Released: April 2003
Director: Bryan Singer
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $110 to 125 million
Stars: Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman, Brian Cox, Famke Janssen, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Alan Cumming, James Marsden, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Shawn Ashmore, Aaron Stanford, Kelly Hu, and Bruce Davison
The war between humans and Mutants escalates after an attack on the President of the United States (Cotter Smith). Having interrogated Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (McKellen), Colonel William Stryker (Cox) leads an assault on Professor Charles Xavier’s (Stewart) sanctuary for Mutants, scattering his X-Men and setting in motion a plot to rid the world of Mutantkind.
After Stan Lee and long-time collaborator Jack Kirby created the original X-Men in 1963, Mutants have long been a staple of Marvel Comics; unlike many of Marvel’s superheroes, the X-Men (and Mutants in general) are hated and feared, standing in for oppressed creeds and minorities everywhere and giving Lee an easy way to produce numerous new superheroes with minimal effort. The X-Men later influenced a whole new generation through the much-lauded animated series from the nineties, the success of which led to 20th Century Fox purchasing the film rights and releasing the first live-action X-Men movie in 2000 with director Bryan Singer at the helm. Against the odds, X-Men proved a success, bringing in over $290 million against a $75 million budget.
Production and development of a sequel began almost immediately, with Singer and producer Tom DeSanto both researching the more nuanced storylines of the X-Men comics, specifically God Loves, Man Kills (Claremont, et al, 1982), which introduced William Stryker into the X-Men lore. Singer also clearly drew inspiration from films like Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980) and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Meyer, 1982) for X-Men 2’s bleaker, more sombre tone and sought to cast a bigger spotlight on the younger pupils of Xavier’s School for the Gifted. Allowances had to be made, however, when developing X-Men 2 (also known as “X2” and even “X-Men: United”); after the release of X-Men, Halle Berry had won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Monster’s Ball (Forster, 2001), necessitating that her character, Ororo Munroe/Storm, have more screen time. Other scenes, including the return of Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), the inclusion of the Danger Room, and an expanded role for Scott Summers/Cyclops (Marsden) were all cut due to the expanded cast and to keep the film at a reasonable length. After being released, X-Men 2 was a massive financial success, bringing in over $400 million in worldwide revenue and becoming the ninth-highest-grossing film of 2003. The critical reception was glowing as well and X-Men 2 still stands as one of the more well-regarded entries in Fox’s long-running X-Men franchise.
As deep and impactful as the opening of X-Men was, X-Men 2 goes out of its way to top it with one of the most layered, complex, and engaging action sequences put to cinema; the film opens with Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Cumming) infiltrating the White House and attacking Presidential guards. He is stopped short of potentially stabbing President McKenna but leaves behind a blade proclaiming “Mutant Freedom Now”. Immediately, the stage is set for an escalating conflict and that is the key word to describe X-Men 2: escalation. Everything that was great about the first movie is expanded upon and dialled up a notch, increasing both the stakes and the scope of Singer’s X-Men world.
As X-Men devoted so much of its time (arguably too much) to establishing the rules and lore of this grounded, quasi-science-fiction take on the X-Men, X-Men 2 doesn’t have to worry about wasting time establishing characters or expositing information. When we’re reintroduced to Doctor Jean Grey (Janssen), Cyclops, and Storm, we already have an idea of their characters as we were exposed to them, albeit briefly, in the first movie. As an added bonus, actions from the first film have consequences in the sequel: Jean’s powers are a bit out of whack after exerting herself in the conclusion of the first movie and Logan/Wolverine (Jackman) is first reintroduced having found the abandoned facility Xavier directed him to in the last film.
The core X-Men are given far more to do this time around but, again, much of their screen time is taken away by other characters; however, whereas the Brotherhood were largely silent, one-dimensional antagonists in the first film, the “X-Kids” (Marie D’Ancanto/Rogue (Paquin), Bobby Drake/Iceman (Ashmore), and John Allerdyce/Pyro (Stanford)) are actually surprisingly well developed. We already know Rogue from the first film but, here, she’s far more comfortable in her own skin and with her powers; she and Drake struggle to reconcile their throbbing biological urges due to the nature of her powers but her story arc is indicative of the story of all of these X-Kids: maturity and growing into the role of an official X-Men.
Both Iceman and Pyro get their own separate story arcs as well, both of which are far deeper and more developed than anything either Cyclops or Storm go through in the entire series! When Iceman, Pyro, and Rogue are forced from the X Mansion by Stryker’s team, Wolverine takes them to Iceman’s family in Boston. There, the film explicitly wallops us over the head with its themes by having Iceman “come out” as a Mutant to his family, who react in the same clichéd way as a lot of fictional (and real, I’m sure) parents do when their kids reveal themselves to be gay. Heartbroken at his family’s reaction, he leaves them behind to stick with his real family, the X-Men.
Pyro, however, is vastly developed from a brief cameo in the first movie to an obnoxious, fire-obsessed, angry young kid; clearly resentful of Iceman’s comfortable upbringing, he is as hot-headed and temperamental as his powers dictate, aggressively lashing out at cops and growing increasingly tired of Xavier’s more passive teachings. When he meets Magneto, he is clearly in awe and, when Magneto panders to Pyro’s ego, willingly joins the Mutant extremist at the film’s conclusion rather than try to grow beyond his anger.
Other Mutants are not so lucky; Peter Rasputin/Colossus (Daniel Cudmore) appears in a tantalisingly frustrating cameo and, as mentioned, Cyclops’ screen time is significantly reduced. Halle Berry may have moaned a lot about her character being side-lined but at least she often has some kind of significant role; here, she doesn’t just fly the X-Jet but she also uses her weather powers to create some bad-ass tornados (twisters? Whatever) and gets a lot of development through her interactions with Nightcrawler. Cyclops, though, bickers with Logan (again), is worried about Jean, has one fight scene, and then disappears for almost the entire movie before Marsden puts in a fantastically heartbreaking performance for the film’s conclusion.
I’m not fan of Cyclops but his character deserved so much better than he gets in this, and all of these movies. When he’s missing, Logan implies that Jean doesn’t even love him…when she’s been married to him for years! Speaking of Logan, he has a far bigger, meatier role in this film and the narrative does an excellent job of tying his mysterious past into the plot of the film and the events unfolding. Add to that the fact that we get some absolutely brutal onscreen action thanks to his berserker rage and Adamantium claws and you have a film that really ramps up whenever Wolverine is onscreen.
Wolverine’s past is given a bit more clarification through his interactions with Stryker, who teases Wolverine with hints and promises of revealing his entire past and origin. Ultimately, though, Wolverine rejects his past, whatever it may be, and chooses to side with the X-Men full-time. This character arc would eventually be deconstructed in subsequent sequels and spin-offs but it really works here to show that Logan has decided to put whatever his past was behind him and focus on the present.
Stryker is also a fantastic addition to Singer’s world. A cold, calculating, manipulative villain who is motivated by a personal grudge against Xavier and a maniacal, xenophobic desire to control or wipe out all Mutants, his charisma and screen presence is more than up to the task of matching that of Magneto. Sadly, though, Stryker and Alkali Lake would go on to be continually used and beaten into the ground in later X-Men movies but Cox’s captivatingly snake-like performance still makes this first use of the character the best, in my opinion.
Speaking of Magneto, X-Men 2 largely defines the grey area the character would come to occupy in subsequent films. Arrogant and pretentious, Magneto takes one step further into the dark in this film; though he and Mystique (Romijn-Stamos) are forced to team up with the X-Men out of mutual survival, they are both happy to mock, manipulate, and betray the team (and humankind) at a moment’s notice. In X-Men 2, Magneto develops into the ultimate opportunist and manipulator; he is the best kind of bad guy as he believes that he is right and you can sympathise and empathise with his beliefs, though his methods grow more and more questionable throughout the film, leaving him firmly in the role of villain by the film’s end.
I said that everything that worked about the first film has been expanded, improved upon, and dialled up a notch and it’s true: the effects are way better, for one thing, and the narrative is paced and constructed a lot better thanks to there not being a need for loads of exposition and world-building. It’s true, though, that Cyclops suffers greatly from the inclusion of so many new characters; even Mystique gets more to do and a bigger role, which is a real shame for the X-Men’s long-standing field commander.
X-Men 2 also has the benefit of included far more interesting and engaging action sequences; the opening, obviously, and Magneto’s escape from his ludicrous plastic prison (seriously, how was that build so fast?) spring to mind but the inclusion of Yuriko Oyama/Deathstrike (Hu) also delivers perhaps the best Wolverine-centric one-on-one fight scene so far. While Deathstrike is little more than another mute henchwoman, this fight more than makes up for her lack of personality; sporting Freddy Krueger-like Adamantium claws, Deathstrike is like a mixture of Sabretooth’s raw animal power and Mystique’s athletic grace and is more than a match for Wolverine. When they get into it, it’s an especially brutal fight that, alongside Wolverine’s enraged skewering of Stryker’s soldiers, would set the scene for further Wolverine spin-offs.
Two of the film’s core themes are faith and family; faith is exemplified through Nightcrawler but family is portrayed in numerous different ways. Iceman’s family rejects his true nature, so he turns to his surrogate family; Wolverine also finds himself committing to this same surrogate family by the film’s end and the larger role played by the X-Kids and the pupils helps to emphasise that Xavier is a father figure as much as a mentor and teacher. The other side of this theme is portrayed through Stryker and his Mutant son, Jason (Michael Reid MacKay); convinced that mutation is a disease, Stryker was unable to accept that his son couldn’t be cured and driven half-mad when Jason used his vision-inducing powers to drive his wife to suicide. Stryker then developed a serum to control and brainwash Mutants using Jason’s cerebral fluid and had his son half-lobotomised in order to overpower Xavier; he even declares “My son is dead!”, indicating the lengths to which his madness and obsession with destroying Mutants has gone.
One of the most influential additions to the film apart from Stryker, though, was Nightcrawler; as a new addition to the world, and the team, a surprising amount of nuance and detail is given to Nightcrawler’s characterisation and backstory. He has far more layers to his character than any of the three X-Men had in the first film and I learn more about Nightcrawler and what makes him tick in this film than I do about Cyclops in the entire series! Nightcrawler was in the circus, he’s a Mutant of devout faith, and he pities those who hate and fear him rather than hating them; despite his demonic appearance, he’s a Mutant of peace and inclusion. Compare this to what we know about Cyclops: he likes cars and motorcycles, is committed to Xavier (though we don’t know the specifics of what drives that devotion), loves Jean, dislikes Logan, and is a bit afraid of his full potential. Who is he? What’s his story? In one scene, we learn more about Nightcrawler than we do Cyclops in two movies and there’s something very wrong about that.
And then there’s Jean. In X-Men, she was just kind of…there. It was explicitly stated that she was nowhere near as powerful as Xavier, yet she was also a medical doctor so she wasn’t entirely useless (though her characterisation wasn’t up to much). Here, she spends the whole film struggling with her powers, which are wildly in flux and unpredictable. Her doubts cause a few moments of danger for the team but, when her friends and family are about to be wiped out by a wall of water, she ultimately choose to sacrifice herself to save them. Why? Well…because that happened in Wrath of Kahn, obviously, and Singer wanted to lay the groundwork for the much-coveted “Phoenix” arc of the comics. Jean regularly takes on an ethereal, fiery glow as she strains her powers to their limits and the silhouette of a phoenix can be seen after she has apparently died. While this storyline was largely botched in the sequel (and then again a few years later), it’s clear what Singer was going for here but, to me, the execution falls a bit flat. Why didn’t she just stay on the jet?
It’s obvious why X-Men 2 is still so renowned; it’s a far superior film compared to its predecessor and is worlds above its successor. It expands upon the world and the characters of the first film so much and actually feels like a real X-Men movie from start to finish, balancing the use of Wolverine and the involvement of its other characters really well (as long as you ignore Cyclops…)
For me, it’s clearly still one of the best, if not the best, X-Men movies and is definitely in the top three but a lot of my enjoyment of it is soured by how poorly its plot threads were handled in the sequel and how Fox continually went back to the well and kept bringing back Stryker, Alkali Lake, and Nightcrawler (or Nightcrawler-like characters). It isn’t enough to make me say I dislike the film, though, as it still holds up really well and is a vast improvement on the original.
What are your thoughts on X-Men 2? What title did it have where you are from? How do you feel it holds up these days? Does it still rank high in your list of X-Men movies or do you, perhaps, place it lower? Whatever your thoughts on X-Men 2, or X-Men in general, leave your thoughts below and be sure to check out my review of the thirdX-Men film.