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Taken For Granted – X2

February 28, 2017 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

One of my most anticipated films of the year gets its wide release this week. Logan is almost certainly the last hurrah for Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. While my history with the X-Men films is checkered at best, it’s hard to deny that Jackman is the best there is at what he does. Trailers and reviews point to this being something special, and it’s going to be an emotional goodbye for many.

With that in mind, I thought it would be fitting to take a look at the first time an X-Men movie was really great.

Welcome to Taken For Granted; a column where I analyze films that are almost universally considered classics. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.


X2

Wide Release Date: May 2, 2003
Directed By: Bryan Singer
Written By: Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris, David Hayter
Produced By: Lauren Shuler Donner and Ralph Winter
Cinematography By: Newton Thomas Sigel
Edited By: Elliot Graham and John Ottman
Music By: John Ottman
Production Company: Marvel Enterprises, The Donners’ Company and Bad Hat Harry Productions
Distributed By: 20th Century Fox
Starring:
Hugh Jackman as Logan/Wolverine
Ian McKellen as Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto
Patrick Stewart as Professor Charles Xavier
Famke Janssen as Jean Grey
Brian Cox as Col. William Stryker

What Do We All Know?

Bryan Singer’s first X-Men gathered a lot of good will simply on the merits of not being the last major superhero movie (Batman and Robin). The film really doesn’t hold up well and the only enduring strong points are some of the casting choices and the frustratingly topical Mutant Registration Act. I’m sure that will upset some fans (including myself), but Singer really doesn’t know to direct action and it’s more of a Wolverine movie with some other X-Men hanging around.

But, for the time, it was “good enough” and certainly successful enough to justify its production. So, we got a sequel, and instead of suffering from a sophomore jinx, X2 was universally better received than its predecessor. It set a bar for comic book movie sequels (at least for a year), and for a long while, many considered it one of the best comic book movies ever made. But does it hold up? Or, like the first film, has time and better movies made X2 nearly obsolete?

What Went Right?

X2 reaps the benefits of being a sequel; it inherits the good things about X-Men, but also has a bigger budget and more importantly doesn’t have to spend so much time with exposition. Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are still perfectly cast and bring respectability to the movie in a way that reminds me of Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing in Star Wars. Hugh Jackman feels much more comfortable as Wolverine than he did in the first movie, beginning his tradition of being awesome even if the rest of the cast and crew are on autopilot. Famke Janssen gets more to do with Jean Grey, Rebecca Romijn has a compelling presence as Mystique, and while he isn’t around long, James Marsden packs a lot of emotion into his performance as Cyclops.

It’s more than just the old crew returning though. Alan Cumming brings Nightcrawler to the screen in a faithful fashion, which made thirteen year old me very happy. Brian Cox plays new villain Colonel William Stryker, a military scientist who hates mutants and has history with Logan. Cox is phenomenal in this, to a degree that it’s easy to forget that Stryker in the comics was a preacher. He’s a perfect embodiment of the threat prejudiced “normal” humans present to mutants and he owns the screen every step of the way. That prejudice is a major reason this film works, but we’ll get back to it later.

Arguably the best thing in this film is the plot. Despite all of the moving pieces, it’s a straightforward movie about Stryker abducting the X-Men and the rescue to get them back. Stryker works as a glue that makes everything cohesive, urgent and narratively satisfying. Plot elements like Nightcrawler’s involvement, Mystique busting Magneto from prison, and the pit stop at Bobby Drake’s parents might have felt like distractions in a weaker screenplay. But in X2, everything works and there is no scene that feels like a distraction from the main plot.

And hey, as a bonus, this film is also peppered with scenes that are fun! Nightcrawler’s first scene in the white house is incredible. Wolverine defending the mansion full of kids from Stryker is so good I can forgive it’s bloodless PG-13 violence. I love the little moments like Iceman cooling Logan’s drink or Magneto’s comment about Rogue’s hair, and big character moments like Logan’s various confrontations with Stryker. And while it lead to disappointment, Jean’s power growth and the hints of the Phoenix Force are still cool, even if only for their potential.

What Went Wrong?

While this one holds up better than the first and is the “closest” I’ve ever gotten to a proper X-Men movie, X2 is still directed by Bryan Singer and thus still has some of the things that makes this movies such average adaptations. While the big ideas of the X-Men comic series is still here, the actual character stuff is still lacking. It annoys me that I’ve never seen a Cyclops, Storm, Rogue or Mystique that really feels like the characters from the comics. Whether you love, like or don’t care for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films or the Marvel Cinematic Universe or even Richard Donner’s Superman, it’s clear that most of the time those movies care about preserving as much as they can in the translation from comic to film. The X-Men films, except for Deadpool, have all felt either compromised or inept in this area.

Outside of this, the film does hold together pretty well. There are some strings of dialogue that get a bit boring, some of the special effects haven’t aged well, and Halle Berry always looks bored, but these are small things. My only real gripe with the actual story of the movie is Magneto’s attempt to switch Stryker’s plan around and get Xavier to murder every normal human on the planet. This always feels like a forced attempt to make sure Magneto stays a villain, and I’ve just never cared for it. It works within the overall story, but it also makes me go “Why are pretending this guy has redemptive qualities?” in future movies.

What Went Really Right?

While the prejudice aspect of X-Men was more of a background thing that never quite coalesced into something meaningful, it’s front and center in X2. The bad guy isn’t Magneto, it’s a normal human with the means and the will to kill mutants. But the film’s best scene, the one that I’m sure sticks out most for a lot of fans, is when Bobby “comes out” as a mutant to his family. There isn’t any confusion to the subtext here; the X-Men have always been a stand-in for persecuted minorities, and here, it’s about gay youth and the rejection they often face from their own families.

This has always been the reason why the X-Men resonate so strongly with readers. Many people have been ostracized from the majority simply because of their skin color, their faith, their gender, their sexuality, or even just their hobbies. Yes, the metaphor speaks to the bullied nerds that often love comic books, but it speaks more powerfully to people who are belong to a minority. The idea of a school where you are accepted for who you are and that you might even be better than the people who persecute you? That’s a message that resonates and sticks with you, giving you the strength to get by.

While I’m still not convinced that the X-Men movies as a whole are great, it’s also impossible to deny that this was an important stepping stone for comic book movies. For the most part, this does a good job of balancing a cast that has at least fourteen people with some kind of story. That’s not easy to pull off. X2 doesn’t knock it out of the park, but it’s at least as competent as say, Avengers: Age of Ultron. And I don’t think The Avengers or Captain America: Civil War would have even been attempted if not for this movie proving it can work.

In short, while the series is flawed, X2 is, in my opinion, the least flawed. It has a good story that rarely slows down, most of the characters are handled well, it nails the persecuted minorities aspect. Brian Cox is a great villain, Nightcrawler is cool, the returning cast is as good or better than before, and some of the strongest scenes of the franchise are here. I don’t love it like I used to when I was a kid, but it’s still pretty good.

Like This Column?
Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park
Back to the Future
Chinatown
Taxi Driver
The Matrix
Batman (1989)
Casablanca
Goldfinger

Or check out my column with Michael Ornelas; “From Under A Rock”. Last week, Michael introduced me to Lucky Number Slevin. This week, we look at one of the greatest Westerns of all time when we watch The Searchers

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I log reviews for every film I see, when I see them. You can see my main page here. Recent reviews include Seven Psychopaths, the first X-Men movie, and a slew of James Bond movies.

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