Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Children of the Atom, Part 2: X2: X-Men United (2003)

            Countdown to X-Men: Days of Future Past, Part 2…

            If we’re talking superhero movies, 90% of the time the second film is far superior to the original. The first film has so much ground to cover, so much to introduce, that often it’s only in the last reel when our hero finally suits up and does the stuff everyone paid to see them do in the first place. But when part two comes around, all of that’s already been established - the set-up has been taken care of, and we can get into the real nitty-gritty of the good stuff. X2: X-Men United is no different: bigger, bolder and far more confident than its predecessor, Bryan Singer and co.’s follow-up film improves upon just about every facet of their previous effort, resulting in one of the modern era’s most satisfying superhero films.

            Everything about X2 feels more assured - the characters are given greater depth, the script much more layered and nuanced, and the set-pieces are - for a change - genuinely exciting. The first X-Men showed Hollywood that a superhero movie could be character-driven instead of a feature-length toy commercial, but at the end of the day it’s still about saving the day and the whole derring-do of the superhero concept; there should be some spectacle on display. X2 course-corrects that right out of the gate, as we’re introduced to new character Nightcrawler in a stunning action scene that’s still one of the best showcases of superpowers we’ve yet to see on-screen. All of the action scenes are more robust, with several clever gags like Magneto escaping from his plastic prison with a handful of iron sucked from the blood of a security guard, or finally getting to see Wolverine really let loose with his claws in a government raid on the X-mansion. Singer has never been the most visually interesting filmmaker, but here he and his cohorts do a nice job emulating comic book panels both through the framing of shots and how they’re edited together - much like Mario Bava’s exquisite Danger: Diabolik, it’s comic book storytelling perfectly adapted and transposed to film. X2 is overall a much more exciting movie, helped tremendously by a vastly superior music score by John Ottman that’s more befitting a superhero adventure than the forgettable efforts of the first film.

            More importantly, the film doesn’t lose sight of the characters in all of the effects-driven muckety-muck - for the most part, anyway. If anything, the character work is even deeper and more refined than the still largely character-driven first go-round. Wolverine gets the bulk of the film’s screen-time (of course), but when he’s played like he is here by Hugh Jackman, how could he not be? He snarls and gets angry and slices up a bunch of folks with his retractable claws, all the while making with the sexy-time with his perfectly-coiffed hair and mutton-chops. It’s somewhat understandable that the filmmakers place all the focus on him, but there are other characters in the film who are equally arresting, yet don’t get as much to do. Fortunately, the filmmakers were smart enough to realize that if you put Ian McKellen in a film, you better damn well utilize him to the best of your abilities, and here - much like the first film - the classically-trained actor is put to good use. Perhaps even put to better use, as Magneto comes off with much greater nuance than the fairly cheesy villain he played in the previous installment. X2 utilizes that age-old superhero trope where the heroes and villains have to unite against a foe even more powerful, so watching Magneto and Mystique (played by an equally-improved Rebecca Romijn) working together whilst still antagonizing their mortal enemies makes for a good bit fun to be had by all.

            That menace so great that it has to team up both hero and villain to stop is none other than the U.S. government, headlined by the incomparable Brian Cox as Col. William Stryker. Cox chews every piece of the scenery in sight, giving pitch-perfect deliveries of lines such as, “I was running black ops in ‘Nam while you were suckin’ on your momma’s tit at Woodstock.” Stryker has it out for the mutants mainly because his son is one (and a powerful telepath, at that) and uses a serum derived from his son’s mutation to control other mutant agents into terror attacks designed to spread fear and paranoia against the mutant population. All of this culminates in a rather shaky premise that sees Professor X shunted off to the sidelines and being manipulated into killing every mutant on Earth with a specially-crafted Cerebro. It’s not exactly the most sound villain plot around, but it sure as hell beats whatever was going on at the Statue of Liberty in the last film.

            New to the series on the heroes’ side is the incredible Nightcrawler, played by Alan Cumming. The character is really only in the movie for that amazing opening scene, but there’s still some great pathos lurking within Cummings’ performance, and at the very least the character’s around to finally give Storm (Halle Berry, curiously missing her accent and with a much better wig) an actual arc. We also are introduced to the teenage Pyro, who along with Bobby Drake and Rogue represent the junior X-Men and the temptations of both showing off and hiding who you are. Upon its initial release, one of the most touching scenes was Bobby having to tell his parents that he was in fact a mutant - a clear parallel to a gay teenager coming out to an unwelcoming family. Watching it now, the scene comes across as a little too forced - it’s nice enough, and gets the job done in relation to the story and the characters, but played so broad that it feels more like an after-school special that misses the real significance of what it’s portraying. 

The film’s main problem will continue to be a boon to all subsequent entries in the series: there are just too many characters, and even at a length of over two hours, the film can’t sustain them all. The first film already strained to fit in all its characters, and with the cast nearly doubled this time around, the problem is exacerbated. Poor James Marsden just can’t catch a break as Cyclops, who disappears within the first thirty minutes and doesn’t return until the very end. He’s supposed to be the de facto field leader of the team, and his Boy Scout nature clashing with Wolverine’s wild card schtick has long been a prominent feature of the X-Men lore, but in the films its given nothing more than mere lip service. His lack of prominence hurts the eventual turn of events that sees Jean Grey sacrificing her life to save her fellow X-Men (SPOILERS, if you still have yet to see this now 11-year-old movie) - he’s clearly upset, but we haven’t really seen enough of their relationship to become invested.

The film also suffers from some pretty severe pacing issues, alternating between pulse-pounding and almost painfully slow at the drop of a hat - none more egregious than the ending, which drags on uncomfortably past the natural climax in a rather unexciting and drawn-out conclusion that’s meant to be thought-provoking, but is really just boring. It’s something we certainly all looked past when the film initially came out, but now, when compared to the likes of the Marvel Studios films, it just sticks out like a sore thumb.

But still, even though some elements haven’t aged all that well, X2 is a rather fantastic example of the superhero film, and (so far) remains one of the best in the series.

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