[With X-Men: Days of Future Past opening on Friday, I'm taking a look back at the X-Men movie franchise. These reviews contain spoilers.]
If X-Men (and to a lesser extent Blade) had reopened the door for superhero movies, Spider-Man blew the door off its hinges. It became the first movie to ever make over $100 million over a single weekend, and the movie was unabashedly colorful and comic book in its origins. Sam Raimi‘s movie may not be perfect, but it knew exactly what it wanted to be, and audiences embraced it. As for Bryan Singer, X-Men was a hit. It was the ninth-highest grossing film of 2000 and received positive reviews. Keep in mind that he did this after losing six months of production time.
Now with X2 the director had found the characters, established the world, and had the financial and creative freedom to let loose.
X2 opens with a bravura sequence of Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) breaking into the White House, and using his teleportation ability he almost manages to assassinate the President McKenna (Cotter Smith). This action scene is ten times better than any set piece in X-Men. It’s as if Singer is saying, “Look what I can do if you give me time and money!” But like the original X-Men, he doesn’t miss the little details. He knows the “Bamf” sound is just as important as anything else.
Meanwhile, the rest of the movie has gone from focusing primarily on Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and transformed into an ensemble. Logan is frustrated in the search for answers about his past; Rogue (Anna Paquin) and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) are a couple with Pyro (Aaron Stanford) as their rebellious third-wheel; Jean (Famke Janssen) is tapping into a power she can’t understand, which has Cyclops (James Marsden) worried; Storm (Halle Berry) has to go off with Jean to find Nightcrawler; and Professor X (Patrick Stewart) is trying to find out the conspiracy behind the attack on the President. Then there’s the villain Stryker (Brian Cox), his mutant assistant Yuriko (Kelly Hu), and we still have to check in with Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn).
That’s a packed cast each with their own little conflicts, but for me it works. The question comes down to whether or not you feel that these little moments between the characters are underserved and slow down the pacing, or if they help show that each of these characters has their own inner life that’s not dictated solely by the overarching plot. The teenage love between Rogue and Bobby has nothing to do with Stryker’s plan to kill all mutants; Storm’s relationship with Nightcrawler brings in an element about faith and religion that’s never expanded upon, but it keeps them in the plot as characters rather than devices. The movie is filled with these tiny conversations, and they make X2 a richer experience.
I can understand people who find this approach frustrating, and to some extent I agree with their position. Nightcrawler is turned into a darker character than he is in the comics because they’re trying to put in a perspective about faith in humanity, and while that does inch along Storm’s position from the first movie about her fear and resentment towards humans, it still doesn’t add up to anything. Another odd moment is when Mystique suddenly has the hots for Wolverine while they’re in the woods. The movie is fleet-footed when it comes to minor moments between characters, and for the most part, they work.
I’ve always found it odd that “X-Men United” was tacked onto the promotional title. It always felt like a last-minute addition; it’s as if someone thought “People may not know ‘X2‘ is the sequel to X-Men.” That makes sense, and while I suppose you could argue that the baddies from the first movie are now working with the X-Men, it’s still a movie comprised largely of divisions. The overarching one remains about how humans and mutants will co-exist, but now there are minor conflicts in between. Pryo feels like an outcast among outcasts; Bobby feels adorably jealous of Wolverine; Storm disagrees that faith is more important than forgiveness; Nightcrawler doesn’t understand why Mystique chooses to stay out of disguise. The movie still has the big, epic, world-at-stake plot, but I love that it takes time to live in the brief conversations and furtive glances.
But it also lives in the outstanding set pieces. Eleven years later and I still have trouble deciding which one is my favorite. The Nightcrawler opening is such a tough act to follow, but then we get Wolverine’s rampage through the mansion, which is the kind of scene we really wanted to see in the first movie. He goes full berserker, and kills a lot of people in a brutal fashion. Then there’s the fight between Wolverine and Yuriko that even ends on a note of tragedy as Logan is forced to kill a person who wasn’t fighting of her own free will.
For me, the best set piece is Magneto’s escape from jail. The means of his escape is the perfect blend of clever and silly. “Too much iron in your blood…” Magneto says in McKellen’s singularly seductive tone. Then he rips tiny iron filaments out of a guy’s body. From there, the scene gets even better as it moves to pure comic book in terms of the cinematography, the editing, and even the character’s movements. If you told me this scene was ripped out of an X-Men comic, I would believe you.
It also epitomizes the movie’s ability to cinematically capture the property’s comic book heart in a way that eluded the first film. Going back to the theme of divisiveness, X2 is shot with stark contrasts. Plenty of the movie’s shots are cut with sharp shadows overlying the characters and the environments. Even out of the darkness, Singer and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel use a distinct, vibrant palette. That’s not to mention John Ottman‘s excellent editing and tremendous score.
Singer’s confidence permeates the entire picture as the director can now stride confidently after having a bit of trouble finding his footing in X-Men. The first movie slightly wobbled in trying to find the space between its darker and lighter moments, but X2 bridges them wonderfully. The script squeezes in little jokes like Bobby reminding Wolverine that there’s no beer in the fridge because “this is a school.” And a few moments later, a little kid gets three tranquilizer darts in the neck! The movie still doesn’t miss a beat.
Granted, there are times when Singer probably should have slowed down to reconsider some of his plot because even though the movie does get a lot of the little moments right, there are some major plot holes. The first is having the Blackbird plummet out of the sky only to have Magneto coincidentally show up in the middle of a forest so he can save the plane and bring the characters together. There’s also the problem of reversing Cerebro to target all humans. Giving every single human on Earth a crippling migraine would probably cause planes to crash, people to drop babies, and basically wreak worldwide destruction that humanity couldn’t possibly forgive. Then there’s Jean getting out of the Blackbird to save everyone, and even the script acknowledges this baffling move by having the characters say, “She made a choice,” and leaving it at that.
These glaring weaknesses shake the film, but they don’t break it. They’re narrative jumps that are sloppy, but X2 holds my interest for what’s in between, and although I readily admit that the plot should be stronger, it doesn’t detract from what I love about the movie. It’s a marked improvement over the first film in almost every way, and it hinted at a bright and glorious future.
And that’s where X2 breaks my heart every time.
The ending shows that the third movie would have focused on one of the comics’ greatest stories, “The Dark Phoenix Saga”. The filmmakers figured out a way to do it by having her transformation be a second mutation rather than using the cosmic elements from the comics. And the final shot gives me chills as we see the faintest outline of the Phoenix right beneath the surface of the water, then cut to credits. It was a moment where X2 was not only terrific, but they were going to make the next movie even better!
That did not happen.
[Tomorrow: X-Men: The Last Stand]