X2: X-Men United (2003)

"Well...are you coming?"
"Well...you coming? You do have a movie to star in, you know?"

I went into this farce with no expectations.  In case you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m a natural pessimist. So much of a pessimist I was prepared to write X2 off completely, like all the idiots I criticize for the blatant hypocrisy inherent in their dismissal “comic book movies.” Then the maintenance man comes by at nine in the morning, screwing my sleep schedule all to hell. And he tells me I should see this movie. It apparently “kicked serious ass.”

So off I go to Target. Twenty minutes, two cigs and one neutered anti-theft device later, I returned the proud (if ambivalent) owner of X2, second in what will no doubt be the epic superhero movie trilogy to end all epic superhero movie trilogies. For, like, ever.

As if. I say “ambivalent” whenever I’m faced with something like this…like almost any movie from the summer of ’03…with one notable exception…something that makes me feel anything but united. I love glitz and glamor as much as the next Red Blooded American Male, but I’m getting mighty tired of leaving a movie feeling hollow and gypped. After all, didn’t they used to make movies with something more than a few hundred million dollars of special effects? Something that engaged its audience? That challenged us? Was that just a dream? I swear they were still doing it a few years ago…

Here's why I like Magneto: we share literary taste.
Here's why I like Magneto: we share literary taste.

Never mind. Enough brooding. More X2.

Watching Waking Life the other day, I came to the part where Ethan Hawk tells his movie girlfriend about collective memory and collective realization. Throughout the history of humankind, certain technological and social innovations just seem to spring up all at once in the most disparate places, almost as if the entire human race were somehow linked by a kind of planetary telepathy. Or a giant virtual reality simulation. Whatever. The point is, Hollywood seems to be in the grips of one such collective head-slapper: the idea that when you treat comic book material seriously (or at least play lip service to its internal dramatic architecture) you can draw in plenty of non-fans whilst making the old standard wavers sit up and clap like trained seals. The results: dump trucks full of cash (most of it going straight to the landfill of capital in Stan Lee’s back yard) and critical acclaim, despite characters and situations universally dismissed by the mainstream as “kiddie crap” or “geek territory.” Perfect for a creatively bankrupt, marketing-tie-in obsessed industry dominated by vertically integrated monopolies. That’s Hollywood for us.

But never mind. Less real world hullabaloo. More X2.

After the obligatory intro by Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick “Shut up, Wesley!” Stewart) we see the most interesting part of the film: it’s opening. Using his “gift” for short-range teleportation, the mutant Nightcrawler (Allen Cummings) manages to storm the White House and nearly assassinate the President of the United States. (Looks like someone’s a bit unhappy about his tax refund check…or a certain war, perhaps?) Soon after, the President gets a visit from one Colonel William Striker (Brian “I played Hannibal Lecter first, damnit” Cox), who plans to…well…strike…a “mutant training facility” near Salem, New York,  blithely named (wait for it) “Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.”

Luckily for everyone at “The Mansion,” Wolverine (Hugh “Aye, lookie ‘ere, Ah’m Austrayl-yen” Jackman) picks Just This Moment to return from that fruitless search for his past Professor X turned him loose on at the end of the last film. He makes eyes at Jean (Famke “Fine, the damn hair’s red. Are you fucking happy?” Janssen), embarrasses Rogue (Anna “Don’t touch me” Paquin) and trades testosterone with Cyclops (James “Um, I’m supposed to be the leader, right?” Marsden). But thank God he agrees to stay and babysit while the rest of the “team” scatters to the four winds.

At least he takes his big, brown dicks outside.
At least he takes his big, brown dicks outside.

Jean and Storm (Halle “Ah, wow, this Oscar is all, like, shinny and stuff” Berry) run Nightcrawler to ground in Boston, while Cyclops and the Professor go to visit their old bud Magneto (Ian “I am Gandalf the White” McKellen) in his plastic prison. And things get interesting. The Professor and his Golden Boy get themselves kidnapped, armed troops descend on the X-Mansion, and the girls discover a strange scar on Nightcrawler’s neck. Almost like an acid burn…or a manufacturer’s watermark…

Several action sequences later, it becomes all-too clear Colonel Striker has much bigger plans than the destruction of the X-Men: he plans to wipe out all of mutant-kind! And Charles Xavier is going to help him…whether ol’ Chuck wants to or not.

Needless to say, if you’re not a fan of the X-Men (or are completely ignorant of their existence) none of the above is going to make any sense. You really should go somewhere else. In fact, you should go right out and rent the first X-Men movie. The rest of you…will do what you want regardless of what I say. Never the less, I say this: there’s good deal of Good in X2. I’ve been trying really hard to hate it (honestly, I have), but…

First of all, there’s my deep-seeded love of mutant-on-mutant violence, born and bred during my childhood fandom of the X-Men cartoon on Fox. It’s not as central here as it was in X-Men but, in this case, less is more. Especially when you have a bigger budget. By now, there’s more than enough buzz about the Climactic Battle between Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu) to allow me brevity. I won’t say much. Except this: It’s just about as much fun to watch as you can have under the shackles of a PG-13 rating.

"Be healed!"
"Be healed!"

Secondly, we have the mutant-on-human violence, something noticeably missing from the original flick. Hell, X-Men took great pains to avoid any on-screen deaths. Here, director Bryan Singer serves up dead human by the platefull, and I couldn’t be happier. It’s about time Wolverine got to kill something. What’s the point of having foot-long claws popping out of your arms if you can’t slice-and-dice? So we’re treated to Wolverine ripping into Striker’s…um…strike force (I’m not trying to repeat myself, it just happens). We see Magneto pull what might be the most inventive jailbreak in history. We see Mystique (Rebecca “hyphenate for a liberated feel” Romaijn-Stamos) whipping serious ass dressed in nothing but blue scales. And we see the teenage, mutant (but decidedly un-ninja) sociopath Pyro (Aaron Stanford) rehears his own rendition of “Fuck the police!”*

*(On the advice of his lawyer, and in order to avoid being stripped of his citizenship under the Patriot Act, the Author wishes to state that he can in no way support nor condone any fucking of the police. He also wishes to add, “Comin’ straight out the underground.”)*

All of which is well-executed and evenly spread over the movie’s one hundred thirty-three minutes. None of those stretches of set-up that weighted the prequel. Thank God we have a core of people who were introduced in the last movie. But this train of thought is fast approaching another speeding train. Before I get all negative, I want to bring out one more good point: the little things. They aren’t much, but they’re here, and they showcase a deep, abiding love for the movie’s source material. So we get nice little character moments between Magneto and the Professor, Wolverine and Bobby “I refuse to call him Iceman” Drake (Shawn Ashmore), and the well-worked-in bit between Nightcrawler and Mistique. Plus there are the passing references to Project Wideawake, Magneto’s children…and one Dr. Henry “Hank” McCoy.

"Nature Laughs Last."
"Nature Laughs Last."

All of which is just set dressing, I know. But that’s pretty much all you’re going to get with X2 (or anything coming out of Hollywood for that matter). I mean, just look at the plot: streamlined and slick, it does nothing more or less than move you from action scene to action scene. So this becomes one of those movies that just flies by, leaving you with only flashes of memory. Nothing really sticks here because nothing really stands out (once you get over the fact that Nightcrawler and Mystique are blue). Oh sure, all that stuff above is cool, but it just doesn’t gel. I doesn’t harmonize and it leaves you with pretty much exactly what you had coming in to things. No one else seems to have noticed, but that’s been the defining theme for movies this year. We’re drowning in a glut of “B-” flicks.

Man, that’s a good end-line. But I’ve gotta talk about the acting, which, judged against most comic book movies, is bloody well fantastic. Against other, better pictures it quickly fades to naught but credit must be given to a few stand outs. Not the least of which is Allen Cumming’s Nightcrawler. (Have I mentioned him enough yet? Where’s my damn royalty cut?) And it’s amazing how much I enjoyed his presence, given that he has so little to do. He attacks the President, says a few  Lord’s Prayers, and saves Rogue.** Whoop-dee-do. But Mr. Cumming manages to bring something interesting out from behind all that make-up, some illusion of depth that I appreciate. Sure is more than Halle Berry can do. Just what is Storm doing in this movie anyway?

With all the blood he gets on those things, I guess it makes sense...but still.
With all the blood he gets on those things, I guess it makes sense...but still.

**(Author’s note: In another, more interesting parallel dimension, Rogue could’ve easily saved herself, along with everyone else on the fucking team. But I digress and bitch about things I can’t change. I call this particular thing “The Pussification of the X-Men.”)**

And why does this movie insist on shelving its biggest talents? McKellen and Stewart are almost completely absent from the proceedings until the final third, so God help all those poor trekkies who were waiting for Jean-Luc to put Wolverine in his place. Don’t get me wrong: Hugh Jackman’s a right and proper bad ass, but (once again) it’s X-Men. Plural, not singular.

While X2 deserves props for avoiding the pitfalls of its prequel (focusing so tightly on two principal characters that it looses all sense of an ensemble piece) it manages to run full speed into that other problem X-stories often have: splitting the focus between an unwieldy menagerie of characters that may or may not have something to contribute to the story. Honestly, if you want to give Wolverine his own movie franchise then you should stop dicking around and do it. But don’t pay lip service to the X-Men if you’re not prepared to deal with them…which Hollywood is not.

Face it: X-Men is a serialized story. That’s its nature. That’s its history. Hell, that’s its defining characteristic. One movie every two years isn’t going to hack it. Watch two hours of the X-Men cartoon and see what I mean. It may be repetitive. It may drip with dated, early-90s slang (especially if Jubilee’s involved), but you’ll get more character development per-minute in that stupid excuse for a show than in either of  these explosively-overzealous flicks.

As cool as it is, X2 is nothing more than you’d expect. Its visual style saves it from being bland. But with all this talk about evolution you’d think the series would take a hint and at least try to transcend its boundaries. X2 does nothing but reinforce them.



Yeah, "now" would actually be nice.
"You mean, like, now-now? Can I change my pants first?"


2 thoughts on “X2: X-Men United (2003)”

  1. I don’t like Singer’s X-Men films at all. They look goofy and cheap (like some sc-fi TV show). The stories are all over the place, and the poorly developed characters are overshadowed by the hairy guy who has the power to *GASP* cut people! But it’s PG-13… so yeah, no blood.

    X2 is just a Wrath of Khan/Empire Strikes Back wannabe. Oh Jean sacrifices herself to save everyone on the ship and they all cry and we’re suppose to cry too… just like how Spock sacrificed himself at the end of Wrath of Khan. Give me a break.

    Also in that “when will these people learn how to fly” scene, how did Magneto find them anyway?

    X-Men: First Class ought to be better than this. It looks like that film will actually deal with the X-Men. No Wolverine! Yay.

    1. I don’t know…I’m not that keen on franchise reboots, and I’m even less keen on X-Men films as a whole these days. The eight years separating me from this review have only made it clearer that Hollywood can’t handle them worth a damn. The industry is too skittish and short-sighted to put any real thought into creating a serialized narrative. The first film, rushed and slap-dash, spawned a succession of rushed and slapdash sequels, as inevitable as night following day.

      Indeed, yay, for the lack of Wolverine. He’s been the chain around the X-Men’s neck for twenty years and it’s past time the team dropped him like a hot rock. (Or spun him off to lead a Dirty Tricks brigade, as they’ve done in the comics – the X-Men’s own CREEP). But this could just as easily become the X-franchise’sBatman Begins, with all that that implies.

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