x2 x-men united retrospective
(Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox)

X2: X-Men United Is Still the Best X-Men Movie 20 Years Later

After X-Men laid the groundwork for FOX’s version of Marvel’s mutants, the world was ripe for expansion, and the new rise of superhero movies showed that fans wanted more. X2: X-Men United is one of those rare entries that delivered on what they did before, but bigger and bolder, without completely dropping the ball, which is why it is largely considered the best X-Men movie. The question often comes up, though: was it really that good, or do we simply keep it on a pedestal as one of the originators?

The worst thing about X2: X-Men United is the title. It’s awkward, frankly, and the use of X2, standing in for X-Men 2, and X-Men being used later as well, is confusing and feels strange to say. In several other countries, the film was simply named X-Men 2 because they realized that it was better. This subtitle was apparently added late in development and was, in part, representing the influence that The Empire Strikes Back had on the movie. Although the characters are all “united” at the end and seemingly stronger for the events of the film and the loss they experience, they spend most of this time separated.

Producer Lauren Shuler Donner said in the commentary for the film that they weren’t sure how to make the first X-Men movie, and many of those elements were still experimental and untested at the time, but now with that experience under their belt, there was a certain confidence and understanding in the production of X2. What was created was something more refined that could expand its focus, include more characters and slightly higher stakes, while turning up the mutant powers, action, and showing a darker and more dangerous time for the mutants. The gamble paid off, and it was a box office success.

Colonel William Stryker (Brian Cox) is mind-controlling mutants, using the very thing he hates to try and eradicate them. It begins with an attack on the White House by a teleporter named Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), but it’s actually a setup, a way to persuade the President to greenlight his true plan, which involves breaking into Professor Charles Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) mansion to kidnap his students and steal important parts of Cerebro, a device that amplifies psychic abilities. While this is happening, Xavier and Cyclops (James Marsden) are captured, visiting Magneto (Ian McKellen), but Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) has her own plans of learning Stryker’s true intentions and freeing the leader of The Brotherhood. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and the other students who escaped from the school must meet up with Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Storm (Halle Berry), and Nightcrawler, but in this dark hour, they’ll have to join forces with their enemies to make sure all of mutantkind is protected.

The plot is mostly taken from issues of Weapon X and Chris Claremont’s God Loves, Man Kills, but many of the characters and events receive an overhaul, either to update them, avoid the religious overtones of Stryker’s initial presentation, or help pieces fit better. Although some things were pulled back on, the themes are kept mature. The plight of the mutants is highlighted, fearmongering is shown, and the terroristic element is touched on, but what many remember is the scene with Bobby Drake (Shawn Ashmore) coming out as a mutant to his parents. It’s a moment that McKellen supposedly helped with personally to provide some authenticity for the gay experience, even though it was left open-ended enough so that anyone with a secret or something that wasn’t outwardly evident could relate to it. The X-Men have always been a blank slate for outcasts and the marginalized, and this particular instance may have shown that the best in all of the group’s film adaptations.  

There are so many actors in X2: X-Men United doing an excellent job, with several line reads that resonate and feel meaningful to the characters. These portrayals may not match the comic book versions exactly, but from what we know of them in the film universe, there are key interactions that truly stand out. Stewart and McKellen are almost expected, but Cox and Cumming are performing beautifully as well. Mystique only has one line in the movie, but it’s an important one.

I remember seeing this in the theater with someone who wasn’t an X-Men reader and when Mystique and Nightcrawler had this exchange, she leaned over and whispered how cute they were together and that they’d make an excellent couple. I stifled a laugh because if you know, you know.

Many characters were underutilized or sidelined in X2, which isn’t surprising with such a large cast and a story that is constantly trying to move. Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu) looks menacing and has a spectacular fight scene, but she is also only given one line and is relegated to bodyguard status. Cyclops is only seen at the beginning and end, being captured, but we were supposed to see an extended scene of his confrontation with the guards and subsequent brainwashing. It also seems a shame for Jean to have such a glorious sacrifice without a couple more moments of her interacting with Storm, Xavier, or her lovers. This doesn’t take away too much, but the enlarged cast cost the story some of its needed focus.

Think X2: X-Men United is too bloated already? It was almost much worse. Originally, Sabretooth and Toad were going to return as lackeys for Stryker. An additional set was even constructed just for the Nightcrawler versus Toad fight that was scrapped. The Danger Room was also built, but it had to be cut due to time and money, making its appearance in the next installment. Larger roles were originally written for both Beast – who appears on television briefly in his human form – and Jubilee, but these were cut, while a scene was apparently filmed for a Gambit cameo and Archangel was initially included. Those last two became simple blink and you’ll miss Easter eggs. There is even a rumor that the studio looked into a Nick Fury cameo for something to expand the universe further, but licensing got in the way. If it’s obscure references people want, however, there are a slew of them when Mystique is hacking into the computer, and only hardcore fans catch the two voice actors from the X-Men: Evolution cartoon that cameoed.

The script itself went through quite the journey. Many fans like to discuss how Solid Snake himself, David Hayter, of Metal Gear fame, wrote the story. It’s a fun tidbit, but in fact, his treatment was combined with that of Zak Penn’s, who said he had to convince the studio not to rush into the Dark Phoenix storyline that they originally wanted to do for the second film. Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris were brought in for rewrites, but there were apparently some issues and frustrations as they crafted the final product, which took over twenty different versions to reach.

Thankfully, the action and sci-fi visuals worked since that was a big reason many people were there in the first place. From the opening scene of Nightcrawler teleporting through the White House and making the Secret Service look incapable to Magneto breaking out of his cell of plastic and glass or pulling the pins on all of the soldiers’ grenades at once, there was spectacular action. Not to mention the final confrontation between Wolverine and Deathstrike. The thud she makes at the end still rings out in my mind. So many good moments, but the invasion of Xavier’s school was probably discussed the most. It was astonishing to see Logan finally cut loose, even if fans wanted a little more blood with it. They tried, but it had to be taken out to keep that PG-13 rating. 

X2: X-Men United has decent visuals as well that hold up for the most part. Though there was a large amount of CGI used, it was mostly left for times location shoots weren’t viable or actor safety was involved. Practical effects were brought in whenever they could work and fit in with the budget. I always thought Iceman’s wall he created was a computer effect, but not only was that real, blowing it up was too. These scenes of confrontation and mutant superiority were all elevated by John Ottman’s score, as he established music that would signify the X-Men as a whole and many of the characters individually going forward.

There’s a mountain of praise to heap upon X2, but it is far from perfect. Some parts of the plot do require the viewer to simply sit back and enjoy the story for what it is, even though the logic can be a bit shaky at times. My least favorite part is when Wolverine starts Cyclops’ car with his claw, not sure why that always irks me. The only major studio interference seemed to be for the better, except when they wanted Jackman and Berry to be in a romantic situation on screen together, due to the attention she was receiving from Monster’s Ball and the fact the two had starred in Swordfish together. The simple answer was to have Mystique turn into her on top of him. 

An over two-hour runtime is almost a bit much, and the pacing doesn’t help that out, while the plot is somewhat convoluted and crowded, which will seem familiar to anyone who read a lot of the team’s comics in the mid and late-‘90s. There were also reported issues on the set, mostly with Jackman being injured and the crew threatening to quit because of director Bryan Singer, who has amassed a long list of issues over his career. Many have heard the story that this incident was what caused Halle Berry to reportedly tell Singer, “You can kiss my Black ass.”

As troubled as it was, what X2: X-Men United ended up being was incredibly entertaining and something that has stayed on top of the pile for longer than most thought it would. The ending may not have worked for everyone, and there might have been some slips along the way, but most people left the theater excited about what was to come. The feeling for those who knew what was ahead was tremendous, even if X2 was better regarded by some because of how bad what came next was. How much more would this film be remembered if the conclusion to that trilogy landed properly? These films are adaptations, flawed from the start by being in another medium and working with different tools/rules, but for some, this was the closest we had gotten so far and the best live-action depiction still, twenty years later.