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X-hilarating or X-cruciating? X-men heading to theaters

Will it be X-hilarating? Or X-cruciating?

Captain Comics is referring, of course, to Twentieth Century Fox's "X-Men" movie, scheduled to begin filming in September in Toronto. Casting is being announced, and it appears to be a go for 2000, as much as anything can be predicted in Hollyweird.The problem, as all True Believers know, is that Marvel Comics has an appalling track record in bringing its characters to the screen. Aside from last year's "Blade" and the odd "Incredible Hulk" TV movie, Marvel's cinema efforts have been X-ecrable.

Remember the mediocre "Punisher" (1990)? The wretched "Dr. Strange" (1978)? The unspeakable "Captain America" movies (1979, 1992)? And even George Lucas ended up with egg on his face with "Howard the Duck" (1986)!

Worse, the spectacular crash and burn of "Batman & Robin" at the box office last year sparked a re-evaluation in Hollywood's executive suites of all comics-related movies. "X-Men," which once boasted a budget of $100 million or more, has been downgraded to the paltry $65 million range. We might end up with F/X on the order of those cheesy Styrofoam boulders on old "Star Trek."

Speaking of "Star Trek," though, the ace in the hole of the X-project is Patrick Stewart, who signed on last month. Stewart, whose stentorian tones and classy style could make a "Baywatch" script sound literate, played the chrome-domed Capt. Picard on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and will portray the equally follicle-challenged Charles Xavier. Prof. X, the heart and soul of Marvel's merry mutants, couldn't be in more capable hands.

Other cast and crew include director Bryan Singer at the helm, Sir Ian McKellen as chief bad guy Magneto, former wrestler Tyler Mane as the psychopathic Sabretooth, Dougray Scott as the feral Wolverine and Anna Paquin as the untouchable heroine Rogue.