Monday, 13 June 2011

The Essential Films: "X-Men 2: X-Men United" (2003)

The Essential Films: A Series of Writings on Films that I feel are essential viewings for film lovers, coupled with films that are personal to me.

X-Men 2: X-Men United was the first major superhero sequel of the last decade, coming out one year before Spider-Man 2, and along with Spider-Man 2, X2 ranks among not only the best superhero sequels but the best sequels in general. It's also I think one of the finest examples of it genres, as well as the most fully realized films in The X-Men trilogy. Along with the latest X-Men film, X-Men: First Class (2011), X2 feels like it has the proper scope, as well as scale for an X-Men film without going overboard and becoming overbloated. I remember seeing it for the first time and being blown away by, consciously thinking this film was better than the first. As good as the first film was, watching it again recently, it feels a little bit too much like a set up. Compared to X2, X-Men (2000) feels an art film, with the action being very sparse and the plot and story being relatively strightforward.

X2 has more plot threads and more character relationships to juggle, and while one feels there are certain elements which could have been furthered developed, I think director Bryan Singer, who also directed the first film, does an excellent job of giving enough focus to these seperate elements and eventually tying them together at the end. Like in all great superhero films, Singer brings the spectacle but he also understands how these supeheros and supervillians are very human and their issues reflect those of people in the real world, particularly the X-Men universe, which is about prejudice against mutants, who are stand-ins for minority groups. Singer, being an openly gay man, certainly understands being part of a minority, which is why the films do have an emotional resonance; one feels Singer genuinely cares for these characters, even the villains like Magento (Ian McKellen).

While Magento is the central villain of the franchise, the story of X2 concerns another villain, the character of William Stryker (Brian Cox), who plans to invade Professor Xavier's (Patrick Stewart) school. The children are kidnapped as well as Xavier and Cyclops (James Marsden) when Xavier visits Magneto in prison. Stryker has built a new cerebro plans to use Xavier's psychic abilities to kill all the mutants in the world. Stryker blames Xavier for not being able to cure his son Jason of his mutant abilities. After returning from Xavier's schoo, Jason planted delusions in the mind of Stryker and his wife, leading his wife to kill herself. As this review,, points out, Stryker is the human version of Magneto. Magneto is a mutant who hates humans because of events in his past regarding being a victim of the Nazis, and Stryker is a human who hates mutants because of what his son did. As the above review notes, Stryker is still a monster but he's given human dimension. As in X-Men, I really like the villainous plot in this film because it's original and makes sense on an emotional level for Stryker. I also like the way in which Magento turns the tables on Stryker, using the new cerebro to kill humans instead of mutants. Magneto using cerebro also reinforces the connection between Stryker and Magneto.

Similar to Christopher Nolan and his Batman films, Singer's visual style has a reserved quality throughout many scenes but also has stunning visuals, such as Magneto's prison escape, the fight sequence between Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu), the ice wall between Wolverine and Stryker, and Pyro's (Aaron Standford) destruction of police vehicles using his ability to manipulate fire. Singer's reserved visual style matches the settings of the film, which are always grounded in some kind of reality. The first scene of X-Men, showing a young Magneto being separated from his parents by the nazis and bending a gate with his ability to manipulate metal, grounded the fantastical in what felt like the real world and even with events on a grander scale in X2, I still felt like I was a version of our world.

X2 is ultimately about choices; Jean Grey's (Famke Janssen) choice to leave the X-Jet in order to save her friends, Pyro's choice to leave with Magento, Wolverine's choice to stay with the X-Men and be content with not knowing everything about his past, as well as the choice presented to the President by Xavier regarding Stryker's secret files. The film doesn't present any of these choices as "right" or "wrong" but ultimately what each character decides for him or herself. The ultimate choice that is presented at the end of X2 is for humans and mutants to live together or to destroy each other. It's fundamentally human issues such as choices and conflict between those who are different that make X2, in retrospect, such an emotionally and thematically powerful  film. It's a very exciting and entertaining entry in its genre and one of my favourite superhero/comic book films.

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