“Nature laughs last”
This is the one—the superhero movie unequaled in the decade since. The Dark Knight comes close, but it’s hard to hold Christopher Nolan‘s trilogy on par with the rest when it exists as a beast all its own. Only The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier found a way to match its scale and precision, falling ever so short on the emotional depth chart. X-Men 2 is simply a perfect storm of everything you could want in a film let alone one steeped in comic lore. From action-packed fights (Wolverine versus Kelly Hu‘s Deathstrike is the climactic brawl we hoped one of the former’s standalone flicks would contain), explosive special effects, romance, moral empathy, and death, it’s the total package of myth building and psychological resonance with an intellectual story structure unencumbered by expectation or rules.
But that’s what happens when you don’t quite expect the astronomical success of a “new” property. X-Men made almost $300 million stateside off of a paltry $75 million budget, monetizing the appeal comics have with fanboys and girls for Hollywood greed. Director Bryan Singer‘s rehiring was automatic and writer David Hayter dropped in a script before rewrites by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris got it ready for the cameras. The bank rose twenty-five percent, runtime increased by a half hour, and the computer effects evolved astronomically within the span of just three short years. The filmmakers now had breathing room to add a game-changing character like Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), another British thespian in Brian Cox, and more close-to-home commentary on an enlightened world still fearful of the unexplained. Mutants were officially here to stay.
I remember the exhilaration of the phenomenal opening as Nightcrawler infiltrates the White House for an assassination attempt on American President McKenna (Cotter Smith). The gorgeously rendered brandings covering his dark blue skin, the plumes of smoke popping and evaporating with each teleportation, and the sheer speed in which he acts still packs a punch today. This single scene reignites the flame Senator Kelly left behind in the first film, putting a face to evil and providing government-backed scientist William Stryker (Cox) carte blanche to prevent the assumed hostile takeover his world can no longer ignore. Magneto (Ian McKellen) may be locked away in his plastic jail cell, but something is out there itching for a fight. Before Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) has a chance to discover who it is, however, the battle has already begun.
There’s so much going on that you’d imagine everything would fall apart a la Batman and Robin, Spider-Man 3, or to a lesser extent The Amazing Spider-Man 2, yet Singer and company find a way to keep it coherent. The creed “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” crops up before its welcome is worn out, tools for salvation are warped into weapons of genocidal destruction, and secrets gradually peel back layers to bring us closer to the truth. Professor X and Magneto’s former friendship becomes more real via the history and capabilities of Cerebro (the domed room Xavier utilizes to locate people); Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) cryptic origins gain a higher level of translucency as everything seems to stem from those cloudy events; and the lines are officially drawn to show how far each side’s willing to go.
And all the while we watch characters grow into the heroes or villains they’re meant to become. Whether its Jean Grey’s (Famke Janssen) ever-growing telekinetic powers; Storm’s (Halle Berry) expanded role as protector; or Mystique’s (Rebecca Romijn) chameleon-like, duplicitous wiles, the coming war is a reality they can’t afford to minimize. Things have rapidly escalated from X-Men versus Brotherhood to mutants against humankind as the media ensures the international public is aware of these monsters’ full capabilities. As such Cox’s Stryker becomes a common enemy we can abhor—someone to show that man struck first thanks to ignorance and panic. The seeds of apocalypse are sown in flashback just as branches extend to collect their warriors. Genetic mutation didn’t create our desire or ability to enforce control over others; we’ve possessed both since the dawn of time.
There’s emotional growth to complement the story progression as well. Magneto is seen in an even greyer shade than before while Wolverine forms attachments not only with Jean Grey romantically, but also the hoard of children he willingly accepts the task of keeping safe. The parallels between contemporary ideas of homosexuality and “closets” with a rather poignant and authentic homecoming for Shawn Ashmore‘s Bobby Drake cannot be ignored, especially with the involvement of artists such as Singer, McKellen, and Cumming. Don’t be fooled by the science fiction and supernatural warfare—X-Men 2 is as much a message film as it is an actioner. From characters evolving previously prejudiced opinions (Bruce Davison‘s Senator for obvious reasons) to those of vile motivations despite blood connections (Cox proves the biggest monster of all), this is our world as much as theirs.
That’s what makes this film such a successful piece of modern cinematic art: it takes the essence of comic book stories and retains it onscreen while so many others dumb down the social commentary for babes in tight leather and fast-paced fight scenes. There’s still a wealth of eye-candy, but it never overshadows the X-Men’s true goal. Sacrifices are made, characters die, and allegiances shift as war creeps closer; the stakes are high and the need to remain optimistic never more important when grief could easily turn our heroes to the dark side. The fact they find the strength to stand for peace and equality rather than exterminate their largest threat once and for all—despite humanity gearing up to do just that—is paramount to any special effects. Because when we stoop to their level, hope’s officially lost.
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