“Evolution Leaps Forward”: Matt Revisits X2

by     Posted 216 days ago

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[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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Rating: A-

[Tomorrow: X-Men: The Last Stand]

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  • RiddleThemThis

    If I’m not mistaken, “last minute edition” should be “last minute addition”.

    • http://collider.com Matt Goldberg

      You are not mistaken. Thanks for the heads up.

      • ST jack

        Also, piro AS a third wheel, not is a third wheel.

      • http://collider.com Matt Goldberg

        Thanks. Definitely embarrassing to have these in there, but thanks for being polite in pointing them out.

      • ST jack

        Enjoying the write-ups, by the way.

  • Lance

    I’ve never had the greatest feel for the X-Men movies. For instance, I wouldn’t have guessed the second movie would be better regarded than the original. Wouldn’t have thought the third would have been considered so much worse, or the first Wolverine movie absolutely hideous. For me they all kind of seem the same. Maybe it has something to do with all the characters that have to be serviced, or the fact I’ve never really loved the way any of these movies looked.

    I did like the First Class movie a lot, and I’m looking forward to the new one.

    • Mr. White

      Co-Sign. First Class was decent, but B-list characters and Kevin Bacon as the lead antagonist? LOL … At least it focused on the team aspects.

      • http://collider.com Matt Goldberg

        I’m going to warn you once: don’t use words like “fag” here.

      • Knofni

        “Now I’ve it! Now I’ve said it again! Aah, that’s three its! Aaaah!”

      • eternalozzie

        I actually like the b-list characters like Banshee … Caleb didn’t get hardly any screen/scream time … the Prof X Magneto bromance consumed the movie … I am complaining about it but it was the strongest part of the movie. I liked First Class a lot … I thought Bacon did a good job too.

  • ScratStitch

    Oh, joy. More X3 bashing. Haven’t seen any of that on the internet in a couple of minutes.

    • Ian Martin

      I don’t hate The Last Stand. It’s just more of a resounding “meh” to me.

      • Davis

        Just like the whole x-men series

  • Josh Harding

    Such a shame Singer did not stay around to give us a proper adaptation of the Dark Phoenix Saga, which I know would have undoubtedly been amazing. I am (surprisingly) thankful that we did get the odd and still incredibly interesting Superman Returns instead, but, to me, Singer is only truly alive as a filmmaker when he’s making X-Men movies. That is why X2 is still my favorite of the series, albeit with First Class a super close second. I cannot wait to see what he does with Days of Future Past this weekend, and then with Apocalypse in 2016! I’m happy he’s back where he belongs; making X-Men movies.

    • kerton

      Well the plan is for Apocalypse to come in 2016, don’t be surprised if they miss that due to the issues Singer is currently handling in his life.

    • Guy Smiley

      No… SR is one of the worst excuses of a film in recent memory. Just poorly thought out in every aspect. Was it a reboot, a quasi-sequel to the first two Donner/Reever films (yes, I know Lester was brought in to finish S2), or just a flat-out ripoff of the first Donner film? The movie can’t decide, as the terrible script makes a mess of all of that, the casting of Lois was deplorable, and then there’s “The Kid.” Just awful.

      Singer messed up twice by leaving X3: Making SR, and letting Ratner and Tom Rothman make an equally terrible film out of The Last Stand.

      • Josh Harding

        To each his own. In terms of superhero movies, Superman Returns is one of the more strong entries in terms of content in my opinion. The messed up quasi-reboot or not question that you brought up is why I referred to the film as being odd. That being said, would I have preferred Singer’s X3 as opposed to SR? Absolutely, but you can’t change what happened. I’m just thankful he’s back where he belongs as a filmmaker, and, based on the strong early reviews, the critics agree for the most part.

  • dodge hickey

    Out of all the early X-Men films, I think X2 aged the best. Yes the effects look a little dated now but the writing and the story stands the test of time. This one is my favorite of the film series (followed closely by First Class).

  • http://tarek-to-verso.over-blog.com/ tarek

    I loved Nightcrawler. He added a lot to the movie. The scene in the White house was simply fabulous, especially when you listen to the amazing John Ottman’s score,

    • World’s Finest Comments

      Such a shame he hasn’t appeared in an X-Men film since. =(

      • Batt Damon

        I’m still holding out hope that he’ll show up in Apocalypse

      • World’s Finest Comments

        Don’t worry, we have the return of Toad in DOFP at least. =l

    • eternalozzie

      There have been so many variations of Nightcrawler throughout X-men comics, TV shows, and movies and this was my least favorite … He looked like Nightcrawler and the teleportation effects were great but he was a completely different character than Nightcrawler from the X-men comics. They twisted him into a religious zealot.

  • Iron Man 3 Is a Mess

    It still amazes me how anyone can find X2 to be anything but a watered down popcorn flick. Even the 90s cartoon was harder hitting with its social commentary. There’s a fervor to the hatred that the zealots spewed within the cartoon. Aside from the first scene of X1 (which FC reused), everything else feels like a bad soap opera. The conversation Bob has with his parents for example is one big joke. “Have you tried not being a mutant.” Yeah, we get it Singer, you don’t have to hit us over the head with it.

    • Iron Man 3 Is a Mess

      *Bobby

      • Werefon

        *Robert.

    • kerton

      Hit your over the head with what?
      Do you not realise how X-Men resonates with minorities of all types? The outsiders being treated badly because they are different in a way society deems as unacceptable? The whole thing was created as a civil rights allegory in the first place!

      You REALLY need to learn a bit of comic book history.

      • Iron Man 3 Is a Mess

        How on earth did you get all that from what I said? I made it clear that X-Men is at its core about being ostracized for being different. I’m saying they could be less jokey about it. We get that it’s Bobby’s coming out of the closet scene. You don’t have to make a lame joke about it, which really sums up the entire movie. They placate to the lowest common denominator the entire time.

        I remember seeing X1 day one and being blown away by the very first scene. It felt like Hollywood was finally ready to take the source material as seriously as it had been since the 80s. Unfortunately they played it safe from there. It was simply a bland popcorn flick that wasn’t something to get emotionally invested in. First Class did start out like it was originally intended, as Magneto Testament, but it too descended into popcorn territory.

      • Iron Man 3 Is a Mess

        And when I say 80s I mean the drastic shift where the medium finally got that a large portion of its audience had grown up. Obviously there was always plenty of real world implications.

    • Werefon

      For example?

  • Snake

    @mattgoldberg:disqus I believe Storm says that they’re coming up on the mansion just before the X-Jet is attacked by the military. If Mystique (and Magneto) discovered Stryker’s secret, isn’t is possible that they were making their way to the school to get help from the X-Men – which they end up doing? Doesn’t seem like too much of a leap to be honest.

    Also, I totally agree. The real tragedy is the amazing “Empire Strikes Back” cliffhanger with the Phoenix under Alkali Lake. After I saw X3 and was completely disappointed, I used to just think of the X1 and 2 as being by themselves and book-ended by the same quote said by Xavier in the opening credits of X1 and Jean at the end of X2. Such a missed opportunity.

    • http://collider.com Matt Goldberg

      It does seem like a stretch because the plane has been hit with a rocket. They’re plummeting out of control. Think how much distance a plane covers in just the span of a few minutes. Magneto would have to see them, be powerful enough to reach them (which, granted, is plausible), and he’s in a thicket of trees. It seems more like convenient storytelling.

      • Aquartertoseven

        He could’ve been controlling their entire fall, bringing them right to his position. Something to think about…

      • Werefon

        Yep. He probably sensed tons of flying metal in the air.

      • eddie

        why was magneto even walking in the woods? he doesnt have to walk everywhere, doesnt he know that this is x-men and not the hobbit?

      • Werefon

        Give him a rest, guy is old. He got confused a little.

      • http://collider.com Matt Goldberg

        A wizard arrives precisely when he means to.

      • JBug

        I think stretches like these are acceptable in this genre if everything else works well enough.

  • TheDarkNut

    X-Men films suffer because the source material is highly regarded but actually lacks any true greatness. Popularity led to many starts and restarts over the years but actually The X Men comics have only a handful of great stories and when translated to film that becomes evident. X2 was basically a rehash on X1..villain kidnaps an X Man and attempts to use said mutant as a weapon against humans. Yes the opening scene was a cinematic game changer for the superhero genre but by todays standards it would be just another action set piece. Don’t get me wrong I enjoy ALL the X films because I see them for what they are, what the studios that produce them see all superhero flicks as..popcorn movies to sell toys! Fox gave Singer $75mil to make X1 and yes shaved 6 months off his production schedule to make an early summer release date. X2 saw a moderate budget but the genre which is perhaps more respected now, was still in its infancy. I see you are setting up to bash X3 and I will wait to read your review, but know that Singer (and his initial replacement Matthew Vaughn) were going to use the same script that Brett Ratner ended up shooting with only a few weeks prep. Superhero films of the 2000′s were made with a totally different approach, with different expectations from the studios and Fox especially was much more budget minded than say Sony but those films set the tone for todays blockbuster tentpoles.

    • Agent777

      I like you post sir, but please put in some spaces, it’s hard to read, but you have a great point. It is a utter myth that Singer would have handled X3 any better. Singer is solid… but he sure isn’t innovative, and to see that you just need to look beyond the X-Men and consider the legacy of Usual Suspects. While Pulp Fiction and even Snatch have held up to multiple watches, Usual Suspects starts to get boring, and to show it’s plot holes more readily.

      His films are enjoyable and can be entertaining, but he did CHOSE to not direct X3. Sam Raimi CHOSE to direct Spider-Man 3 and what happened to him? The studio made him let Ben Kingsly go as Vulture in favor of Venom and then had to endure all the blame from “fanboys”, and still he would of come back for 4 but Sony basically fired him for a more malleable director.

      My point being, Singer is a fair weather director, not a passionate one.

      • http://collider.com Matt Goldberg

        Usual Suspects holds up brilliantly. Additionally, while Singer CHOSE to leave, he did want to come back, but Fox made it a lot easier to leave because they were dicking him around on his contract.

  • Daz

    X2 is definitely well serviced in those little moments, as you say. They may not go anywhere, but they give character dimensions that are lacking in other, set-piece driven blockbusters.

    But re-watching X2 does drive home future failures. The side -tracking of one of the most important characters in the Marvel universe in Cyclops. The reduced focus on wolverine and rogues relationship – which was a key part of the emotional core of the first movie. And the lack of meaningful exploration into Magnetos moral position vs Charles, as has been a driver of the xmen since both characters first appeared in the comics. Thankfully the first class took up that mantle.

    These signposts led the way to the emotionally bereft Last Stand. Bigger and flashier turned into a bloated borefest (yes, more x3 bashing but seriously – if you can’t see the problems there then you are part of them).

    Still, X2 is one of the best superhero movies made to date.

  • World’s Finest Comments

    The one thing I remember most from X2 is that it understood the best way to make the characters interact with each other. At the end of they day, X-Men is an ensemble, not just “Wolverine and friends”, and this the closest it came those elements.

  • Andrew Sanders

    I feel the same.After Jean’s sacrifice & then the hint of the superb Phoenix/Dark Phoenix story at the end,i was literally jumping out of my seat in the cinema with excitement!
    A huge shame Singer departed & the promise of an even better third outing tarnished.
    X2 still stands as not only one of my fave superhero/comic book movies but one of my fave movies ever.

    • Agent777

      Singer was going to use the same script, so oddly Ratner may have helped inject some energy into it.

      • Andrew Sanders

        I’d heard a different story for what Singer had in mind for X3 before departing for Superman Returns.That the Phoenix saga was originally gonna be split over two movies,dealing with Jean’s apparent resurrection as Phoenix in the first,& with gradual telepathic manipulation by Emma Frost’s White Queen,going full on Dark Phoenix in the next.
        I guess we will now never know how great X3 could’ve been.

  • Omar J. Sakr

    “For me, the best set piece is Magento’s escape from jail.”

    Magento! Ha, I was actually quite amused by that. Really makes him sound rather adorable.

    • The Flobbit

      The best set piece, if you discount Nightcrawler’s acrobatic and riveting break in to the White House, is when Wolverine screams and plunges his claws deep into a man’s body. They’ve never done anything that balls-out in a superhero movie since.

    • http://collider.com Matt Goldberg

      He IS adorable! Very easy to impersonate.

      But it is a typo, and I had to fix it.

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  • Agent777

    Great retrospective. You know what deserves a article/retrospective, The X-Men Animated Series. Amazing show, truly there is more plot and excitement over the course of three episodes and in any of the X-Men films.

    The writers were also amazing at tweak the story from the comics for the show. Consider how they handled Angel; he rarely appeared but when he did the material was so substantive you didn’t (I didn’t at least) feel like I had missed anything. Why don’t they hire these writers? This show had so much success introducing so many characters and after 6-7 X-Men films I fell like we have barley seen a thing.

  • Jesse!

    I remember people in my theater chuckling at the unintentional humor of Cyclops being a friggin inch away from Prof X’s squished face while he’s “talking to Jean” thru him.

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  • Dave Trowse

    I want to like Matt’s reviews more than I do. “Plot should have been stronger’ is an empty remark. There’s no insight or justification there. It doesn’t add up to a hill of beans.

  • Dave Trowse

    Has Matt Goldberg genuinely written two essays on the X-Men movies without mentioning the Malcolm X / Luther King subtext? Without referring to Singer’s relating of the stories to the likes of the Nazis and slavery? Did you really not notice this Matt? How have you gotten this far!?

  • JBug

    I loved the jet scene where Storm attacks with tornadoes and Rogue falls out.

  • HORSEFLESH

    X2′s biggest problem is the ridiculous plot of a machine that can kill every mutant or human on earth through thought.

  • João Paulo

    X2 is the best of the trilogy, but not my favorite, of course I love all you say in the review and I agree with you in the most of the parts, but in my opinion The Last Stand is my favorite of the three.

    Look foward for the review of X3 and then I will explain why I like so much.

    • ʝoe ßloggs

      Dude, The Last Stand was your favourite X-Men movie???
      You need help.

    • Arthur Dent

      Last Stand was complete and total ass. An utter shit movie

      • João Paulo

        For me no.

  • yrulaughing418

    The whole gay subtext thing in X2 was overdone, I felt.
    It’s fine that it was there, but it’s excessive that the entire prolonged scene at Bobby’s house still works if you replace the word “mutant” with “gay”.
    The audience is just thinking “yeah, ok, we get it”.

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  • cruzzercruz

    I can’t believe how ridiculous Hugh Jackman looks in retrospect. It always seemed fine to me, but looking at how much more fit he is now and how they’ve refined his ridiculous hair, he looks flat out outlandish in the original trilogy.

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  • milo

    Just rewatched a couple days ago and it totally stands up, years later. Much of that is the dialogue and characters, but even the action set pieces still are thrilling – why must every superhero movie have destruction of entire cities? A few minor flaws but overall still one of my favorite superhero movies ever. And yeah, the complaints about X3 get old, but they are deserved. Not just a weak movie, but such a huge missed opportunity and such a souring of all the good that was built up in the first two.

  • milo

    Just rewatched a couple days ago and it totally stands up, years later. Much of that is the dialogue and characters, but even the action set pieces still are thrilling – why must every superhero movie have destruction of entire cities? A few minor flaws but overall still one of my favorite superhero movies ever. And yeah, the complaints about X3 get old, but they are deserved. Not just a weak movie, but such a huge missed opportunity and such a souring of all the good that was built up in the first two.

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