Like its predecessor (2000’s X-Men), I approached X2: X-Men United as much from a fan’s perspective as a critic’s. I have enjoyed the Marvel characters for years, and I often read the comic books featuring them. Some people were surprised when I awarded the original film four stars and placed it on my year-end “ten best” list. However, the movie was designed to reward fans, and I left the theater knowing that the X-Men had been adapted both faithfully and imaginatively; something I loved had been adapted to match my expectations. The new sequel was therefore something I could hardly wait to see, and again the adaptation is good. X2 builds nicely on the ideas and themes of the original, suggesting this could be a long-running film franchise.
The story begins in the White House, where a new mutant – Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) – attacks the President. He does so to make a point about some upcoming anti-mutant legislation. (See the original for reference points.) One of the government’s top military advisors, William Stryker (Brian Cox), is a leader in the anti-mutant fight. He pays a jailhouse visit to Magneto (Ian McKellen) and convinces the mutant leader to provide information about the location of the famed mutant compound run by Charles Xavier, a.k.a. Professor X. Specifically, he wants information about Cerebro, the machine that allows Xavier to identify and locate mutants around the globe. The compound is invaded and the X-Men must run for their lives. This leads to a series of subplots: Magneto escapes from prison, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) discovers that Stryker is a figure from his forgotten past, Xavier discovers that Stryker is engaging in a personal vendetta against him. The X-Men band together to stop Stryker from taking control of Cerebro; they also must deal with Magneto and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), who have a hidden agenda which, as fans know, has to do with starting a “mutant war.”
As for the X-Men themselves, Wolverine continues to struggle with his cloudy past. He also continues to flirt with Jean Gray (Famke Jannsen), much to this dismay of her boyfriend Cyclops (James Marsden). Rogue (Anna Paquin) has a boyfriend too: the Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), who can freeze things on command. Other X-Men are Storm (Halle Berry), who is able to change the weather at will, and Pyro (Aaron Stanford), who can manipulate fire and who finds himself tempted by Magneto. In the end, it will be up to these heroes to not only stop Stryker, but also to prevent Magneto from furthering his life’s mission of making mutants the dominant life form on earth.
When they were co-created by the legendary Stan Lee decades ago, the X-Men were meant to symbolize those who were devalued by society. Given that the civil rights and gay rights movements were coming into prominence at that time, it’s not a stretch to see that the characters were intended to help dispel prejudices, especially in the eyes of youthful comic book readers. The X-Men were a reminder that we are all different in some way; condemning others because of their differences is just as wrong as if someone condemned us because of ours. X2 continues to build on this idea in subtle ways. For example, there’s a terrific scene in which Iceman has to “come out” to his parents, who don’t know he’s a mutant. “Couldn’t you try being…not a mutant?” his confused mother asks. This scene is clearly meant to resemble a homosexual teenager coming out to his family. The movie’s empathy is clearly with young Iceman, who is in every respect a normal kid who just happens to be a mutant. I love the fact that the movies capture the depth and hidden themes of the characters. The X-Men were always more than superheroes, and the film adaptations are more than mindless popcorn superhero movies.
In some ways X2 is better than the original movie. The action scenes are even more creative, using (but not overusing) some top quality special effects. For example, when the X-Plane is being chased by missile-bearing military jets, Storm creates a field of tornadoes as a diversion. There’s also a sensational fight scene between Wolverine and another mutant who has adamantium claws just like his own. The way Magneto breaks out of his glass prison is pretty cool too. Perhaps the most memorable action involves Nighcrawler, who is a “transporter,” meaning he can evaporate himself and reappear someplace else. The effect used to achieve this is unlike any I have seen in a movie before. Not since we first witnessed “morphing” in Terminator 2: Judgement Day has there been a special effect that has gained so much advance buzz among fans. Best of all, the impressiveness of the effect adds something to our understanding of Nightcrawler’s abilities. It’s another example of the imagination that went into every frame of X2. Director Bryan Singer takes the style of action he created in the original and amps it up a notch or two, creating a really exciting comic book-style adventure.
The performances remain a key to the success of this franchise. Ian McKellan and Patrick Steward lend essential gravity to the roles of Professor X and Magneto. They were always lynchpins of the comics, and the movie holds true in its portrayal of their rivalry. (There’s something about hearing McKellan bellow the words “you should have killed me while you had the chance” that sends a chill of ecstasy up the spine of any X-Men devotee.) Rebecca Romijn-Stamos has more to do this time, so she has more opportunity to turn Mystique into a real character instead of just a special effect. Some of the others, particularly Halle Berry and XX, are given a little less to do, so they don’t make as strong an impression. Wolverine remains a core character, though, and he really deserves a movie all his own, so compelling is he. No actor has inhabited the spirit of a comic character the way Hugh Jackman has. Michael Keaton as Batman came close, but Jackman really becomes Wolverine. If the filmmakers did nothing else right, it would be crucial to cast this role properly, as Wolverine is by far the most adored mutant by the fans. Not only did they cast him properly, they cast him brilliantly. Jackman is superb.
My sole complaint with X2 (as a fan and as a critic) is that there are so many characters, so many subplots, that by the end it starts to feel a little overcrowded. Certain ideas that might have been developed more have to fight for space with other ideas. The screenplay tries to wrap everything up (and it does), but with so much going on I found it hard to keep track of certain things. Even so, I’d rather have too much of a good thing rather than not enough.
X2: X-Men United is a terrific piece of entertainment, as well as one of the best of the comic book adaptations to date. You don’t need to be a fan of the books to enjoy the movie, although you should at least have a passing knowledge of them (the first movie provides more than sufficient information). However, if you are a fan, the witty screenplay puts in little things that are just for you. Among them is the film’s coda, a bit of brief voice-over narration that hints at what is to come in X3. Those who don’t know may wonder, but those of us who get it will be craving the next installment in a big, big way.
( 1/2 out of four)
X2: X-Men United is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action/violence, some sexuality and brief language. The running time is 2 hours and 13 minutes.
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