Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Series Retrospective on the X-Men Film Franchise: X2: X-Men United (2003)

 X2: X-Men United (henceforth known as X2) was the first major superhero sequel of the last decade, coming out one year before Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. Similar to Spider-Man 2, X2 takes the best elements of its predecessor and refines them, crafting something more complex and polished cinematically. In my retrospective on 2000’s X-Men I said that film felt like director Bryan Singer figuring out a style and tone for the series. With X2 Singer, now with a bigger budget, balanced huge set pieces with intelligent social commentary and human drama, crafting a complex and entertaining blockbuster for the thinking movie goer. X2 ranks, along with Spider-Man 2, among the best superhero sequels- and is a very fine film in general.  

 X2 picks up not too long after the events of X-Men. Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is searching for clues to his past. We discover, as the film moves along, that Logan’s search for answers will tie in to the larger plot of the film. The United States President is almost assassinated by a mutant named Kurt Wagner, also known as Nightcrawler. He’s a teleporter who’s been brainwashed by Colonel William Stryker (Brian Cox). Stryker uses the assassination attempt to convince the President to allow him to invade Professor Charles Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) mansion. Stryker kidnaps Xavier and Cyclops/Scott Summers (James Marsden) when Xavier comes to visit Magneto (Ian McKellen) in prison. Earlier Stryker had interrogated Magneto to gain information on Cerebro, the machine which Xavier uses to find other mutants. Stryker has built another Cerebro and plans to use Xavier to kill all mutants. Stryker blames Xavier for not “curing” his son Jason of his mutant abilities.  After returning from Xavier's school Jason projected images in to Stryker and his wife’s mind, resulting in Stryker’s wife committing suicide. Stryker lobotomized Jason and will use Jason’s abilities to manipulate Xavier in to using Cerebro.   

Stryker is one of the most underrated villains in a superhero film. Even if we don’t like him, his motivations are clear and despite his cruelty we can understand and partly sympathize with his hatred for mutants. Casting Cox was a wise decision on Singer’s part. Cox brings texture and nuances to the character, making Stryker a commanding and menacing presence in the film.

I wish Xavier had more to do in the film than just be kidnapped. However, I love that via Stryker the film emphasizes that despite the admiration Xavier has gained throughout the years he’s had horrible failures in his past. For all the mutants he’s set down the right path, there are those like Jason and Magneto who went down a darker path.

X2 is one of the best examples of having two villains in a superhero film and making it work. A big reason why it works is that Stryker and Magneto represent what each hates the most and what they see as the worst of each other’s kind. They both have understandable and sympathetic reasons for the way they are and both are unshakable in their views. Magneto has to team up with the X-Men to stop Stryker’s plan- but then uses Xavier and Cerebro to eliminate humans. The trade off from Stryker being the enemy to Magneto turning Stryker's plan against him is organic to the narrative of the film and doesn’t feel contrived.

Singer does a fabulous job of balancing the film’s multiple plot lines. He brings these threads all together organically as the film progresses and climaxes them at Alkali Lake, where we see Logan at the beginning of the film. It’s a clever bit of screenwriting to have the film begin where it eventually concludes. Logan doesn’t realize what he was searching for was underneath him right from the start. It can be a little contrived to have the hero and villain’s back stories linked together but X2 is able to make the connection between Logan and Stryker work. Logan’s character arc through the first film was about him becoming part of something bigger than himself and growing to care about others. But at the end of the film he was still haunted by his past. This film concludes Logan’s arc from the first film by having him turn his back on the past, accepting the present and finally taking a firm place amongst the X-Men.

While the action was fine in X-Men, Singer takes it up several levels for X2. From the beginning of the film, with Nightcrawler teleporting around the white house and taking down secret service, we can tell that the action in this film is going to be much more spectacular than in the previous film. I love the Logan/Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu) fight as well and the mansion invasion captures the fear and confusion when a place of safety is violated.

 It does feel like the filmmakers didn’t know what to do with Cyclops other than have him brainwashed and appear at the climax of the film as a threat. This plot line doesn’t really go anywhere and ultimately robs Cyclops of a larger role in the story. And I don’t think these films ever made sense of why Logan was so infatuated with Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). I do like the subplot regarding John/Pyro (Aaron Stanford), one of Xavier’s students who can manipulate fire and eventually joins with Magneto. The scenes between Rogue (Anna Paquin) and Bobby/Iceman (Shawn Ashmore)- with the two attempting to have a physical relationship despite Rogue's inability to touch anyone without taking their powers and nearly killing them- are also nice.

X-Men feels more like an art film compared to X2 but X2 never betrays the more character driven and socially conscious aims of the first film. Rather, it keeps itself rooted in a real world aesthetic while feeling more properly scaled for an X-Men film. It allows itself to be entertaining while still attempting to explore themes of genocide, the demons of the past, the acceptance of the present- and also, choice. Jean makes a drastic choice at the end of the film, one that’s heroic and tragic. The third film in the franchise would not fulfill the promise of this film but on its own terms X2 is still a high point of the superhero film boom that help defined a decade.   

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