When X-Men was released in the summer of 2000 on a modest $75 million budget, it had the highest opening weekend for a superhero film, surpassing even Batman: Forever despite its complete absence of Jim Carey in green tights or Tommy Lee Jones hating everything and everyone.
So the folks at Fox backed a crazy hunch superhero movies might be a big deal in the 21st century and immediately greenlit X2, a title chosen tboth to appeal America’s hardcore algebra fans and to keep signage costs to a minimum.
The script this go round was to be written by Zak Penn and David Hayter…
Yes. David Hayter, who is perhaps most famous for voicing Solid Snake in the Metal Gear…
Anyway, Penn and Hayter both wrote separate screenplays which were then integrated with the strongest elements from each, which I was very surprised to learn because that would typically be a recipe for a shambling, Frankenstein’s monster of a script whereas here the script is one of the very strongest elements of the whole movie. I mean, it’s not Shakespeare or anything but it is a remarkably well structured piece.
The story largely draws from the 1982 X-Men tale God Loves, Man Kills written by Chris Claremont during that least-discussed era of comics history, the Bronze Age. The Bronze Age is usually dated as having begun with the seminal Death of Gwen Stacey in Spider-Man and saw a new generation of comic book writers inject a more mature and morally complex outlook into classic comic books. The Bronze Age was, ironically enough, something of a Golden Age with all time classics like Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, Maus and Killing Joke. Unfortunately, less talented writers took the grittiness and mature themes of those books but left the humanity and artistic merit on the shelf which is how the Dark Age happened.
But anyway, God Loves, Man Kills is very much a Bronze Age book, that leans hard into the X-Men’s role as a stand in for oppressed minorities while commenting on the rise of televangelism and the burgeoning cultural alliance between political conservatives and religious evangelicals that worked out great for everybody. It’s an extremely well-regarded story and an excellent choice for the X-Men’s sophomore film. And, because everything has to be about Wolverine, there’s also some Weapon X thrown in for seasoning.
The movie begins with a group of tourists being shown around the White House. We see the portraits of Kennedy, Lincoln and McKinley. Now, can anyone tell me what those three had in common? That’s right. They were all presidents. Suddenly, a teleporting, blue-skinned mutant attacks the Oval Office and has a fucking amazing fight with the Secret Service before getting shot and teleporting away right before he can give the president a new cigar-hole with his dagger.
So this is Nightcrawler and he is the best X-Man.
No, for real. That is not even up for debate. He’s the character who best exemplifies what the whole series should be about while also being a fantastically appealing character with a killer design, great power-set and probably an amazing body odour. You know those kinda people who just naturally smell good? I bet he’s one of those. Which is why it kills me to report that the movie kinda…doesn’t…get…Nightcrawler.
Okay, the good stuff first. The scene where Nightcrawler attacks the Oval Office is just fantastic (CGI has aged a little, but whaddyagonnado?) Wonderfully shot, thrilling, and Nightcrawler’s powers are just fantastically realised onscreen. But it’s what they’ve chosen to do with his personality that kind of cheeses me off. The whole point of Nightcrawler is that here’s a guy who looks like the actual devil but is a devout Catholic and also pretty much the sweetest, most fundamentally decent person you could ever hope to meet. That’s why he’s the best X-Man.
He’s not an Abercrombie and Finch looking white dude with a visor, he’s someone whose genuinely terrifying appearance masks a man of great moral grace and kindness. He’s a walking metaphor for why you shouldn’t judge people based on their appearance. And growing up, the fact that Nightcrawler was a rare Catholic superhero was one of the reasons I always loved the character. But in X2. Nightcrawler’s faith is presented less like an essential component of his character and more like a mental illness. He’s someone so crushed with guilt over his supposed sins that he’s taken to carving “angelic symbols” into his skin (yeah, not a thing). Which kind of, y’know, blows Nightcrawler right to hell as a concept. It’s not “he looks like a freak, but is actually a really great guy” it’s “he looks like a freak but is actually a freak in a different way than you probably expected” which blunts the effectiveness somewhat.
We cut to a museum where Storm, Jean and Cyclops are taking a group Gifted Youngsters on a tour and showing them how neanderthals and homo sapiens were able to overcome their differences with the help of hot, nasty, inter-species fuckin’. One of the kids, Artie, sees a little girl who sticks her tongue out at him and he responds in kind.
Meanwhile, Rogue and Bobby (still played by Anna Paquin and Shawn Ashmore) and Pyro (now played by Aaron Stanford) are just chillin’ outside the museum and they get approached by two rowdy teens looking for a light. Pyron decides to be a dick and not give them one despite the fact that setting things on fire is his entire idiom. Things escalate and Pyro ends up setting one of the douches on fire (douches, hella flammable) and Bobby has to freeze him (literally, not metaphorically). And then suddenly everyone in the Smithsonian freezes in place (metaphorically, not literally) and Xavier angrily rolls into view and angrily demands to know what they they’re doing expressing their true selves instead of hiding their powers like the abominations they are. Incidentally, this scene was shot mostly with mimes as extras, as they were used to standing totally still. In fact, if a terrorist attack had taken place that day, all of America’s mimes might have been wiped out. Whether that would have been worth losing Patrick Stewart is one of the great unanswerable riddles.
Back at the mansion, the X-Men learn about the attack on the White House and decide that, since they basically only have one dude in their rogue’s gallery at this point, it was probably Magneto. Xavier agrees that Magneto could have arranged something like this, but that it’s not his style because no one got turned into a jellyfish monster.
Speaking of jellyfish monsters, Mystique is still in Washington and still pretending to be Senator Kelly which raises all kinds of questions. Like…was Kelly married? Does Mystique…y’know? Have to “keep in character” around his wife? That’s messed up.
Anyway, Mystique/Kelly is summoned to the oval office where the president is meeting with Colonel William Stryker (Brian Cox), who’s in charge of the government’s shady, top secret, anti-mutant task force. Stryker asks for and receives the president’s blessing to raid Xavier’s school before it’s next scheduled blowing up (seriously, the Xavier institute makes Hogwart’s look like…um…a…very…safe…school) and the President says “okay” but to try to limit the shooting to the least telegenic kids. “Kelly” tries to talk Stryker out of the assault saying that the US government doesn’t want to start a war with mutants but Stryker barks not to lecture him about war because “I was pilotin’ Black Ops missions in the jungles of North Vietnam while you were suckin’ on your mama’s tit at Woodstock.”
Kelly/Mystique also meets Yuriko (Kelly Hu), Stryker’s mysterious henchwoman who never speaks and has a wicked strong handshake. Mystique now gets to work on busting Magneto out of his big lunchbox. She takes Yuriko’s form and hacks Stryker’s mainframe to learn where he’s keeping Erik. Pretty much all the performances in X2 are better this go-round but I gotta say, I’d forgotten just how good Rebecca Romijn is in this part. She gets hardly any lines but every scene she’s in she just nails it. She’s got an incredible presence. I mean, granted, someone who’s walking around ass-naked and painted blue with bright red hair would have to work pretty hard not to draw attention but she’s still really good. She track down Magneto’s main screw, Laurio, seduces him and then knocks him out and injects him with liquid iron which I’m pretty sure would kill him but if I had a problem with people surviving being injected with metal I wouldn’t be much of an X-Men fan.
Speaking of which, Logan arrives back at the Xavier institute and Rogue is thrilled to see him again. One thing I respect about this movie is the little details that you only notice on a repeat viewing. Like this scene where Rogue goes to hug Wolverine but is still very, very careful not to let her face touch his. It’s just a little touch, but I’m glad they put that in. Jean welcomes Logan back with a smile and a big old heaping pile of sexual tension and tells him that they need him to watch the kids while they go track down the mutant that tried to off the president.
In his cell, Magneto gets a visit from Stryker who has the guard, Laurio, beat him and then restrain him so that he can inject him with some kind of serum. He then asks Magneto to tell him everything he knows about Cerebro.
Back at the X-mansion, Wolverine is having a weird dream where he’s been turned into a mermaid person and has to give a one-man performance of the Sound of Music in the Sydney Opera house except it’s in the middle of a lake and also Cher is there for some reason…nah, just kidding, he’s dreaming about yelling and adamantium and stabbing stuff because what else is Logan going to dream about? He goes into the kitchen where Bobby is hanging out and grabs a Coke from the fridge and has Bobby blow on it to cool it down and holy shit there’s a lotta subtext I didn’t notice in this movie the first time around. Actually, between this and the “coming out” scene later, the movie seems to be leaning pretty hard into the “Bobby is gay” metaphor, which is hilarious when you consider what happened in the comics later on.
See, the five original teenage X-men travelled forward in time and joined the regular X-men and the space-time continuum was all “…Please…kill…me…” but it was revealed that teenage Bobby Drake was gay which was a surprise to everyone because Bobby Drake classic had been on an all-pussy diet since the Kennedy administration. And then adult Bobby Drake revealed that yes, he had actually been gay this entire time. Not bi. Not queer. Not Greek. Gay. Every single beautiful woman that he had been actively pursuing and sleeping with and pining after, that was all lies.
I shouldn’t have to tell you that I don’t have any problem with Iceman or any other X-Man being gay. But I do have a problem with bad writing and clumsy retcons and this is definitely that. If a change to a character requires the audience forgetting vast swathes of what they know about that character it’s probably not a good idea. And what’s galling is, this actually could have been a very interesting story if done right. Sexuality is a lot more fluid than people often think. Hell, I’ve been attracted to women my whole life but only really started developing an attraction to men in my late teens. People can and do change teams. This could have been a very interesting story where adult Bobby Drake discovered an attraction to women later in life but teen Bobby is all about dudes and Fortnite. Anyway, getting off track.
Cyclops and Xavier visit Magneto in prison and Magneto reveals to Charles that he ratted him out. Suddenly the cell starts to fill up with night-night gas and both Scott and Charles are taken prisoner by Stryker’s men. Then, Stryker’s goons attack the school and most of the kids are rounded up but Logan is all about listening to the fans so this time around he engages in some brutal dismemberment. He comes face to face with Stryker who recognises him but Logan completely blanks on him like all my actor friends who made it big and says that he has no idea who he is. Stryker offers to tell Logan everything he needs to know but suddenly a massive wall of ice appears between them and Rogue, Iceman and Pyro remind him that he’s supposed to be baby-sitting them and that if anything happens to them he won’t get his fifty bucks and whatever he wants from the fridge.
Back in Magneto’s cell he gets a visit from Laurio and instantly realises there’s something different about him and we get what is probably the most iconic scene in the entire franchise.
Meanwhile, Wolverine and his amazing friends hide out in Bobby’s parent’s house in Boston. Bobby has to come clean to his parents about being a mutant. His parents are shocked but more or less supportive but Bobby’s little brother Ronny played by…
For real? Someone named their kid “James Kirk”? Who would do that? Who would force a kid to live with that kind of expectation?
Well anyway, Ronny calls the cops and no, you know what? We’re not done here. JAMES KIRK?! Why not name him “Hercules McSuperdick“?
Who would do that? Who would do that to their CHILD? I mean, no disrespect to the guy. It’s not mean feat to have appeared in all five seasons of Edgemont. He was in Final Destination 2, that’s cool, right? But all I can think of is…your name is James Kirk. You should be more than that.
Goddamn that’s depressing. People don’t think. They really don’t. Naming a child is such a big responsibility and…
Okay, I’m done.
The cops surround the house and when Wolverine comes out to see what’s what they shoot him in the head. Pyro has finally had enough of all this bullshit and starts setting fire to cop cars like it’s Halloween in Tallaght until Rogue is able to touch him and drain his powers. Storm, Jean and Nightcrawler arrive in the blackbird and they all escape.
Meanwhile, Xavier wakes up to find himself face to face with Stryker. It seems Stryker and Xavier have some history. Stryker originally sent his son Jason to Xavier to be cured of his mutation but Xavier refused. Then, Jason used his telepathic powers to drive Stryker’s wife to kill herself with a power drill. So Stryker has Jason lobotomized and now uses him as a factory to create his mind control serum. Brian Cox’s Stryker tends to get lost in the shuffle when talking about great comic book movie villains but he really deserves greater recognition. His Stryker is sinister and dangerously competent but also has a genuinely tragic back story that makes his point of view somewhat understandable. Would you still trust mutants if your own son turned out to be one, and then killed your wife in the most horrific way imaginable? As violations of trust go, that’s final level stuff. Cox is fantastic in the role (when is he not?), as is Stewart (ditto). Xavier’s horrified “My God, William this is your son” is such a devastating line reading. Cox reveals his plan to use Cerebro to wipe out all mutants on Earth.
Meanwhile, the blackbird is attacked by two US Air Force jets that try to force them to land (whatever happened to “if they have anything that can pick up our jet they deserve to catch us”?). They’re fired upon and Jean’s powers suddenly manifest in a new, more powerful and distinctly “flamey” way and she’s able to deflect one of the missiles but not the other one and it looks like it’s all over for our plucky muties but at the last moment Magneto catches the plane because he just happened to be in that particular stretch of woodland.
Magneto and Mystique fill them in on everything they need to know going into Act 3, but they still don’t know where Stryker’s base is. Fortunately, Jean is able to poke around in Nightcrawler’s brain and finds its location. Wolverine and Jean do the sexual tension tango before she reminds him that girls prefer sleeping with guys who won’t go berserk in their sleep and turn them into cutlets. Later that night, Wolverine gets a visit from Jean who turns out to be Mystique. Which is kind of like going to a concert to see the Monkees and it turns out the Beatles are playing instead but apparently Wolverine is not into that so Mystique cycles through a few options before finally just asking him if he likes Cox.
So, because everyone knows an “Enemy Mine” when they see one, the X-Men decide to team up with Magneto to save Xavier. This, of course, is a historical reference to the time Malcolm X teamed up with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to rescue Martin Luther King from the Mecha-Klan.
I gotta say, even though it’s a large ensemble cast, the movie is great at using little character moments to flesh out the various players more than their meagre screentime might allow. Like, how Magneto and Mystique pair off into their own Mean Girls clique and make fun of Rogue’s hair. Magneto and Pryo also hit it off the way only an angry white teenager with a chip on his shoulder and a charismatic terrorist leader can and Magneto tells him to never forget that he’s a frickin’ God among mortals.
The X-men storm Stryker’s base while Jason telepathically manipulates Xavier into using Cerebro to target every single mutant on Earth while also impersonating a little girl (no judgements).
Wolverine finds himself back in the chamber where he was first implanted with Adamantium and Stryker gives him a three second TED talk about how it all went down before revealing that Wolverine actually volunteered for that shitshow. He also reveals that he’s moved on and found a new super-healing mutant who appreciates him and Yukio reveals that she has adamantium claws too. Logan fights and kills Yukio in a fight scene that is light-years ahead of the Wolverine/Sabretooth brawl (actually, all the action choreography is much better this time around) and he kills her by pumping her full of liquid adamantium. Which, even aside from the troubling subtext is kind of messed up. I mean, Yukio was being mind-controlled and almost certainly wasn’t doing this of her own free will and that’s never really addressed.
Meanwhile, a brainwashed Cyclops attacks Jean but she she’s able to use her newly activated to psychically blast him (Ms Mouse pulls that trick all the time when we argue) but their battle damages the dam that Stryker’s base is built under so now we’ve got a ticking clock.
Magneto and Mystique come across Xavier and Jason and decide that turnabout is fair play, so Mystique impersonates Stryker and tells Jason to tell Xavier to wipe out all the humans instead purple monkey dishwasher. Magneto and Mystique leave the base with Pyro to prepare to rule over the coming glorious mutant society (one they’ve cleaned up the seven billion plus dead human bodies). Storm and Nightcrawler figure out what’s happening and Nightcrawler is able to teleport Storm into Cerebro and she uses her powers to freeze Jason, breaking his hold on Xavier.
The X-Men rescue the kids that were captured by Stryker and as Wolverine leaves the base he comes across Stryker who was left chained up by Magneto. Stryker tells Logan that if he doesn’t save him he’ll never know his origin story and Logan says he doesn’t need to know and oh my Lord but I wish that Fox had felt the same way.
The damn bursts and as a million tons of water hurtle towards them Storm can’t get the blackbird to take off. So Jean sacrifices herself by using her powers to hold off the water until the other X-Men can get airborne. And James Marsden doesn’t get to do much in this movie (or any of them, honestly) but his anguished reaction to Jean’s death is really heartbreaking here. It just makes what happens in the next film all the harsher to take.
The movie ends with the X-Men paying a little visit to the president to let him in on what’s been happening and reassuring him that they don’t want to harm humanity, but no seriously, pull a stunt like that again and they will end him.
Back at the mansion, Xavier is teaching a class and looks up suddenly, as if sensing something. His pupils ask him if something’s wrong and he smiles and says “Everything’s going to be alright.”
2002 was a long time ago, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that X2 no longer holds the title of greatest superhero film, if it ever truly did. But it remains a masterclass in successful sequel making. In every way, X2 improves on its predecessor. Whereas the first film feels like a sweeps week episode of Agents of SHIELD, X2 is a proper movie with a rock solid script that moves along at a great clip. Freed from the burden of having to shovel mountains of exposition into the audience’s open gobs, Stewart now full inhabits the role of Xavier and McKellan, despite being sidelines to supporting villain status, absolutely owns every scene he’s in and would be the movie’s MVP if Romain wasn’t doing even more with even less. No longer the greatest ever, but still pretty damn good.
Hey was that Stan Lee?!: That was not Stan Lee! Stan Lee doesn’t have a cameo in this one, thus bringing down a terrible curse upon this franchise.
Department of Duplication Department: Some characters who were introduced as tiny cameos in the first movie get re-cast and reintroduced here, like Kitty Pryde, Jubilee and especially Pyro, who’s gone from a five second cameo last time to a fairly major supporting role.
How worried is Guinan right now?:
Wait, Magneto is how old?: Since this movie takes place a few months after the first, Magneto is still 70.
Today, Mutants are: Gay. Really, really gay.
FINAL SCORE: This movie is…
NEXT UPDATE: 07 June 2018
NEXT TIME: What’s cooler than maths? Nothin’, that’s what.