Does ‘X2’ Hold Up 15 Years Later?

     May 2, 2018

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15 years ago today, X2 (also known as X2: X-Men United) was released in theaters to widespread acclaim and massive box office. The moviegoing landscape in 2003 was far different than it is today, and the superhero genre was only just getting started. Director Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000 and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002 took comic book adaptations to another level by combining grounded, emotionally engaging storytelling with blockbuster visuals. Both were huge successes at the time and wouldn’t be dwarfed by the ubiquity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or critical accolades of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy for another few years. At this point in time, these two franchises were king, and one of the most highly anticipated movies around was Singer’s sequel X2.

Not only was X-Men 2 a success at the box office and with fans, critics fawned over Singer’s approach to the follow-up. It was widely hailed as one of the best sequels in recent memory, and would be held up as a gold standard for the superhero genre for years to come. But so much has changed in the 15 years since X2 came out, especially with regards to the superhero genre, that it got me wondering how the film holds up. Is it still one of the best superhero movies ever made? Does the ambition and boundary pushing of films like The Avengers or Man of Steel make X2 seem quaint in hindsight?

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Image via 20th Century Fox

In short, X2 is still very, very good. Singer and screenwriters Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris, and David Hayter handle this massive ensemble incredibly well, to the point that as an ensemble superhero movie, X2 is certainly better than Justice League or Batman v Superman, and is at least as good as many of Marvel Studios’ more ensemble-focused features. The clarity with which Singer and Co. are able to track the various storylines—Wolverine and the kids, Storm and Nightcrawler, Professor X and Jason/Stryker, Magneto and Mystique—is impeccable, and each storyline gets enough screentime to play through a full and fulfilling arc while not overstaying its welcome. It’s a balancing act, and it never feels like the audience is being pulled in a thousand directions at once. There’s a clear single throughline for the film—the war between the mutants and William Stryker—and the various character arcs are compellingly connected through this main thread.

Additionally, Singer’s filmmaking here is another highlight. One of the things that’s been lost in the CG-filled superhero blockbusters of today is iconic imagery. Comics allowed readers to marvel at specific frames, and there’s an artistry to blocking and shot composition that gets lost when a sequence is funneled through various different visual effects artists over a matter of months. In X-Men 2, we get a number of iconic shots, from Wolverine nearly clawing a cat to Magneto screaming inside his plastic prison. Say what you will about some of Singer’s other films, but the work he does with cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel here is genuinely great.

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Image via 20th Century Fox

And story-wise, X2 is both richly complex and delightfully simple at the same time. It’s a classic tale of “The Majority vs. The Other” and the fear, confusion, and violence that breaks out when “different” is targeted as “bad.” Singer’s take on X-Men was heavily influenced by the Civil Rights movement, essentially framing Professor X as Martin Luther King Jr. and Magneto as Malcolm X—two people on the same side with wildly different tactics and viewpoints regarding how to affect true change. And as a gay man, Singer doesn’t shy away from the parallels between the story of the X-Men and the fight for acceptance and rights in the LGBTQ community. There’s a scene in X2 where Iceman “comes out” to his family, and while it’s a little on the nose, it’s incredibly effective.

Even beyond the subtext, the actual text of X2 is compelling and—and I cannot stress enough how important this is—cohesive. So many superhero movies get tongue tied in trying to craft an intricate, twist-filled narrative, but this ultimately leads to confusion and a lack of emotional investment. The Dark Knight Rises is great filmmaking to be sure, but that narrative and the character motivations are extremely muddled.

X2 manages to present interesting and wide-ranging motivations for its vast ensemble while also keeping its eye on the ball. There are a couple of twists and turns here and there, but by and large the story plays out along a straight line. And by keeping the motivations relatively simple, that allows for X2 to get more complex in its emotional character arcs, which in turn are far more engaging and effective than simply giving the audience a puzzle of a plot to unpack.

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Image via 20th Century Fox

So yes, even after 15 years and the massive evolution the superhero genre has gone through, X2 holds up as one of the best superhero movies ever made. And yet, it’s impossible to ignore the elephant in the room. Rumors have swirled about Singer’s alleged indiscretions for years, dating all the way back to his second film Apt Pupil, even reaching a very public point in 2014 with a lawsuit alleging sexual assault. After Harvey Weinstein’s fall in 2017, however, there’s (finally) been in a shift in Hollywood towards rejecting bad behavior. Singer had been sued in 2014 and still went on to make X-Men: Apocalypse, but another lawsuit surfaced in December 2017—in the wake of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements—and Singer disappeared from the public eye. He was also maybe not coincidentally fired from directing Bohemian Rhapsody around the same time.

With Singer’s alleged history of sexual harassment and assault in mind, it’s impossible to watch X2 and not notice a “type” in almost every young male actor role in the film. It’s distracting and upsetting. Does that mean X2 is now retroactively a bad movie? No. Singer’s work as a director on the film is objectively impressive and focused. But it’s also unreasonable to ignore Singer’s alleged behavior, which retroactively taints the film.

And it sucks. X-Men 2 was a groundbreaking film for the superhero genre, and it still holds up tremendously well. Moreover, it’s unfair to retroactively erase the film from memory due to one person’s alleged actions, when so many other talented actors, writers, and performers delivered tremendous work that went into making X2 as great as it is. But just because it’s a great film doesn’t mean we should ignore the circumstances surrounding Singer. A thing can be both very good art and very troubling at the same time. That’s reality. So yes, X2 is one of the best superhero movies ever made. It is also a stark reminder of how powerful men in Hollywood got away with too much for far too long.

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