Film Reviews: Wednesday, May 1, 2003
Singer’s Encore

The memorable X-Men sequel has more mutants and marvels in store.


While many popular comic books have failed to make the transition to film, the X-Men franchise has succeeded like nothing since Tim Burton stopped doing Batman movies. Its numerous characters make for inexhaustible subject matter and films that don’t depend on a single star. It also has the benefit of Bryan Singer, a conscientious director with a gift for playing against an audience’s expectations and an acute sensitivity toward the comic’s central parable of tolerance — the superheroes and supervillains are all part of the same minority of “mutants,” hated and feared by the world’s ordinary humans.

Wisely, Singer makes the second X-Men film fundamentally different from the first. Where the original ran a concise 104 minutes and mainly went about introducing us to its world and some of its major players, the sequel is a full half-hour longer and packed with more storylines, more action, and a larger scope. It also doesn’t bother rehashing the established characters or their superpowers for the benefit of newcomers, so it’s advisable to have seen the first film or be otherwise familiar with the comic book. The title, X2: X-Men United, hints at the plot, which is driven by Gen. William Stryker (Brian Cox). He’s a U.S. military bigwig who’s fanatically bent on cleansing mutants from the planet, and his newfound ability to control their minds is a key to his plan. He springs a trap that captures Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), and hooks him up to a device that will use the professor’s powers to kill all the world’s mutants. The remaining X-Men have to form an uneasy alliance with the evil Magneto (Ian McKellen) to stop the general and save themselves.

This is only the main plot, and the scenes involving the mind control are the weakest part of the film. With all the other storylines and crosscurrents in this movie, though, it’s only a minor flaw. The X-Men mythology is so capacious that the histories of major characters like Cyclops (James Marsden) and Storm (Halle Berry) remain unexplored through their second straight film. Instead, the newer superheroes have the interesting layers, even though they have less screen time. Pyro (Tadpole’s Aaron Stanford), an angry student of Xavier’s who’s a human flamethrower, is the subject of a deftly sketched subplot in which Magneto tries to woo him to the dark side. Gen. Stryker could have been a stereotype of a bloodthirsty military man, but Cox soft-pedals the role and gives it a gently chilling menace. The subdued sorrow of Alan Cumming’s Nightcrawler, a blue-skinned German teleporter who finds refuge in his Catholic faith, is particularly affecting. One thing hasn’t changed — this sprawling epic still inevitably coalesces around Hugh Jackman’s coiled, sardonic Wolverine, a testament to the force of the actor’s personality.

He once again gets some funny lines to go with the movie’s other nice flashes of wit — Magneto reading The Once and Future King in prison, Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) impersonating a familiar-looking barfly and performing a sadistic sexual tease on Wolverine, the director imitating John Woo when Nightcrawler hides out in a church that’s home to scared pigeons. The plethora of details here will keep both newcomers and old X-Men fans paying attention.

That much new information could easily stop the film in its tracks, yet Singer manages to maintain the story’s forward momentum and puts in more action sequences than the original had. The movie takes some time finding its footing; the opening set piece, in which a mutant almost assassinates the President of the United States inside the Oval Office while he’s surrounded by Secret Service agents, somehow isn’t as disturbing as it should be. The scenes that follow, though, are both cleverly executed and crawling with psychological subtext. The military’s attack on Xavier’s school and the innocent kids inside is properly upsetting, even though some of the kids have powers that make them not so defenseless. Magneto’s escape from his plastic prison is daring and ingenious, and the scene in which Pyro calmly goes berserk on a bunch of overmatched cops shows an officer’s mistake turning a kid’s hatred into something lethal.

It all builds to a climax that’s even longer on dramatic power than it is on special-effects wizardry. One of the X-Men dies saving the others, and the grief felt by the remaining superheroes is palpable. Too many of these sci-fi/action/fantasy franchises want you to sit back in awe (The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings) or laugh at their jokey weightlessness (Charlie’s Angels, XXX). The ones that try to engage your feelings often fail (Spider-Man, Daredevil). The X-Men movies are much more intelligent than most others of their kind, but they never get enough credit for being more emotional than any other blockbuster series, and Bryan Singer doesn’t get enough credit for making it so. You can’t help but think that if there were a few more filmmakers with his skill and commitment to finding the human side of these superheroes, Hollywood would be a much better place.

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