X2: X-Men United (2003) – Directed by Bryan Singer – Starring Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Brian Cox, Alan Cumming, Kelly Hu, Anna Paquin, Shawn Ashmore, Daniel Cudmore, and Bruce Davison.
X2: X-MEN UNITED is a bit of a weird film for me.
For starters, there’s the title, which is both dumb and wrong. What the hell is X2? In other parts of the world they called it X-MEN 2, but not here in the States. The stupidity of trying to build and capitalize on a franchise by not using it’s name in the title is … strange. (The X-MEN UNITED part isn’t part of the official title, it’s just how the film has increasingly been marketed.) Luckily, this naming trend started and ended with X2 because it’d be really silly if we were all gearing up for IM3, T2, and CA2. And would we refer to The Dark Knight Rises as TDK2 or B3?
That’s the dumb half. The wrong part comes after the colon: X-MEN UNITED. The X-Men did not suffer from a lack of being united in the previous film, so really, this title is saying X2: STILL UNITED. Or X2: BABYSITTER WOLVERINE. The film would have been more properly entitled MUTANTS UNITED, because that’s what the film delves into, the uneasy and temporary unification of Xavier and Magneto’s forces in the face of a shared threat. But they didn’t want to use “Mutants” because … because they wanted to reinforce “X-Men” in the title? So … I don’t know … why not just call it … X-MEN 2, maybe?
In my review of X-MEN, I noted how much I enjoyed James Marsden’s performance as Cyclops. I would liked to have see more of him in X2, but he’s practically shelved, existing only to push Xavier’s wheelchair and then to try to blast Jean into atoms when he’s a mind-controlled puppet. (Which some would argue he already is for Xavier.) Similarly, the only member of Magneto’s Brotherhood that would have wanted to see return was Ray Park’s Toad because he’s the only one who had any kind of actual spark to his personality. He’s completely missing from the film. Instead, we get more Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and more Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), two characters I did not want to see with expanded roles.
And here’s where it gets weird for me.
Despite my reservations about the character choices (a movie title isn’t going to affect my enjoyment of a film – that was just me having a go), it works. It works beautifully. X2 is a fantastic movie from start to finish. Director Bryan Singer delivers a confident, fast-paced film that’s full of great character moments. Janssen’s Jean Grey still doesn’t work for me – it’s like her superpower is to rob herself of any discernible personality – and the Jean Grey/Logan subplot feels incredibly forced and emotionless, but everything else about this movie works very well.
Once again, this is primarily Wolverine’s movie, and once again Hugh Jackman delivers an outstanding performance. Logan is much more centered this time around, as Xavier’s school has become a welcome port in the storm for his personal troubles. Going into the film, I would have thought that building a story around Logan at Xavier’s as opposed to Logan out looking for his past was a mistake, but again, X2 serves to prove how wrong I can be. When Logan comes back to Xavier’s everyone (except maybe Scott) is glad to see him and, just as importantly, he’s content to be back. The narrative instantly jettisons all of the other adults at the school – Jean and Storm (Halle Berry) head to Boston to track down Nightcrawler (Alan Cmumming), while Scott (James Marsden) and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) are off to visit Magneto (Ian McKellan) in his plastic prison – leaving Wolverine as Head Babysitter in Charge.
In my review of X-MEN, I noted that Jackman’s Wolverine was about as menacing as a bar of Ivory Soap. Here, however, Jackman does a much better job letting out a little feral anger and it comes during his time as babysitter. It’s a very strong move on Singer’s part, as it both humanizes Wolverine (not that we needed much more of that) and gives him a meaningful avenue to cut loose.
The cutting loose happens during a military raid on Xavier’s. Colonel William Stryker (Brian Cox) is an anti-mutant military scientist with grand designs on using Xavier, Cerebro, and his own son Jason to commit mutant genocide. It’s Stryker who arranges Nightcrawler’s assassination attempt on the President, Stryker who’s practically lobotomized his son (who happens to be a former student of Xavier’s), Stryker who was involved in turning Logan into Wolverine, and Stryker who just generally prowls through the movie as a picture of total confidence and badassery.
Stryker leads a full on assault on Xavier’s School, and it demonstrates how far Singer has come in directing action scenes. Despite the fact that the assault takes place over three separate floors of the mansion, plus outside, plus a hidden passageway, I’m never lost during the raid. Logan and Bobby Drake (a very good Shawn Ashmore) are having an engaging surrogate-parent-to-new-boyfriend chat in the kitchen when the raid starts, and when Logan realizes what’s going on … well, the claws come out and he finally unleashes something close to Wolverine’s primal rage. While X2 doesn’t offer much in the way of blood, there’s no doubt that Wolverine is going hardcore with these soldiers. His claws flash and slash and his face snarls and growls as Logan barks orders at the elder students and puts himself at the focal point of the soldier’s attack.
Brian Cox proves himself the perfect foil for not only Wolverine, but Xavier and Magneto, too. He’s the best part of the movie, and his character gives the film a real, solid villain around which Xavier and Magneto’s philosophical debates are forced to take a backseat to an imminent threat. It’s a really impressive turn from Cox. While there’s not as much depth to Stryker as there is to some of the other great villains in superhero cinema, Cox’s performance is no less impressive. I just keep coming back to his ability to manipulate the President, to make Magneto show real fear, to horrify Xavier with what he’s done to his son, and constantly stick the needle in Wolverine’s side. How many other villains have played off so many other characters so effectively?
After Stryker’s assault is only marginally successful – thanks to not only Logan, but Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), who helps shepherd the bulk of the students out of the mansion via secret passageways. While Colossus gets the kids out, Logan, Bobby, Rogue (Anna Paquin), and John/Pyro (Aaron Stanford) jump into Cyke’s Mazda and head to Boston.
Okay, as much as I like the film, here’s where the story burps a few times. Logan is so focused on getting to Boston to hook up with Jean and Storm that not enough thought is given to the rest of the kids from school. And this film was released in 2003 and takes place in the near future – why doesn’t anyone have an actual cell phone to call ahead? All they’ve got is some super advanced communication device that you can’t dial.
When they get to Boston, they immediately stop in at Bobby Drake’s house. Bobby gets new clothes for him and Rogue, then they play a bit of kissy face before she starts to suck out his essence. The Rogue/Bobby relationship is handled nicely; it doesn’t get a lot of screen time but Paquin and Ashmore do a good job selling it. I wish, too, the film had devoted more time to the Logan and Bobby relationship, but again, Jackman and Ashmore get everything out of their limited interaction that’s possible to get out of it.
At the Drake house, Bobby’s parents and brother come back and Bobby comes out of the mutant closet to his parents. “Have you tried … not being a mutant?” his mother asks, which is a nice line but a stupid one, too. There has to be a strong enough understanding of mutants that people know you can’t just turn the switch off and stop being one, but Bobby’s parents honestly do a pretty good job immediately absorbing what their son has just told them. They’re not enlightened, but they don’t turn their back on him.
That job falls to his brother, who calls the cops and tells them they’re being held hostage in their house. The cops arrive and we get a showdown between them and the four mutants. Logan gets shot in the head, which allows the scenario to play out with Rogue and Pyro standing in for Xavier and Magneto. He wants to elevate tensions and she wants to dampen them. It’s a good scene and it sets up John’s eventual turn away from Xavier and towards Magneto.
The Blackbird shows up but the military shoots it down and lucky for the X-Men, Magneto just happens to be standing there to catch the jet in his magnetic field. We get a really nice scene where both sides of the mutant political spectrum are forced to work together to head to Alkali Lake to rescue Xavier, Scott, and the few students who were captured. The last half hour of the film does lose some momentum as we get lots of fighting in tunnels, but Cox is always around to make life difficult for everyone. There’s a really good, really violent fight between Wolverine and Stryker’s pet mutant Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu), and the film ends with Jean saving everyone and sort of becoming the Phoenix, minus all of that Phoenix Force space stuff.
It’s a heroic ending, but I wasn’t disappointed that Jean ends up at the bottom of the lake. Her character was all sorts of suck in these two movies and I’m glad she won’t be back for the third-
Oh. That’s right.
Jean aside, X2 is a darn good movie. It really feels like Singer has figured out how to make superheroes work for him, even if it doesn’t feel like he’s completely comfortable working with superheroes. He still treats the X-Men mythos like a giant buffet from which he can pick and choose at random, but it really works to X2’s benefit. Singer gets better performances from nearly everyone this time around, with Halle Berry and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos making the most of their bulked-up screen time. Alan Cumming is great as Nightcrawler, too. Singer doesn’t oversell his political discourse this time around, and the result is a really solid superhero action film with a good amount of subtext. I wish he hadn’t sidelined Cyclops because James Marsden was excellent in the first film, but most of my complaints with X2 are just me being a jerk because what is here results in a top-notch movie.