Original US release date: May 2, 2003
Production budget: $110,000,000
Worldwide gross: $407,711,549
Not too long ago, I did a #ThrowbackThursday column that took a look back at the original X-Men film. Now I’m back to reflect upon the much-lauded follow up, X2: X-Men United. This sequel saw Bryan Singer return to the director’s chair to continue the franchise he kick-started, three years prior. That film saw stellar critical and commercial reception and gave movie studios the confidence to proceed with big-budget films based on comic book properties. As a result, X2‘s budget got a $35 million increase over its predecessor and Singer got a little more freedom to cut loose.
Whereas the original film featured an X-Men team consisting of the so-called “pretty” X-Men (those whose mutations were not readily apparent through their appearance), X2 introduced Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) to the team. His appearance – that of a blue-skinned, sharp-fanged, demonic-looking elf – changes the dynamic of the picture and allows the story to further explore the themes of bigotry and intolerance in a much more direct manner than the first film was able to.
The source of that intolerance is a man named William Stryker (Brian Cox). Stryker is a military scientist determined to wipe mutants off of the planet. His son Jason was born a mutant and was cared for by Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), but Jason’s mutant power was too overwhelming and mentally debilitating. Xavier was unable to help Jason and tragedy followed. Striker uses these events as justification for his prejudices and believes that his desired ends will be justified through any means.
While the themes are similar to the first film (and most resonant X-Men stories), it’s all turned up a notch, here. The events are also significantly more personal. There are meaningful interactions between virtually every pair of characters on the roster. The stakes are high for them as individuals in addition to being high for mutants (and humans), in general. These extra layers add to the senses of scale and urgency. Not only must the X-Men overcome Stryker and his plan to commit mutant genocide, but they are each waging their own internal wars that they each have to survive once (if) the Stryker issue is resolved.
The pacing and story structure is nearly flawless. Every word and action carries weight and meaning. Each character gets to shine, as well. The film could have easily become The Wolverine Show (of which Days of Future Past is largely guilty), but Singer resists. Hugh Jackman’s iconic character certainly gets more screen time than most or all of the others, but he’s not the lone hero who saves the day. He has his moments (an especially brutal battle with Kelly Hu’s Lady Deathstrike being the highlight), but so do Jean, Mystique, Storm, Nightcrawler, Xavier, Rogue, Iceman, Pyro, and Magneto. Even Kitty Pryde and Colossus are awarded memorable cameos, despite not having spots on the team, proper. The only one who mostly gets relegated to the background is Cyclops. He gets some action beats, but is kidnapped by Stryker along with Xavier and spends most of the film in storyline limbo. To be fair, Cyclops is also captured alongside Xavier by Stryker in the Chris Claremont/Brent Eric Anderson classic God Loves, Man Kills, upon which X2 is based. But, then again, so was Storm, so that’s not really an excuse. Cyclops has gotten a raw deal throughout the entire series of X-Men films, never truly being allowed to take center stage, and that’s something that’s always rubbed me the wrong way. But, that’s my personal preference and is essentially irrelevant. In any case, even though Cyclops did get a couple of nice special effects sequences and emotional moments, he never felt important to the team, which sticks out as the film’s only balancing issue.
Taken as a whole, X2: X-Men United is at once an exciting popcorn experience and a thought-provoking metaphor for ongoing human relations issues. It never becomes too heavy-handed, forgetting that it’s primary goal is to entertain, not to preach, but Singer and crew make sure to inject some poignant social subtext underneath all of the optic blasts, adamantium claws, and teleporting elves.
Amongst that subtext is a scene in which Nightcrawler asks Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) why she doesn’t use her shape-changing abilities to look human so that humanity as a whole will accept her. Her simple but powerful response is: “I shouldn’t have to”. That made me think back to the watered-down Mystique that we’ve gotten in the last couple of X-Men films – particularly Apocalypse. In that film, Mystique (now played by Jennifer Lawrence) spends nearly the entire film looking like a normal human, completely spitting in the face of this more complex, idealistic version. I understand that it was in an effort to get Lawrence’s marketable face all over the TV spots and trailers while being as recognizable as possible. Seeing as how Bryan Singer directed Apocalypse, as well, I couldn’t have been more disappointed that he was willing to compromise the character (in addition to compromising several others, including Xavier) because she needed to “look more attractive” in order to attract her built-in audience to the film. It went against everything the franchise and Mystique has always represented and it’s hard for me to comprehend the fact that the same man directed both films.
There are none of those major issues in X2: X-Men United. Singer’s film walks a fine line between mainstream entertainment and indie sensibilities, almost tricking audiences into seeing something with substance. Along the way, he’s faithful to the characters and treats them with love and respect. There’s a reason that, to this day, many people consider X2: X-Men United to be one of the greatest comic book films of all-time. Should Singer continue directing X-Men films in the future, I hope this is the guy who finds his way back. But, if not, we’ll always have X2.
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