Written by David Holland
Three years after “X-Men” came the sequel, “X2”. I have long defended this movie as one of the best in the franchise, but I haven’t actually watched it in a while, so it was nice to blow the dust off the DVD and take a trip down memory lane.
(Yes, I’m still doing “X” puns. If you’ve ever read an X-Men comic or seen the X-Men cartoon, you’ll understand.)
The opening scene in X-2 remains one of the best in any comic book movie. A mind-controlled Nightcrawler effortlessly infiltrates the White House, leaving Secret Service and security guards sprawled unconscious in his wake. The filmography for this combat style clearly lays the groundwork for future scenes in similar projects – every fight scene involving Number Five in the Umbrella Academy, for example, is basically an homage to this scene. Before the MCU and the proliferation of superhero movies, the X-Men Universe was laying the ground work for how to film a fight scene with superpowered characters. The Nightcrawler scene in the White House is like Vader’s massacre at the end of “Rogue One” or the Joker’s bank robbery at the start of “The Dark Knight”, a vignette that can stand on its own as a mini-story but also serves the larger narrative.
William Stryker is a compelling villain for an increasingly complex X-Universe. In the first film the conflict was largely framed around the X-Men against the Brotherhood, with humans largely standing on the sidelines. In this installment, humanity strikes back in an ugly way. Stryker, we learn, masterminded Nightcrawler’s apparent assassination attempt in an effort to seize the initiative against mutants. When this film first came out I think it was reasonable to see unaccountable, highly militarized, secretive government agents abducting and holding people without basic civil liberties simply because they are different as absurd, but now it feels disturbingly prescient.
Most of the cast seem much more comfortable in their characters and in the larger universe. In the first film I highlighted the performances of Stewart and McKellan (who remain stellar in this film as well), but in this movie the main X-men (Famke Janssen, Halle Berry, and James Marsden) all step up, as do the X-Men in training (Anna Paquin, Shawn Ashmore, and Aaron Stanford as Rogue, Ice Man, and Pyro respectively). It’s nice to see the universe expanding as new mutants with new powers get added. And Alan Cumming absolutely knocks it out of the park as “Nightcrawler”, as I alluded to earlier.
X-Men has always been a useful allegory for marginalized groups, and this film pays homage to that. While on the run, the heroes visit Bobby’s family and he confesses to them that he is a mutant, to which his mother responds “Have you tried… not being a mutant?” It was very intentionally shot as a “coming-out” scene, to the point that Ian McKellan helped with the creation of that particular moment. It serves as a powerful example of the ability of fantasy stories to teach us lessons about our own reality.
Who runs a more recklessly dangerous school, Professor Xavier or Albus Dumbledore? Because there are strong “No safer place than Hogwarts” vibes surrounding Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, and the Professor’s hubris leads him to leave his children in the care of a maladjusted amnesiac. It’s not exactly the same as accidentally hiring a Death Eater as a teacher, but it’s still not great.
Bryan Singer also returned to direct this installment and he remains, as I pointed out in my last review, apparently a terrible human. There are also a few things that got left on the cutting room floor. Basically, if you have a pet mutant that you love outside of the world of the main ensemble, they don’t have much or any screen time. Kitty Pryde gets a brief moment to show off her power, but without any dialogue. A scene involving Gambit was ultimately cut as well, but these are really little objections that don’t do much to hurt the final product.
X-traordinary. I stand by my decision to rank X2 as among the best in the franchise, sharing the podium with “Days of Future Past” and “Logan”.