The Mutant Menagerie: X2: X-Men United

X-Men 2 movie poster


In ret­ro­spect, the first X-Men movie did an incred­i­ble job of man­ag­ing the intro­duc­tion of a wide array of char­ac­ters to mass audi­ences likely unfa­mil­iar with the decades’ worth of con­ti­nu­ity estab­lished in its comic book source mate­r­ial. But the sequel X2: X-Men United crowds the stage with too many new faces in addi­tion to the return­ing orig­i­nal cast. In short order, audi­ences not only have to rec­ol­lect the orig­i­nal char­ac­ters but also learn how Stryker (Brian Cox), Ice­man (Shawn Ash­more), Pyro (Aaron Stan­ford), and Lady Deathstryke (Kelly Hu) fit in to the mutant menagerie. X2 also expands the ranks of the Blue Man Mutant Group, with Night­crawler (Alan Cum­ming) join­ing Mys­tique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) in head-to-toe body paint, later to be accom­pa­nied by Beast (Kelsey Gram­mar) in Brett Ratner’s ris­i­ble X-Men 3: The Last Stand.

Alan Cumming in X2: X-Men UnitedNight­crawler audi­tions for a spot in the Blue Men Mutant Group

Holo­caust sur­vivor Mag­neto (Ian McK­ellen) is still just as geno­ci­dal as his for­mer Nazi oppres­sors, an irony he fails to per­ceive despite it being pointed out to him repeat­edly. His aims and obses­sions make for a very good vil­lain, but also for a vir­tual repeat of the pre­vi­ous movie’s plot. In the orig­i­nal (read The Dork Report review), Mag­neto built a device to forcibly mutate homo sapi­ens into homo supe­rior, the aris­ing species known as “mutants” to which both The X-Men and his Broth­er­hood of Evil Mutants belong. The weapon turned out to be faulty and instead sim­ply killed every human within range. To a man like Mag­neto, said glitch was not a bug but a fea­ture. Noth­ing if not per­sis­tent, he employs basi­cally the same scheme in X2. New bad­die Stryker has reverse-engineered Pro­fes­sor X’s mutant-detection device Cere­bro into a weapon capa­ble of killing all mutants en masse. Mag­neto plots to repur­pose it to kill all humans instead.

Also recy­cled from the pre­vi­ous movie is the fact that Mag­neto is again not the movie’s true vil­lain, despite long hold­ing the rank of the X-Men’s offi­cial neme­sis. The real antag­o­nist last time around was intol­er­ant politi­cian Sen­a­tor Robert Kelly (Bruce Davi­son). Now the foe is another pow­er­less human, Colonel Stryker, a war­mon­ger with a pri­vate army. Like Kelly, he’s a fer­vent speciesist, so enflamed with pas­sion­ate hatred of mutants that he trans­forms his own mutant son Jason (Michael Reid McKay) into a com­po­nent in his geno­ci­dal weapon.

Hugh Jackman in X2: X-Men UnitedWolver­ine babysits The New Mutants

One notable tweak to the orig­i­nal recipe is a health­ier dose of vio­lence and killing per­pe­trated by the fan-favorite Wolver­ine (Hugh Jack­man). As a char­ac­ter, Wolver­ine is capa­ble of both berserker rage and human empa­thy, but his movie incar­na­tion seems to be able to turn it on and off at will. Cou­pled with a PG-13 rat­ing dic­tat­ing that his slaugh­ter remain blood­less, this negates one of the tragic flaws of the char­ac­ter I recall from read­ing the comics as a kid. The Wolver­ine I remem­ber con­stantly strug­gled to keep his ani­mal­is­tic side in check in order to live among his friends, lovers, and allies. The movie Wolver­ine is a lit­tle bit of a softy, actu­ally, spend­ing much of film babysit­ting mopey teen trio Ice­man, Pyro, and Rogue, the lat­ter still har­bor­ing an unre­quited crush on a dude way too old, hairy, and Cana­dian for her.

X2’s biggest prob­lem is that it has no sense of humor, allow­ing the grim­ness of the sce­nario to drain most of the fun out of the expe­ri­ence. The orig­i­nal had only a sin­gle cred­ited screen­writer, David Hayter, but the sequel teams him with Michael Dougherty and Dan Har­ris — hint­ing that the crowded stage of actors was par­al­leled by a few too many cooks in the kitchen back­stage. One good scene, at least, pro­vides a reminder of what the first film got right: when the teen Ice­man reveals his super­pow­ers to his par­ents for the first time, his mother asks “Have you ever tried to… (awk­ward pause) not be a mutant?” It’s an excel­lent scene that uses humor to employ the sci-fi con­ceit of the mutant expe­ri­ence as a metaphor for a minority’s trou­bled com­ing of age.

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Mutant Mayhem: X-Men

X-Men movie poster


On a whim, this Dork Reporter decided to rewatch X-Men and found it sur­pris­ingly good, even bet­ter than I remem­bered from my first view­ing almost 10 years ago. I used to be a comics fan, and read most of Chris Clare­mont and John Romita Jr.‘s lengthy run on The Uncanny X-Men series in the mid-80s. Even though I had long since stopped read­ing comics reg­u­larly by the time the movie was announced in 2000, I recall being con­vinced there was no way a live-action X-Men movie could not be a ridicu­lous folly. But I went to see it partly out of mor­bid curios­ity and partly out of a sense of duty as an ex-fan (see what I did there?). As it turned out, writer David Hayter and direc­tor Bryan Singer’s expert adap­ta­tion of the Mar­vel Comics source mate­r­ial turned out more fun, clever, and excit­ing than it had any right to be. Most wel­come of all, it is fre­quently laugh-out-loud funny (in a good way), a key ingre­di­ent unfor­tu­nately lack­ing in the mostly humor­less (but still pretty good) sequel X2: X-Men United (2003).

Hayter and Singer man­aged to dig up every ounce of sub­text baked into the X-Men mythos by orig­i­nal writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby. At its heart, the X-Men series was essen­tially a nev­erend­ing sci-fi soap opera with a noble moral of pro­gres­sive social aware­ness. The weirdo super­heroes that make up The X-Men are “mutants,” born of human par­ents but with super­hu­man pow­ers typ­i­cally man­i­fest­ing dur­ing ado­les­cence. Prior to Lee and Kirby’s inno­va­tion, comics’ super­hero tem­plates were either extrater­res­tri­als like Super­man or ordi­nary humans with arti­fi­cially gained super­pow­ers like Spider-Man (mere mor­tals Bat­man and Iron Man don’t count, no mat­ter how inor­di­nately dri­ven to fight injus­tice). Unlike the phys­i­cal ideal Super­man, most of Lee and Kirby’s mutants did not view their pow­ers as gifts, and some were out­right monsters.

Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in X-MenThe Royal Shake­speare Com­pany mutants face off

The X-Men for­mula also incor­po­rates deeper themes of racism, xeno­pho­bia, and even evo­lu­tion. Indeed, the entire premise is built upon the the­ory of evo­lu­tion: as mul­ti­ple species of humans walked the earth simul­ta­ne­ously hun­dreds of thou­sands of years ago, so too do humans now find them­selves shar­ing the earth with arguably the next branch of homo sapi­ens’ evo­lu­tion: known in the comics as “homo supe­rior.” Car­ried through to the next log­i­cal con­clu­sion, this mutant minor­ity is feared and demo­nized as freaks by the humans that vastly out­num­ber them.

The X-Men’s sym­pa­thetic antag­o­nist Erik Lehn­sh­err (Ian McK­ellen) is a sur­vivor of a Ger­man con­cen­tra­tion camp. The hor­rors he expe­ri­enced at the hands of those that hated his race (but didn’t yet real­ize he was actu­ally a dif­fer­ent species) in 1944 Poland inform his actions as the supervil­lain Mag­neto. As he lis­tens to con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can politi­cians argue over how to con­tain and sup­press the increas­ing mutant pop­u­la­tion, he dis­gust­edly states “I’ve heard these argu­ments before.” His for­mer friend (and fel­low mutant) Charles Xavier (Patrick Stew­art) hopes to find a way to live in peace, and coun­ters “That was a long time ago. Mankind has evolved since then.” But Mag­neto is unyield­ing. “Yes. Into us.”

Hugh Jackman in X-MenTalk to the claws

The cru­cial fac­tor that had me sim­ply assume the movie would be ter­ri­ble was cast­ing. It’s not hard to imag­ine a young actor able embody Spider-Man’s secret iden­tity Peter Parker as a put-upon geek har­bor­ing tremen­dous reserves of guilt and right­eous­ness. But how do you cast Wolver­ine, a diminu­tive, half-animal Cana­dian super­sol­dier with ridicu­lous hair? Easy! You hire the tall, absurdly hand­some Aus­tralian studly song-and-dance man Hugh Jack­man. Against all odds, he totally nailed the fan-favorite char­ac­ter. The moment in the film when this for­mer X-Men comics fan decided that Jack­man suc­ceeded is a sequence in which he steals an X-motorcycle and dis­cov­ers a handy tur­bo­boost but­ton. The entire audi­ence at the New York Ziegfeld the­ater laughed heartily along with his undis­guised glee at its total awe­some­ness. This doubter was com­pletely sold.

Another cast­ing coup was the double-dose of Royal Shake­speare Com­pany grav­i­tas pro­vided by McK­ellen and Stew­art (both with exten­sive expe­ri­ence in fan­tasy and sci-fi genre mate­r­ial, as Gan­dalf in Lord of the Rings and Cap­tain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Gen­er­a­tion, respec­tively). Bruce Davi­son (as the xeno­pho­bic Sen­a­tor Robert Kelly) also has a long his­tory in sci­ence fic­tion, hav­ing starred in Willard and the influ­en­tial clas­sic The Lathe of Heaven.

Famke Janssen in X-MenJust don’t call her Mar­vel Girl

James Mars­den later proved him­self to be enter­tain­ingly charis­matic in Enchanted, but here he’s a vic­tim to the humor­less char­ac­ter of Cyclops. As Wolver­ine cor­rectly psy­cho­an­a­lyzes him, he’s a dick. Sim­i­larly, Famke Janssen isn’t given a whole lot to work with as the no-fun-please Dr. Jean Grey (known in the comics as Mar­vel GIrl, later to die and rise again as Phoenix in Brett Ratner’s crap sequel X-Men 3: The Last Stand — read The Dork Report review). But together with Jack­man, the trio brings alive the Wolverine/Cyclops/Phoenix love tri­an­gle drawn from the comics, help­ing to make the movie accessible.

The one real weak spot in the cast is Halle Berry. Like Jen­nifer Lopez in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, she seems to have only one real act­ing per­for­mance under her belt (Monster’s Ball, of course). Here she turns in one of her most bland and tone­less per­for­mances yet. For extra amuse­ment, be sure to catch the deleted scenes on the DVD edi­tion in which she can be heard affect­ing a weak pseudo-African accent. It’s a shame, because Storm was a very strong char­ac­ter in the comics around the time I read them. Writer Chris Clare­mont obvi­ously had an affec­tion for her, even pro­mot­ing her to leader of the X-Men.

Hugh Jackman and Anna Paquin in X-MenFero­cious mutant super-soldier Wolver­ine can really relate to Rogue’s teenage angst

Aside from cast­ing, I imag­ine the second-biggest obsta­cle fac­ing the film­mak­ers was how to intro­duce the com­plex X-Men uni­verse to main­stream audi­ences while pre­serv­ing its integrity to appease long­time fans. Hayter and Singer came up with the excel­lent solu­tion of hav­ing us meet Pro­fes­sor X and his X-Men through the eyes of new­bies Wolver­ine and Rogue (Anna “That’s my mother’s piano!” Paquin). Both are very dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters that share key com­mon expe­ri­ences that allow them to bond in a big brother / lit­tle sis­ter rela­tion­ship: Wolver­ine is a loner amne­siac unaware there are oth­ers like him, and Rogue is a young run­away iso­lated by par­tic­u­larly extreme pow­ers that pre­vent her from expe­ri­enc­ing nor­mal human inter­ac­tion. Almost any­one can iden­tify with the painful com­ing of age that comes with her exag­ger­ated ado­les­cence. A star­tling moment of pathos occurs between them when she sees him wield the fear­some metal claws sheathed in his fore­arms: “When they come out, does it hurt?” “Every time.”

On an even more prac­ti­cal level, the film­mak­ers came up with an inge­nious solu­tion to the comics char­ac­ters’ silly cos­tumes by hav­ing the movie X-Men wear more pho­to­genic uni­forms. Cyclops’ joke about yel­low and orange span­dex is an easter egg for fans: Wolver­ine sports such an ensem­ble in the comics. Best of all, the req­ui­site action set pieces are jus­ti­fied by the char­ac­ters, not just the plot. For exam­ple, a big blow-out staged at a train sta­tion is the result of a heart­break­ing mis­un­der­stand­ing that causes Rogue to flee the longed-for safe haven she had only just discovered.

The fran­chise is now set to con­tinue with a tril­ogy of pre­quels includ­ing this summer’s X-Men Ori­gins: Wolver­ine, and rumored projects X-Men Ori­gins: First Class and X-Men Ori­gins: Mag­neto. But with the first of these wrack­ing up some notably awful reviews, it’s clear the first in the series will still stand as the best for some time.

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.