I've been a drooling fanboy of Singer's ever since The Usual Suspects, which was a masterpiece of storytelling. His next film, Apt Pupil, was a riveting study of the nature of evil. In both cases, the movies were flawless (I haven't yet seen his debut film, Public Access). When I heard he was directing X-Men, I was intrigued, since it's not a pairing I would have expected, but in retrospect it made perfect sense. When it's at its best, the comic-book iterations of the X-Men are about the gray area between good and evil, the difficult choices that have to be made, the way good people can be turned to evil by prejudice (either by indulging in it as the oppressor or succumbing to it as the oppressed). Both The Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil did fascinating things with the concept of the nature of evil. So I thought that the characters of Professor Xavier, Magneto, and Wolverine in particular would thrive under Singer's tutelage. Xavier and Magneto are the Martin Luther King and Malcolm X of the mutant world in the comics, and Wolverine has always danced on the edge of The Line, as it were.
Still, the X-Men were always a difficult proposition to put onto the big screen. Most of the comic-book heroes that are bandied about for big-screen fame are solo acts; the X-Men are a team, and a crowded one at that. What's more, they've spent the last four decades weaving a convoluted, complicated, contradictory history involving dozens and dozens of characters. Boiling that down to a two-hour movie that would be comprehensible to a mass audience was a tall order, but one that Singer fulfilled beyond anyone's wildest expectations.
Any worries about Singer's ability to catch lightning in a bottle a second time are dispelled in fairly short order in X2 (hastily given the "X-Men United" subtitle by Fox when it occurred to them that perhaps the words "X-Men" should appear somewhere in the title). Many reviews--particularly among comic book pros and fans--have declared this to be a better movie because it isn't just "the Wolverine and Rogue show," but actually makes use of the larger tapestry of Marvel's "mutantverse." These complaints utterly miss the point: the first movie had to be "the Wolverine and Rogue show" if it was to find an audience beyond comic-book fans (necessary if the movie was to, y'know, make money). In X-Men, Wolverine and Rogue were the POV characters, and the vehicles for exposition of this world that has evolved (pardon the pun) over forty years. The viewer and the characters were getting information simultaneously, thus laying the groundwork.
X2 builds a very nice structure on that foundation, and does expand the cast and the concept to good effect. X-Men was very insular, with only a minor look at the outside world. X2 provides some insight into how mutants are perceived by normal people--but, again, that only is possible because of the work done in the first movie. (In fact, one of X2's minor flaws is its over-reliance on the first film. Anyone coming to see this without having seen the first might have trouble following the nuances.)
The movie uses the 1982 graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills by Chris Claremont and Brent Anderson (which Marvel has kindly reissued this month), arguably the best X-Men story ever told, as the loose basis for the plot. The result is a taut, action-packed drama that combines strong characterization with well-choreographed action, ethical dilemmas with magnificent special effects (Nightcrawler's teleportation is especially well handled), and strong acting with strong make-up. Super-powers are used intelligently and cleverly: Nightcrawler's attack on the White House that opens the film, Storm's mini-hurricane to shake off the Air Force, Wolverine's defense of the mansion, Rogue's grabbing of Pyro's ankle to use his powers to stop the conflagration her fellow student started, Magneto's brilliantly conceived escape from his plastic prison (which was a masterful bit of misdirection on Singer's part), Mystique's shape-changing attempt to seduce Wolverine, and so on.
What Singer in particular excels at is conveying a lot with very little. A mere two lines of dialogue between Mystique and Nightcrawler sum up one of the major themes. Pyro glancing over the pictures in Iceman's house with longing tells you everything you need to know about both characters. The conversations between Storm and Nightcrawler about faith pack a great symbolic and emotional punch without overstaying their welcome.
The movie is not perfect. Some of the best moments of X-Men were the scenes between Patrick Stewart as Xavier and Ian McKellan as Magneto, who have a magnificent chemistry, and there's only one such scene in X2; the movie could only have benefitted from more of those. (The casting of Stewart, McKellan, and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine are the best matchings of comic book character and real person since Christopher Reeve nailed the role of Superman in 1978.) In general, Stewart and Anna Paquin as Rogue are underutilized (though both are at the center of two of the film's funnier bits). So is James Marsden as Cyclops, though one gets the impression that's because he's not as famous as the rest of the cast. The climactic battle suffers from too many characters, to the point where it's obvious that Singer hasn't the first clue what to do with them, and so has them standing with their thumbs in their ears. (As an example, there's no reason for just Storm and Nightcrawler to teleport into Striker's Cerebro mockup at the end, except maybe to give the Oscar-winning Halle Berry a bigger role.) And the decision made by Jean Grey at the end smacks a little too much of setting up for the next movie without sufficient justification for doing so in this movie.
However, these are minor complaints. X2 is that rarest of beasts, an intelligent action film, one that doesn't skimp on thrills, spills, and excitement, but which will keep you intellectually engaged with issues to think about, give you characters about whose fate you genuinely care, and leaves you wanting more without feeling like you've been cheated.
Bring on X3…
[First published in the May 2003 issue of SFRevu.]
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