X2: X-Men United

X2 X-Men UnitedWith 2000’s X-Men, director Bryan Singer reassured moviegoers who grew disenchanted after years of mediocre schlock like Batman and Robin, The Punisher, and Howard the Duck, that comic book movies could be fantastical and far-fetched while still remaining firmly grounded in reality.  Singer’s cast of mutants were portrayed as real humans with true-to-life struggles common to most of us ordinary folk:  relationships, identity crises, and fitting in.  It also delved far deeper into dark places of the human psyche, contained multi-faceted villains with compelling, even convincing, reasons for wanting to destroy all humanity, and a band of protagonists who were just as flawed as anyone we might meet in real life.  It was a revelation for what comic book movies could be, and sparked a decade of mature-themed comic book movies that culminated in 2008’s near-flawless The Dark Knight.

In short, the bar was set understandably high, and with the return to the X-Men universe with X2, Singer set out to craft a sequel that stayed true first and foremost to the characters and storyline, with whiz-bang special effects and giant action setpieces taking a back seat to character drama and interpersonal conflict.  And for the most part, X2 succeeds in what it sets out to do, which is to continue the struggle between Magneto and Professor Xavier as well as the broader conflict of mutants and the rest of humanity.  It actually ups the ante of almost every aspect of its progenitor, but not just by adding bigger explosions and louder gunfights.

X2 focuses more on Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, as ripped and overly-coiffed as ever) and Magneto (Ian McKellan), and picks up pretty soon after the first one left off.  Magneto is in a plastic prison, and Wolverine is searching for answers to his past at the mysterious Alkali Lake.  Throughout the course of the film’s two hours, Wolverine learns more than he ever bargained for and realizes he needs to let bygones be bygones and get the heck on with his life, while Magneto nearly realizes his ambition to wipe out the whole of humanity who are not (and therefore fear) mutants.

X2 Magneto

"Wingardium Leviosa!"

Along for the ride are a host of characters from the X-Men universe like Cyclops, Jean Grey, Nightcrawler, and all the rest of the usual suspects.  And while the US government, under influence from General Stryker, is hunting down mutants, the X-Men must unite with Magneto and Mystique to stop Stryker from implementing his plan.  Singer is a master at directing ensemble casts and delivering branching storylines, but at times the sheer weight of all the characters, conflicts, and backstories becomes a bit much to handle and some storylines get lost in the shuffle, particularly those of Rogue and Iceman.

What I find most compelling about the first two X-Men movies, though, is the motivation for all parties involved.  At no point are any of the nemeses out to destroy, enslave, punish, or otherwise harm humanity for the sheer monomaniacal desire of doing so.  Magneto, who experienced the result of fear and prejudice first-hand during his time in Nazi concentration camps, envisions a bleak future in which all mutants are cast out like their Jewish counterparts during Hitler’s regime.  And his desire to stop such a future is certainly understandable, if not one which could even be condoned.  Stryker’s son, we find out, is a mutant himself, and his father is so worried and afraid of what mutants could do to humanity that he would seem to be justified in his desire to bring down mutants across the world.  Even Professor X, brought to life with the utmost grace and charisma once again by the marvelous Patrick Stewart, who combined to a wheelchair could out-act nearly anyone else in the film save McKellan, wants only to create a future where mutants and humans can peacefully coexist.  And if that means stopping Magneto, so be it.

X2 Jean Grey and Storm

Jean Grey and Storm, fighting evil and bad hairdos.

There is also a wealth of social allegory in X2, though handled a bit more clumsily than I would have hoped.  “Can’t you just stop being a mutant?” asks Iceman’s confused mother when she finds out he too has special powers.  Faced with a chance to explore the issue of how we face our differences, Singer blows his opportunity and instead marginalizes all who dare to hold counter opinions and instead casts them as ignorant fools.  But all social commentary and characterization aside, X2 also delivers in spades what its predecessor only hinted at:  heapings of big-budget summer-movie action and PG-13 violence.  From the military attack on the Professor X’s school for mutants, to the fight between Wolverine and Deathstrike, to fight scene after fight scene, there’s enough action in X2 to satisfy Michael Bay fans while delivering Kubrick-level characters and Shawshank-style plotlines.  It’s a spectacle to behold (if you can forgive the laughable missile attack on the X-Men Blackbird) and is in nearly every way a worthy follow-up to the original.

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