "short and stocky just like Wolverine," the fan wrote. "Just add sideburns and that interview with a vampire attitude."
"X-men" fans are passionate, says Bryan Singer, the movie's director. "The sheer volume of what they've posted about the movie is what I find fascinating," he says. "There will always be some who will have trouble divorcing themselves from their perception of the comic book."
Singer said a live-action carbon copy of the comics would be impossible, but that the movie is faithful to the "X-men" world and philosophy -- "the concept of being outcasts and surviving and being productive in a world that at times can be oppressive."
McKellen, who plays the mutant Magneto, has his own "X-men" site, where he posts information about the movie. In a fantasy way, he says, "X-men" mutants are standing in for ethnic groups, gays, women or others who have been involved in civil-rights movements.
The conflict between the rabble-rousing Magneto and his more benign mutant friend Professor X (Stewart) reflects the different approaches of black civil-rights leaders in the 1960s, McKellen says.
"Do you forcibly insist upon your rights or quietly work for change?" McKellen says. "Bryan Singer pointed out when we first met that in a way, Professor X is like Martin Luther King and Magneto is Malcolm X."
20th Century Fox, which released the movie, has tried to incite "X-men" mania with the whimsical Web site MutantWatch.com. The site is "sponsored" by Senator Kelly, a politician in the comic books and movie who preaches racism and McCarthyism against the mutants.
If Internet users fail to notice the "paid for by the stop the X-men campaign" in tiny type at the bottom of MutantWatch.com, they might think they were viewing a hate site set up by a wacko who really believes mutants walk among us.
Senator Kelly (played in the movie by Bruce Davison) campaigns for his "mutant-registry" bill, which would encourage teachers to finger disruptive students whom they suspect are genetically enhanced. The site also includes a "genetic-purity" quiz and allows Internet users to report friends as "mutants" in jest.
Countingdown.com set up a Web site dedicated to stopping the "maniacal ravings" of Senator Kelly.
"We're just letting everyone know who this man really is, what his issues are, and allowing mutants around the world to talk about their experiences with discrimination and being different and being persecuted," Nakov joked.
While such efforts are all in good fun, fans take the "X-men" very seriously, debating the tiniest detail with the same devotion "Star Trek" enthusiasts show for their universe.
"Of all the comic books, this is the most important," says Denmon Sherman, 30, of Los Angeles, an "X-men" fan since childhood and creator of his own fan Web site.
"It's got the best message, and it's a lot deeper. It's not just about superheroes," he says. "These people didn't ask to be what they are. It's about judging people based on who they are rather than what you think they are."