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The Mutants Strike Back

 

X2: X-Men United

Bryan Singer, USA, 2003

Rating: 4.1

 

 

Posted: May 4, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Spider-Man. Daredevil. The Batman films. Spawn. Blade. Love it or hate it, the parade of big-budget films based on superhero comic book properties, stretching back all the way to 1978's Richard Donner-directed Superman, has been -- let's face it -- a mixed bag. The reasons for this are as varied as the films themselves: Flimsy scripts; technological limitations; poor judgment in the hiring of directors and actors (Batman and Robin, anyone? Steel? 'Nuff said.) And with this summer's upcoming Hulk and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen presaging a glut of four-color features extending well into 2004, fans can be forgiven for a creeping "quality vs. quantity" skepticism: It's hard to escape the notion that venal Hollywood is cashing in, churning out an overabundance of similar features not seen since the halcyon days of adult/child body-switching films (Vice Versa, etc) of the 1980s.

That skepticism is abated somewhat by Bryan Singer's X2: X-Men United, the roller-coaster sequel to 2000's long-awaited X-Men screen debut: It's far and away the most effortlessly engrossing superhero adaptation in years. It's also perhaps the single most authentic film of its type to date in its evocation of the comic book experience. In its look and feel, its attention to both character interaction and sensory-overload spectacle, X2 is the closest Hollywood has yet come to a graphic novel made flesh.

The backstory, familiar to pocket-protector brigades the world over: Mutants, a random offshoot of humanity blessed (or cursed, depending on your point of view) with extra-normal abilities, are looked upon with a mixture of suspicion, fear and hatred by a human race wary of suffering the same fate that Cro-Magnon Man brought to the Neanderthals: evolutionary extinction. Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), one of the world's foremost mutant minds, has established a School for Gifted Youngsters, a safe haven wherein mutants young and old can learn to control, and adapt to, their newfound powers. The school is also the home base for the X-Men, Xavier's elite cadre of super-powered mutants whose purpose is to train the younger charges and to combat threats to Xavier's Martin Luther King-like vision of a world in which humans and mutants peacefully co-exist. Those threats are both external (humans bent on controlling or wiping out the mutant population) and internal, the latter represented by mutant mastermind Magneto (Ian McKellen), the Malcolm X yang to Xavier's yin, a survivor of the Holocaust determined that his species prevail against its human aggressors by any means necessary.

As X2 begins, a few weeks after the end of its predecessor, Magneto, whose plan to mutate a large portion of New York was foiled by the X-Men in the first film, sits in a plastic prison designed specifically to thwart his power over all things metallic. Meanwhile, the very war between man and mutant that Magneto has so often to stage a preemptive strike against is underway.

Kurt Wagner, a.k.a. Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) -- a blue-skinned, demonic-looking mutant with a prehensile tail and the ability to teleport in a flash of brimstone -- stages a one-mutant assault on the White House in an attempt to assassinate the President. In no time, military scientist William Stryker (Bryan Cox) has leveraged this opportunity into a license to storm Xavier's school (which he sees as a training ground for mutant terrorists) in one of the film's best sequences. Soon, Xavier himself has been captured, whisked away to a remote, secretive military installation where Stryker has built a replica of Cerebro, the machine Xavier uses to find new mutants by connecting telepathically with all of the minds on the planet. Meanwhile, the beautiful shape-shifting mutant Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) helps Magneto escape his prison, and soon the X-Men have formed an uneasy alliance with the two felons in attempt to free Xavier and foil Stryker's plan, which involves using the new Cerebro to kill all of the mutants on earth.

Singer has been quoted as describing X2 as his The Empire Strikes Back, and it's a fitting analogy. X2 wastes little time on backstory, thrusting its audience right into the action, and the risk pays off. In the process, it moves beyond the wooden, perfunctory pacing of the first film, and in its confident expansion of its themes, characters and plot, it builds from the rickety foundation of X-Men a breathing, full-fledged mythology. What's more, bravura action sequences (Nightcrawler's White House assault is nothing short of spectacular) are complemented by an unexpected and wholly welcome emphasis on character development. Brooding Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, the film's stoic center) slowly fills in the missing puzzle-pieces of his forgotten past, one which involves Stryker; Rogue (Anna Paquin), who absorbs the powers (and life energies) of anyone she touches, develops a tender young romance with Bobby Drake, a.k.a. Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), who "comes out" to his parents in one of the film's funniest moments ("Have you tried not being a mutant?" his sweetly intolerant mother asks); Pyro (Tadpole's Aaron Stanford) feels the pull of Xavier's and Magneto's competing philosophies; even Stryker's somewhat cardboard motivation is ably handled.

These grace notes help to compensate for X2's weak spots. The romantic triangle between Wolverine, the powerful telepath/telekinetic Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and the staid Cyclops (James Marsden) provides little of the hoped-for sparks; Marsden is once again given almost nothing to do except smolder and shoot optic blasts from his eyes. Oscar-winner Halle Berry, as weather witch Storm, is also again underused (Janssen at least gets a too-subtle subplot revolving around her increasingly overwhelming abilities). And Stewart, whose stentorian Xavier is supposed to be the group's visionary leader, is stuck with a role far more reactive than active. Likewise, Stryker's assistant Deathstrike (Kelly Hu), whose claws and healing factor are a match for Wolverine's, is little more than a cypher. Cumming does a credible job as the German-born Nightcrawler, although his presence is a plot hole the film never quite papers over (having been manipulated by Stryker into attacking the White House, he's then left to his own devices rather than imprisoned in case he's needed again). And the film's final third drags a bit, as the race to chase down all its dangling subplots saps the energy from the main plot involving Xavier and Cerebro (which isn't the most action scene-friendly scenario to begin with).

Still, X2 does many things right, its surging momentum and dramatic tension girding its themes of acceptance and tolerance, so dear to the hearts of its crucial, social-outcast fan base. It's a fitting extension of the comic franchise, a tribute to the legacy of longtime X-Men writer Chris Claremont (from whose graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills the character of Stryker is adapted). While its exposition-heavy dialogue may deter some newcomers, its breathless pace, expertly handled action sequences and attention to thematic detail should appeal to every film-goer's misunderstood mutant side.

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