The mutants are threatened with extinction in Bryan Singer’s first high-octane sequel…
Bryan Singer’s X-Men ended with its main villain, Magneto (Ian McKellen), being incarcerated in a specially-built plastic prison; a genius idea that sort of defines the sequel. Not only did Singer escape the shackles of Fox somewhat, receiving more time and control, but X2 (invariably-titled X2: X-Men United or X-Men 2) is definitely about escaping adversity and persecution in every frame. This is summed up infamously by Iceman’s oh-so-subtle “coming out” to his parents that probably wasn’t the studio’s idea. Even the trailers bore the tagline, “It’s time for those who are different to stand united.” Singer’s follow-up is at once a social comment and a superior action flick that pays off everything in its admirably flawed predecessor.
The public’s apprehension about the mutants is only the tip of the iceberg. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is trying to discover more about a past taken from him; the virtuous teleporter Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) is being used against his will to incite human-mutant war; the young and petulant Pyro (Aaron Stanford) is insecure about his place in the X-Men’s world; and Xavier’s school is infiltrated by the military, headed by the scheming Stryker (Brian Cox) who has a personal vendetta against mutantkind. This film is so stuffed with tension and is so relentlessly-paced that it completely outstrips the 2000 film, with Singer’s handling of the myriad plotlines and dozens of characters remaining coherent and skilful.
That isn’t to say the characterisations are water-tight, though, with a script that still takes unnecessary liberties. Jackman’s Logan/Wolverine continues to be the main focus in a team-oriented saga, which inevitably means that longstanding personalities like Storm (Halle Berry), Rogue (Anna Paquin) and the forever-mistreated Cyclops (James Marsden) are pushed to the wayside. It’s also unfortunate that the limited development needed to nudge Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) towards the Phoenix was ultimately wasted in Brett Ratner’s mindnumbing Last Stand. But we can’t hold that against X-Men 2, and Singer’s odd misstep or his lack of comic book appreciation never spoils the fun here.
X2 is a spectacularly well-made film to this day, and perhaps only Days of Future Past has come close since to matching the quality of it in terms of overall craft. If we can fault the original’s effects today, I have few such qualms with X2. From the amazing opening set-piece in the White House to the climactic, dam-busting showstopper, this is still good popcorn fodder delivered with intelligence and wit. Though a “deep” film philosophically, Singer never forgets he’s making an entertainment and X2 is littered with hilarious moments like Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) having to seduce an overweight security guard or Cyclops’ car blasting out NSYNC much to the annoyance of Logan. There’s enough levity to divert young minds away from the weighty themes of genocide, homophobia, xenophobia, and any other phobia you can name…
The plot is fantastic and reasonably bleak for a “family” flick, inciting a palpable fear in the characters that shows new sides to all of them. I particularly like that the altruistic Xavier (the sublime Patrick Stewart) has to deal with the fact that his creation – the telepath-boosting “Cerebro” – might be used to kill mutants or humans. Or even the fact that he might have failed past students. None of these “heroes” are perfect and you want to find out more about each and every one of them due to the cast’s fantastic turns. If Stewart and McKellen naturally steal the proceedings, there’s still fine performances from Jackman and co., with Cox providing the embodiment of society’s bile with his hissable villainy. They’re all committed to this material.
Singer also pushed the PG-13 rating as far as it could go and, having revisited this film, I was surprised at how violent it is. The scene in which Magneto escapes his plastic domain is perhaps the best example, extracting iron from a man’s blood in the most insidious fashion possible. Or how about Wolverine’s grisly battle with the similarly Adamantium-filled Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu)? It’s actually hard to call this suitable for kids at times, and that’s perfectly fine by me.
If I had to pick my favourite entry in the series to date, it would undoubtedly be Future Past, a more faithful and exciting version of the comic universe in many ways. Yet X2 is a great second or third-best made by the most proficient helmsman the franchise has had to date. Its flaws are minor in the grand scheme of things, and it provides classic scene after classic scene of super-powered carnage. Today, it’s one of the most underrated sequels of all time…
- On The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Hugh Jackman related a story about something that happened during the filming of the Weapon X flashback scene: while he was filming the corridor run (in which he is nude and backlit), he turned the corner and saw the female cast members, including James Marsden’s mother, waiting for him, hooting and waving dollar bills.
- Even though it is never referenced in the films, Nightcrawler is actually the son of Mystique and Azazel, a member of the Hellfire Club who would be introduced in X-Men: First Class. He gained his mother’s blue skin and his father’s slightly demonic appearance and teleportation abilities.
- Magneto’s line “When will these people learn how to fly?” is a reference to the fact that some of the characters (Jean Grey and also Rogue, who gets the ability from permanently absorbing Ms. Marvel’s powers in the comics) have the ability to fly in the comics but haven’t yet in the films. The only characters with the power of flight in the comics that have shown this ability in the movies are Magneto and Storm (although Storm was manipulating wind currents to levitate herself, and Magneto was only able to levitate by standing on metal – presumably he wears shoes with metal sole-plates to do this in other occasions).
- Singer credits the X-Men graphic novel “God Loves, Man Kills” (released in 1982) as an influence for the script. As in the film, the novel concerns William Stryker (a religious leader instead of a military one) building a replica of Cerebro and kidnapping Professor Xavier so he can use it to kill all mutants. The X-Men are forced to ally themselves with Magneto to stop him.