Hugh Jackman - Logan/Wolverine
Brian Cox - General William Stryker
Ian McKellen - Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto
Patrick Stewart - Professor Charles Xavier
Famke Janssen - Jean Grey
Halle Berry - Ororo Munroe/Storm
Rebecca Romijn - Mystique
Alan Cumming - Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler
Shawn Ashmore - Bobby Drake/Iceman
Anna Paquin - Rogue
Aaron Stanford - John/Pyro
James Marsden - Scott Summers/Cyclops
Kelly Hu - Yuriko/Lady Deathstrike
Michael Reid McKay - Jason/Mutant No. 142
Genre - Action/Fantasy/Comic Book
Running Time - 134 Minutes
In 2000, Marvel Comics finally scored with an A-list franchise in X-MEN. Directed by Bryan Singer and starring up-and-coming stars along with veterans Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen, the film did well at the box office [one of the Top 10 grossing films of 2000] and with critics as well. After much of the laughable and silly comic book adaptations that mired the 1990s, X-MEN proved that you could take a comic book adaptation seriously if you don't water it down and present it in a mature matter that could appeal to both children and adults.
Even though it wasn't as good of a film as the first two SUPERMAN films, as well as Tim Burton's BATMAN adaptations [comic book films have topped X-MEN since], X-MEN garnered a lot of respect for making major studios take notice that these kind of films can work if you have capable filmmakers and actors behind the scenes. In fact, Sam Raimi probably wouldn't have gotten the budget he received for 2002's SPIDER-MAN [which shattered box office records at the time of its release] if it weren't for the success of X-MEN. With comic book adaptations proving to be real money makers, it was predicted that the potential franchise would yield another installment.
While nowadays, comic book films can probably be seen every other month in theaters, this wasn't the case in 2003. In fact, X2: X-MEN UNITED was announced with great anticipation that was only rivaled with another comic book adaptation, Ang Lee's THE HULK [DAREDEVIL, also a 2003 film, came out months before to do decent business as well]. While THE HULK, a more than decent film in its own right, wasn't really appreciated and didn't really appeal to audiences as well as predicted, X2 was just the opposite. In fact, X2 did monster business on release - due to the fact that popular characters were added, the story was deeper, the production looked better due to a much greater budget, and X2 being the first blockbuster of 2003's summer season. Plus, with Bryan Singer spilling that X2 was leading into his own adaptation of one of the X-Men's greatest stories, The Dark Phoenix Saga, fans of the comics and the cartoons were extremely curious as to how X2 would set that up.
I watched X2 in 2003 on its opening weekend, sitting with a sold out crowd who loved every second of this sequel. I, too, loved the film and responded to it a lot better than how I had responded to the first installment. It had a lot of elements that gave me joy due to the fact that it felt more like an X-Men film than the original had tried to be. I watched it last night for the first time since 2006, appreciating how well made the film is and still being entertained by all 134 minutes of it. And while the film does have flaws, I still consider it one of the best comic book films to ever be released.
Continuing pretty much right after the events of X-MEN, we witness Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) tracking down his roots with lead to a dead-end. He returns to Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters frustrated with the fact that he still doesn't remember his origin. Meanwhile, the mysterious blue-skinned teleporting Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) invades the White House to assassinate the President, but is stopped in time. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) sends Storm (Halle Berry) and an increasingly powerful Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) to find him and get some answers for the attack.
At the same time, General William Stryker (Brian Cox) plans to take his vendetta against mutants to a political level. He convinces the President to hunt them down in order to stop the menace none of them seems to understand. Apparently, Stryker has a deep history with Xavier. His son (Michael Reid McKay) was a one-time student at the school, but was disappointed when Xavier refused to "cure" his son of his "mutant disease". Striker has visited Magneto (Ian McKellen), who has been imprisoned over the Liberty Island ordeal in a plastic cell, to brainwash him to find out the secrets of the X-Men and Cerebro [the mutant location device]. Striker also has a big history with Wolverine, especially since Stryker was the one behind the Weapon X experiment that took away Wolverine's memories and gave him adamantium claws.
Wolverine, realizing that Stryker is dangerous, yet having answers to his questions, protects the younger students of the school - such as Rogue (Anna Paquin), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), and Pyro (Aaron Stanford), from Stryker's vendetta against mutants. The threat is so bad that the X-Men are forced to team up with Magneto and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) to stop Stryker from destroying them all.
X2: X-MEN UNITED is everything you'd want a superhero sequel to be: more action, better special effects and action sequences, more confident acting and direction, and a meaty story that will appeal to both fans and non-fans of the comic book franchise. Bryan Singer proves that X-MEN was nothing more than a setup - an origin film that he needed to get out of the way - in order to build upon it and truly provide audiences a tale where we truly see what these characters are all about. In a lot of ways, Singer seems to have been inspired by THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK [focus more on story than on action, while revealing important information for future installments] and/or STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN [a main character sacrifices herself to set up the next major arc in the franchise], wanting to create that epic second installment that would be considered the best of the series.
The narrative used in X2 is based on a 1982 Chris Claremont written story called "God Loves, Man Kills". The villain of that tale was a man named William Stryker, who used religion as a way to justify racial violence and hatred towards mutants. It's an X-Men story that's not as well known as fare such as "The Dark Phoenix Saga", "Days of Future Past", "Inferno", "The Age of Apocalypse", and other classic moments in the comic books. But "God Loves, Man Kills" is the best source material Singer could have used as the time, as those themes still apply to our modern society for better and for worse. Religion is still being used as a method to discredit sexual orientation, gender rules, and as well as other issues that people have killed each other over. X2, in its core, is a film that is about tolerance and acceptance for the way things are, rather than using anger and misunderstanding as a way to justify violence.
In fact, we have three characters that hold different views and opinions about the issue. Charles Xavier has embraced his mutant gifts and the fact that he won't be as accepted by humans, wanting to help frustrated mutants to see life the same way as he does. He'll only use violence unless he has to, but he would rather not. Magneto has also embraced his gift. But after the Holocaust, he's corrupted by his power, wanting to make sure he's never a victim of genocide ever again. If he has to kill those to strike fear in his opposition, he won't hesitate. And then with William Stryker, he's nothing but a bitter man who blames everyone for having a mutant son except himself. He doesn't understand homo superior at all, using his bitterness as an excuse to hurt those he doesn't understand. While Magneto is indeed a villain, at least he has humanity in him and can back up his feelings. Stryker is just all around evil because he is blinded by his own anger and hatred towards something he was a part of [the father carries the mutant gene]. In a lot of ways, Stryker actually justifies Magneto's stance on the issue, giving his cause a bit more clout and credibility, even if he's a bit extreme about it.
In fact, X2 is a deeper film than any comic book adaptation probably has any right to be. It not only deals with the politics of the situation that could be similar to the government's stance on the gay issue and on immigration in many ways, but also deals with that taboo subject of religion. It's surprising that this aspect was kept in the film for Nightcrawler, even though taking it away would have been a huge mistake since religion plays a huge role in the character. And while religion may shun him away for looking like a demon, he maintains his belief in God and in His teachings, using faith as a motivator for his actions. In fact, one of the stronger moments is his talk with Storm, who has lost all faith due to humans not accepting who she is. It's such a deep, adult moment that most comic book adaptations would probably frown upon, but it just gives X2 a stronger punch because it allows you to actually think about stuff rather than dumb you down for the sake of entertainment.
Speaking of the gay issue, the moment where Bobby has to come out to his parents about being a mutant is definitely an allegory for the coming out for many homosexuals. Bryan Singer, who's openly gay, probably took his own experience to correlate it with the most likely experience for a mutant to admit to his loved ones about who he or she is. Even the moment where Bobby's mom asks him if he ever tried NOT being a mutant is similar in many close-minded people that homosexuality is something one chooses and not born with. I know some people who feel this scene could have been expanded more and/or done in a more effective way because it comes across as awkward. But isn't this moment supposed to be awkward? I honestly have no probably with this scene, especially since it's a human moment in a superhero movie. Plus it leads to an awesome scene where Wolverine gets shot in the head and Pyro embraces his dark side by blowing up cop cars.
As for the actual angles that were presented in X-MEN, some of them do evolve into something deeper. Wolverine's story, for example, is in the forefront here. I feel that Wolverine has become such an overrated character, only because he pops up in 50 comic books in a single month and does the same thing over and over again. In the movie-verse, I don't like the fact he's also the main character since you could give him the spotlight easily in spin-off movies. But Wolverine's quest to figure out his origin and the whole Weapon X deal has always been a major story arc for his character in the comic books. So it's only natural he would get that treatment here. We learn more about what happened to him in X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE from 2009, but linking Stryker to Logan is a smart move. Not only does it make Stryker an even bigger villain, but it stops Wolverine from quickly killing him because he's the only one with any real answers. The script works this arc extremely well in X2, as even those of us who know the deal are intrigued by it and want to see Logan figure it out.
Another angle with Wolverine is the love triangle between himself, Cyclops, and Jean Grey. It was teased at in X-MEN, but really hits the mark here, where Logan actually confronts Jean about their feelings. Jean reluctantly picks good guy Cyclops over bad boy Wolverine, but it never feels forced and you can actually feel the chemistry between Logan and Jean since Jackman and Janssen have great sexual chemistry with each other.
Also, we finally get to see Wolverine act like Wolverine here. He's the ultimate loner, yet he cares about his new "family", willing to protect them even if he has to sacrifice gaining information about his past. Also, he goes into Berserker Mode here against Stryker's army - something that's obviously taken from The Dark Phoenix Saga where Wolverine destroys The Hellfire Club's army after they believe they killed him. It's classic Wolverine and the character is fully fleshed out here. He's a human being. He's an animal. He's the anti-hero you root for.
Speaking of Jean, she also gets her arc expanded. In X-MEN, her use of Cerebro unleashed untapped power inside of her. In X2, we learn that Jean is having trouble controlling it, giving audiences a glimpse of the Phoenix Force dying to be unleashed, especially during the final act of the film. It's a great moment and the ending teases you for what you would believe to be the Dark Phoenix storyline in the third X-MEN film. Unfortunately, that never really transpired the way the fans wanted it to happen. But I'll save that for my review for X-MEN: THE LAST STAND. But the Phoenix stuff truly rocks here though.
As for the other returning characters, it's a mixed bag of things. Magneto and especially Mystique get meatier roles this time around. Even though they are truly villainous characters, they end up doing things that are quite heroic if it benefits them in the end. Magneto gets great one-liners and his prison escape is one of the film's highlights. And Mystique is just incredible here, as she has been always one of my favorites in comic book or movie form.
Unfortunately, Xavier doesn't get much to do here. He's either captured or part of that illusion arc where Striker has brainwashed him to murder all the humans using a Cerebro at his base. At least it moves the story along though, but I'm sure there could have been more done with him. Cyclops is given the shaft completely, disappearing for 2/3 of the film and only doing much of anything at the end of the film. And the sad part is that you're so entertained by the film, you don't even realize he's missing until he reappears. That's not a good thing. He's the leader of the X-Men. He's considered one of the greatest X-Men characters ever. The treatment he's had in these films is really terrible. Storm fares better here, as she's given more to do. But her most interesting moments are with Nightcrawler, only because Nightcrawler is the more interesting character. She does get her due in X-MEN: THE LAST STAND, but amidst controversy.
Also terrible is Rogue. Hell, this character isn't Rogue, as far as I'm concerned. She's just a girl with a white stripe in her hair who happens to have Rogue's main power. Rogue is supposed to be a strong and sexy character who doesn't need men to help her. I understand the lack of super-flight and super-strength due to the Ms. Marvel issue, but there could have been a way to give her these abilities in a logical fashion for movie audiences. Instead, all I see is a young girl who screams and runs away from danger. All I see is a girl who's too busy wanting to kiss a boy, who's not supposed to be her boyfriend anyway but I'll let it slide for the movie-verse, to the point where it just feels forced to me. She had a purpose in the first film, absolutely. But he's just filling space here. Rogue deserves better. Anna Paquin deserves better. We deserve better.
As for the newer characters, Nightcrawler is the highlight of the film. The writers get the character completely right here. From his teleportation abilities, to his strong religious beliefs, to his quiet demeanor, and to his damn perfect German accent. I think he should have been in the film more, but what we do see of him is fantastic. He's one of those characters that'll piss off fans if you mess him up, but there's no problem here. I also dug the short exchange between him and Mystique [comic book fans know they're mother and son]. Just a great introduction to a great character.
Iceman and Pyro are really here for the teen portion of the film, but do add a lot to the film. The only reason to care about "Rogue" is because of Iceman, who shares a cool chemistry with Wolverine and has a good coming out moment. At least it's more than what Cyclops is allowed to do here. As for Pyro, he doesn't have the Scottish accent, but the character is definitely intact. His conflict between good and evil is interesting, as well as his jealousy of Bobby. It's obvious that these two were being set up as arch-enemies in future installments.
William Stryker is a great villain because he's so full of hate and bitterness, you want the guy to get his ass kicked - maybe even killed. He's the perfect example of why Magneto believes that humans aren't necessary and deserve to be destroyed if they don't accept mutants as the next stage of evolution. From torturing Magneto, to brainwashing Xavier, to manipulating with Wolverine's feelings, to downright attacking a group of kids who have done nothing wrong to the guy, the guy is pure scum with a chip on his shoulder. I truly believe he's the strongest villain in the series to date.
As for Yuriko/Lady Deathstrike, there could have been more done with her - especially since she shares a LARGE history with Wolverine. But that fight between her and Logan is worth the lack of storyline there. She's sort of a lackey here but what can you do?
The special effects in X2 blow the first film's out of the water. Nightcrawler's BAMF! teleportion stuff looks great. Jean's fiery eyes and the glowing fire effect when the Phoenix is unleashed looks cool. The scene where Storm is piloting the Blackbird through that dog fight as she creates tornadoes to destroy the jets trying to attack her is very cool. There's just a whole bunch of stuff here that really works. Even the make up, especially Nightcrawler's and Mystique's is awesome. Wolverine's claws still look a bit CGI at times, but that's a minor issue. The X-Men finally get a budget fitting for them, and Singer and company definitely make the most of it.
The direction by Bryan Singer is a lot more confident this time around. Even though the film is 30 minutes longer than the previous one, the pacing is so good that you don't really notice. The set pieces, like the SWAT team invading the school, and the impressive final act, look great and truly showcase how much bigger and more expensive this film is compared to X-MEN. The editing is crisp, the cinematography is beautiful, and the composition and framing work. There are some moments, like the too short Cyclops vs. Jean fight, that could have been longer and maybe shot better. But overall, the visuals are excellent and Singer takes a strong script and makes it visually interesting and inviting to all audiences.
I won't get into all the acting here, but it's pretty solid in this film. Hugh Jackman is Wolverine, no doubt about it. He's a lot more comfortable in the role here and really goes all out to bring the comic book character to life easily and believably. You're convinced when he's clawing his way through soldiers, frustrated and confused about his past, and distraught when one of his "family" makes the ultimate sacrifice to save him and the rest of the group. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are both excellent and bring a lot of class to the film. McKellen, especially, seems to be having a ball here as his character gets a deeper arc. Brian Cox always plays a great villain, and as William Stryker, that's no exception. He gives Stryker this psycho edge, yet with a sanity that keeps his goal to eliminate mutants as his first priority. Rebecca Romijn is awesome as Mystique, looking hot both in and out of make up. She seems to be having a blast kicking ass and having more integral things to do in this installment. Alan Cumming is perfect as Nightcrawler. Famke Janssen lays the groundwork as the troubled Jean Grey, who slowly deals with her growing Phoenix powers. I always felt her acting was underrated. And I will make a slight mention to Halle Berry - wanting to say thank you for dropping that horrible accent from the first X-MEN. Too bad she's still miscast in the role.
THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE SLICING AND DICING MY WAY THROUGH THIS FRANCHISE
- Nightcrawler was about to stab the President before being shot at and scared away. It's ironic since the President is usually the one who does the stabbing. See: Marilyn Monroe and Monica Lewinsky.
- William Stryker had an X-ray layout of Xavier's School For Gifted Youngsters. Google is really creeping me out with their newest edition of Google Earth.
- Don't get involved with a woman who's way out of your league. She's probably a shape shifter who'll inject you with something bad. And you better hope it's coming from a syringe and not the penis she has yet to *snip snip* due to lack of funds...
- Magneto used the security guard's iron content in his bloodstream to escape his plastic prison. That's one time being anemic is a blessing and not a curse.
- Lady Deathstrike kicked both Cyclops' and Wolverine's asses. If she had done this years ago, Jason would have never taken Manhattan!
THE FINAL HOWL
X2 stands as one of the highlights of the comic book genre. It's an improvement on the original in every way, while maintaining the respect and faithfulness to much of its source material. The visuals are great, the narrative is deep and brooding at times, and the acting is just fantastic. It's not easy creating a film with so many diverse characters and making it work, but Bryan Singer did it pretty damn well. Definitely a must see for non-fans and fanboys alike. Too bad all the plans set up in X2 went to crap for X-MEN: THE LAST STAND. Boy, that will be a doozy of a review...
3.5 Howls Outta 4