X2: X-Men United (2003)


Three years ago, Bryan Singer’s hit X-Men marked a new beginning for comic-book super-hero movies. Now the ambiguously named sequel X2: X-Men United goes beyond the comic-book movie label in a way no previous super-hero movie has done: It’s well-done sci‑fi action-adventure that honors its pulp origins but doesn’t depend on them.

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2003, 20th Century Fox. Directed by Bryan Singer. Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Famke Jenssen, James Marsden, Anna Paquin, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Brian Cox, Alan Cumming.

Artistic/Entertainment Value

Moral/Spiritual Value

+1 / -2

Age Appropriateness

Teens & Up*

MPAA Rating


Caveat Spectator

Violent, sometimes deadly action sequences; limited profanity; some sensuality; virtual nudity.

X2 has neither the camp backbeat of the Superman and Batman movies, nor the glossy stylizations of Spider-Man and Daredevil to mark it as a comic-book project. Where other super-hero movies, like James Bond movies, take place in a static universe in which nothing really changes and the essential mythology remains the same, X2 is set in a world in flux. The plot is part of an ongoing story-arc reaching back to X-Men and building toward a future X3.

Larger in scope and darker in tone than its predecessor, as rich in invention but expanding on it, X2 is the most ambitious, sprawling super-hero saga to date. It aspires to be The Empire Strikes Back to the original film’s Star Wars; in many respects, it succeeds. Another obvious point of comparison is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, though the romantic civil-war action of The Empire Strikes Back is closer in spirit to X2 than is the more cautionary cold-war dynamic of Wrath of Khan.

The main thing that keeps X2 from being an achievement on the scale of The Empire Strikes Back or The Wrath of Khan is a crucial misstep at a point where both of those earlier movies decisively succeed. A good bit of the film’s aspirations hang on a crucial plot point that, when it comes, lacks the emotional impact, or even narrative clarity, that it needed to work.

Functionally, the device in question is meant as a set-up for the next film. On that level, it gets the job done; as a dramatic device in this story, it’s an anticlimax. Up to that point, though, and to some extent after it, X2 is firing on all cylinders.

The first X-Men movie established a world in which tension between humans and super-powered mutants threatens to boil over into war. That film ended with an averted preemptive strike against humanity by an unprincipled mutant leader. This one begins with a stunning declaration of war, though whom the message ultimately comes from, and what it really means, isn’t immediately apparent.

The factions, as before, are trifold. Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), founder and mentor of the X-Men, champions the cause of mutants and humans living together peaceably. Erik Lehnsherr, better known as Magneto (Ian McKellen), cares only about mutants and will stop at nothing to advance his interests. And General William Stryker (Brian Cox, The Rookie) replaces the late but not quite absent Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison) as the driving force of the anti-mutant movement. (Davison is still in the film, playing Kelly as impersonated by Rebecca Romijn-Stamos’ shape-shifting Mystique.)

Now the first skirmishes of war have come, and on all sides there are casualties, of one kind or another. In a clever topical reference, Xavier’s school for mutants is identified by Stryker’s task force as a “mutant training facility,” leading to dramatic and disturbing consequences. And a threat arises so dire that opposing factions may have to work together to avert catastrophe.

The original X-Men comic book, created in the 1960s, has always had a civil-rights subtext, with Xavier representing the dream of racial harmony and Magneto embodying revolutionary separatism. The first film consciously evoked this motif right from its concentration-camp prologue; the sequel continues the pattern, with opening citations from Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address and references to theories about competition or coexistence of early hominids. (There’s also a kind of mutant “coming-out” scene, in which a young mutant is asked by his confused parents, in an exchange clearly meant as a riff on attitudes regarding homosexuality, “Have you tried not being a mutant?” Fortunately, this is an isolated moment in the film.)

X2 is an action movie in which factors like government policies and social climates matter, and decisions have consequences. In most super-hero movies, the heroes fight basically personal battles with no dramatically important consequences for the larger world. Even when Lex Luthor threatened nuclear catastrophe or General Zod took over the planet, we knew that in the end Superman would put things back basically as they had been.

One area in particular in which super-hero movies tend to be static is in the heroes’ personal lives. Superman II was largely devoted to exploring why the Superman-Lois-Clark triangle can never really change (i.e., because Superman’s crusade must be never-ending, and anyway Lois really loves Superman, not Clark). In the same way, Batman, Spider-Man, and Daredevil have seemed simply fated not to get the girl.

By contrast, the relationships between Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Jean Grey (Famke Jannsen), and Cyclops (James Marsden) feel like real human relationships in which choices rather than destiny are the determining factor. Other relationships, including the problematic attraction of Rogue (Anna Paquin) and Iceman Bobby Drake (Shawn Ashmore) and the strange outsider camaraderie of Magneto and Mystique, feel more human than most relationships in movies of this sort.

Of course, with over a dozen major roles and countless supporting ones, X2 is hardly a drama of character studies. Still, what it does do is well done, and Singer manages his enormous ensemble with grace. Jackman again makes Wolverine both feral and human, and McKellen and Stewart bring the same effortless authority to their roles. Jannsen gets more room to develop the character of Jean Grey, but Marsden as Cyclops is as underused as before. (A friend and fellow critic notes the unusual intergenerational dynamic in the X-Men movies; unlike many popular movies, they don’t focus on one age group, such as young adults or children, but involve a cross-section of old and young interacting in various ways.)

Besides the large cast, Singer also deftly orchestrates the story’s complex, interweaving plotlines. Developments take place regarding Wolverine’s forgotten past, another character’s shadowy future, and a major story-arc involving a third major character, but clearly major points remain in the future. Singer isn’t rushing things — a choice that bodes well for the future storyline known to fans know as the “Dark Phoenix” saga (contrast Mark Steven Johnson’s valiant but rushed attempt to do the entire Elektra saga in one Daredevil movie).

One of the refreshing things about the original X-Men was the way it managed not to kill off any of its bad guys. Of course, sometimes the use of lethal force is both legitimate and necessary, and the darker, grimmer X2 deals with this. Unfortunately, proper respect for life isn’t always seen in the sequel.

On the one hand, the use of deadly force by a lone defender protecting innocent children against an unknown number of hostile, well-armed attackers seems morally justified. Yet when on two occasions heroes find villains immobilized and in harm’s way, and make no move to help them, it seems both morally wrong and dramatically pointless. (One of these instances comes right after the villain has just impugned the hero’s character and even his humanity, making it all the more puzzling why the story has the hero do the wrong thing.)

On a related note, a vicious battle between two dangerous characters, though not necessarily involving immoral action on the part of the hero, is regrettable for some particularly brutal violence and a vividly grotesque twist that unnecessarily squanders future possibilities. That one of the combatants isn’t morally responsible for what’s happening makes the outcome even less pleasant.

On the positive side, newcomer Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) adds color in more ways than one, as much with his religious faith as with his devilish blue appearance and flashy powers. Kurt’s folk Catholicism (rooted, as far as I know, in his carny upbringing, though I’m sure more ardent X-fans will correct me if I’m wrong) isn’t explored in depth, but it’s respectfully depicted as far as it goes.

Nightcrawler prays frequently (the rosary, Psalm 23, the Our Father) and has body art that he says represents “angelic shapes given to mankind by the Archangel Gabriel.” Asked how many designs he has, he answers, “One for each sin, so… a lot.” (Whether he means one for each of his own sins, or one for each species of sin generally, he doesn’t specify.) When another character tells him that anger can help one survive, his reply is, “So can faith.”

If X2 lacks the campy or stylized qualities that have marked previous comic-book movies, it still works really well as a super-hero adventure. I especially appreciate the way X2 continues to explore the logic and implications of super powers with the same striking imagination seen, for example, in the first film’s train-station standoff between Magneto and Professor X.

Here again Magneto and Xavier are standouts, with stunningly unexpected applications of their powers; and Nightcrawler’s debut positively sizzles. Showcase scenes for Wolverine, Storm, and newcomer Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu, effective but wasted) are also impressive.

This is a long way from, for example, the Superman films (which always reserved the right to throw in new, deus-ex-machina “powers” ranging from memory-wiping kisses to levitating finger-beams to the power to spin the planet backwards and turn back time), or even from the Spider-Man and Daredevil movies (in which super-powers are treated seriously and enjoyably, but without great imagination).

Fans of the comics will be gratified at fleeting but precise cameos by a bevy of background characters, including Piotr Rasputin, aka Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), who transmutates into living metal; Kitty Pryde (Katie Stuart), who can phase at will through solid objects; and Hank McCoy (Steve Bacic), later to be known as the Beast. The long parade of characters may occasionally bewilder the uninitiated, but the story and the action are strong enough to carry X-novices along.

The first X-Men movie, like the first Superman movie, was essentially a well-crafted set-up film that called for a high-powered sequel. X2 is that sequel, and it more than delivers. But where Superman II completed what its predecessor started in a way that left no direction for further sequels, X2 now cries out for a third movie. Based on these two films, I have confidence in Singer’s ability to keep on delivering. This is now one of Hollywood’s best and most promising franchises.

Action, Adventure, Make Mine Marvel, Superheroes & Comic Book Movies, X-Men