The Class of 2003: Revisiting X2: X-Men United

There are a few movies that always get mentioned in the “Best Comic Book Movie” argument. A History of Violence, Road to Perdition, The Dark Knight, The Avengers, etc, it’s a never-ending list. Even if the film wasn’t well received, someone will argue that it is worthy of having its hat thrown in the ring. Today marks the 10-year anniversary of the release of X2: X-Men United, a film commonly cited by many as one of the best. I probably would have been on the side of arguing that it deserves such recognition at one time, and I still might, but given that it has been quite literally years since I’ve seen the movie in its entirety, I decided to give it a spin.

The truly best thing about this film is its plot. For one of the first huge comic book films, and being a sequel, its story was really well worth the gap between it and its predecessor. What keeps it interesting though are not the mutants, it’s Brian Cox as William Stryker. Cox is a phenomenal actor and he gives a stellar performance as the film’s primary antagonist. Imagine his take on Hannibal “Lecktor” (from Manhunter) but with a militaristic point of view. I would almost rather the film have been solely about him with the X-Men popping in and out as he interacts with them – he’s that interesting and complex.
What’s truly remarkable about this movie is how it is constructed. Each sequence keeps you invested in the film and its characters, no matter how stale or wooden they may be. While not every action scene in the movie is a winner, there are some that should really be cited as great comic book sequences on film. Nightcrawler’s initial attack on the White House is a grand entrance to the movie. It’s suspenseful and exciting and the effects still look great ten years later. Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike’s fight at the climax is also superb. Two characters that are equals duking it out in a fashion you would expect makes for a great viewing experience, especially after years of seeing them not moving on the page.
Beyond the action pieces, there are even better character moments. Mystique and Nightcrawler’s scene in the woods is the best example. If you watch any part of this movie again, make it that one. It encapsulates all the themes of the movie in two sentences. There are also a few other sequences where Singer’s eye really captures a striking image, the best of which is Magneto’s escape. While flying on a flat metal disc, two smaller metal balls orbit him. This may not seem like a significant piece to some but what it appears to represent are the patterns of electrons circling the nucleus of an atom, showing a visual interpretation of the term “Children of the Atom” (a term often used in descriptions of the X-Men).
At its core X2 is an ensemble film, even if all the pieces don’t exactly pull their weight. The clear front runners for the best actors in the film (beyond Cox) are Ian McKellen and Alan Cumming. These two actors don’t get nearly enough screen time in the sequel, but with what little material they have, they steal the scenes. As much as we all love Fassbender in “First Class,” McKellen IS Magneto. He owns the room every time he speaks, he has the delivery down even if it is a terribly scripted line. Cumming, on the other hand, brings an approach to a beloved character that presents him in a new light that makes him even more appealing beyond his mutant abilities. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Hugh Jackman as well, he gives a good performance as the uber-popular Logan. Side-note: this movie total negated any need for X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Go back and watch it, I’ll wait.
I’m going to lose some of you here, so bear with me. Most of the characters in this movie are awful. With the exception of the ones listed above and a few others, it’s like watching cardboard cutouts act. Some of the performances would have been more interesting if they were done by googly-eyed sock puppets. The worst offenders are Halle Berry as Storm, Famke Janssen as Jean Grey, and James Marsden as Cyclops. Between the three of them there are countless award nominations and wins, including an Oscar for Ms. Berry, so what went wrong here? We know they can act so it’s not their abilities that hamper their performances (to a certain extent at least). Did they just not care? That’s always a possibility (and certainly a fan favorite excuse for Berry). Was it poor direction? We’re talking about the guy that made The Usual Suspects here, he knows how to pull a performance out of people. If we’re going to point fingers, I’m pointing mine at the script. 
This movie suffered through a ton of re-writes. There was even a point when two scripts were produced and then smashed together to create the one that is being performed on the screen. Five different people are credited in some form of working on this movie’s story. Why did these characters not get their due diligence? There are decades worth of stories to take inspiration from yet these three are so bland and stilted that the only link between them and their comic book basis are their names. Daniel Cudmore only appears as Colossus for a few minutes in the movie, gets only one line, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t one of the best in the film. These three characters were an important role in the first X-Men film, so why did they get so watered down for the sequel? Sure, they all have attempts at great moments in the film but they all fail, in particular James Marsden’s crying when Jean Grey “dies.”
(Editor’s note: ‘The ugly’ section reflects moments that, while bad, make you just shake your head and groan at the film or in some instances cause major confusion.)
Unlike our previous 2003 alumnus Daredevil, X2 is light on its “Ugly” moments. Though there are some. Many complain about Bryan Singer’s allusion to gay rights in the film, even though it’s really only apparent in one sequence. I have no problem with this aspect of X2, it fits into the broad spectrum of what the X-Men stand for (outsiders being persecuted for being different) and is actually a really compelling and serious scene for a movie where a man gets roofied and injected with bits of metal in a dingy bathroom.
The thing that doesn’t make sense about Singer’s message is in the scene when Bobby Drake “comes out” as a mutant to his parents, his brother storms off and calls the police. Now I understand that Ronny Drake is supposed to take the role of a “bigot” in this layered scenario, but why does he run away during the sequence? Yes, he is clearly upset that his brother is a mutant, but is it because that is something he finds appalling? If so, why call the police? I’m sure there have been some dopes that call the authorities when they find out someone is gay, but I don’t get it in the context of the movie. Another way his actions could be interpreted are that he is jealous that his brother is a mutant and he is not, in which case it’s even more confusing. Why would he call the police because he’s jealous his brother has powers? I’m probably over complicating this entire thing and the character’s actions were just used to get Wolverine, Iceman, Pyro and Rogue back with the other X-Men.
Which brings me to the other ugly aspect of this movie, the plot conveniences and holes. There aren’t many in the movie but the ones that do appear really make you scratch your head. Some things in the movie get set up early on that make you think, “That’s really dumb,” but they get paid off and are explained later on with great detail. Other times you don’t even know. For example, if it took Professor Xavier forever to track Nightcrawler, how did Stryker both find and use his mind control potion on him? Another convenience that really irked me was Xavier’s ability to mind freeze people in certain spaces. He does this magic trick twice in the movie and while I understand Xavier is supposed to be a wicked powerful telepath, why doesn’t he just use this ability all the time so nothing bad ever happens? Because that wouldn’t make a compelling movie, I know.
For the most part, X2 holds up. Is it the be-all-end-all comic book movie? Not even close, but as a product of its time, it’s an achievement that has thus far stood the test of time. It has a really interesting story for something that went through so many rewrites and that sets it apart from many sequels alone. What keeps X2 from being the crowning achievement in superhero cinema is the awful performances by many of the actors. Some sequences help cushion this aspect by being visually stunning, and it doesn’t hurt that Brian Cox and Ian McKellen steal the movie. It’s a tough call for me about whether this is the best of the X-Men series, but it’s certainly a front runner.
Give X2 a rewatch for its anniversary. How do you think it holds up?