Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Summer School: 'X2: X-Men United' (2003)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

From the first moments of X2: X-Men United (or just X2, depending on what source you trust), it's obvious that the success of the first X-Men movie three years earlier has afforded director Bryan Singer a massive increase in budget. Teleporting mutant Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) would have been too elaborate to create on the budget of the original movie, but here he catapults himself around the White House with impressive fluidity, mixing acrobatic combat with CGI flashes as he disappears and reappears throughout the building. Singer and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel shoot the sequence with equally acrobatic camera movements, creating suspense and intrigue right from the start. That level of confidence never flags over the course of more than two hours (the sequel is also about half an hour longer than the previous movie), and X2 still stands as the pinnacle of the long-running series.

It also, however, introduces some of the trends that would end up sabotaging later entries, including the excess of thinly developed characters and the endless cluttering and/or rewriting of continuity. The new characters here mostly serve useful functions, and the expansion of the backstory mostly makes sense, but it's not hard to see how further efforts in those areas could go off the rails. Nightcrawler is the most prominent new hero introduced here, and while Cumming's performance is a little underwhelming, Singer and screenwriters David Hayter, Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris smartly use Nightcrawler's background as both a circus performer and a devout Catholic to flesh out the character in a few small scenes. New villain William Stryker, played by Brian Cox with sinister flair, is also a welcome addition, and his fervently anti-mutant perspective makes him in a way a better antagonist for the X-Men than the somewhat sympathetic Magneto.

Speaking of Magneto, he's one of many returning characters who gets some interesting character development, as he teams up with the X-Men to take down their mutual enemy Stryker, who plans to use Cerebro to wipe out all mutants. Ian McKellen is great at maintaining Magneto's air of danger and malevolence even when he's on the side of the good guys, something that both the movies and the comics can't always manage. After giving a breakout performance in the first movie, Hugh Jackman also gets more to do here, as X2 explores Wolverine's mysterious past, which ties in with Stryker's long-term mutant experimentation. There's real soul and anguish to Wolverine here, and his unrequited love for Jean Grey sets up her tragic fate. As in the first movie, Famke Janssen is the most underrated cast member, and she gives Jean a quiet strength through to the end.

The expanded cast does mean that some of the returning characters get short-changed, especially James Marsden's Cyclops, who's offscreen for almost the entire middle of the movie. Anna Paquin's Rogue, a sort of audience surrogate in the first movie, has little to do here despite her burgeoning romance with Shawn Ashmore's Iceman, and although Halle Berry reportedly got a bigger part written for Storm, she still often comes off as superfluous. Even so, every character has a part to play in the overall story, and the larger scope mostly justifies the larger cast.

Beyond the eye-catching opening, Singer stages a number of thrilling set pieces, including a fight between adamantium-enhanced foes Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu), a midnight raid on Xavier's school, and a mid-air jet freefall that ends in the iconic image of Magneto using his powers to hold up the X-Men's plane just feet above the ground. Overall, X2 is an exciting, well-paced blockbuster that shows Singer at the height of his talents and balances the increasingly grandiose ambitions of the series with solid, character-driven storylines.

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