To the surprise and joy of, basically, everyone, X-Men was a huge hit in 2000. Comics fans loved it, as it was a philosophically faithful adaptation of the long-running series, distilled as it was down to only a few characters.
More to the point, mainstream audiences ate it up, and it was one of the top ten grossing films of 2000, both in the U.S. and internationally.
Naturally, they didn’t wait long to green-light a sequel.
Fox commissioned both Zak Penn and David Hayter to write treatments, which were then combined into a single script, the final draft of which was done by Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris. Singer read several comics stories looking for inspiration, and the final product was particularly inspired by the various Weapon X comics stories that dealt with Wolverine’s background, as well as the seminal 1982 graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills, which remains one of the best X-Men stories ever told.
The cast was expanded a bit for the sequel. Shawn Ashmore’s Iceman role was increased, as was Pyro’s, the character recast with Aaron Stanford. While neither the Toad nor Sabretooth were brought back from the first film (only a tragedy in the case of the former, as Ray Park was delightful), we get new villains in Lady Deathstrike and William Stryker, each derived from characters in the source material (Deathstrike’s origins were always connected to Wolverine from her first appearance in Daredevil; Stryker is based on the main villain in GL,MK). More importantly, Nightcrawler was added, though his shared backstory with Mystique from the comics was abandoned. Originally, the script included the Beast and the Angel, but they were cut for budgetary reasons (though Dr. Hank McCoy, the Beast’s real name, is seen doing a TV interview, played by Steve Bacic as an ordinary human, and there’s an X-ray of the Angel that can be seen in Stryker’s lab); both characters will make their screen debut in the next film, played by Kelsey Grammer and Ben Foster, respectively.
Thanks to Mystique’s shape-changing abilities, we get Bruce Davison back, playing Mystique posing as Senator Kelly. Kitty Pryde and Jubilee are again seen in small roles in this film, this time recast with Katie Stuart and Kea Wong, respectively. Kitty will be recast a third time for The Last Stand and Days of Future Past; Wong will be back as Jubilee in The Last Stand. And there’s a bunch of other mutant students seen in small roles, notably Daniel Cudmore as Colossus, who will return to the role in Days of Future Past.
“You were an animal then, and you’re an animal now. I just gave you claws.”
X2: X-Men United
Written by Zak Penn and David Hayter & Bryan Singer and Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris
Directed by Bryan Singer
Produced by Lauren Shuler Donner & Ralph Winter
Original release date: May 2, 2003
A blue-skinned mutant attacks the White House. A teleporting acrobat with a prehensile tail, he makes short work of the president’s protection detail and almost kills the president, until he’s wounded by a Secret Service agent, at which point he beats a hasty retreat.
Wolverine arrives at the facility Xavier showed him at the end of the previous film, but it’s long abandoned.
Xavier and all his students are on a field trip to a natural history museum. Grey is worried that something bad is happening—her powers are also increasing to a degree that frightens both her and Cyclops. (In particular, she’s having trouble screening out the thoughts of the other museum patrons.)
In the cafeteria, Iceman, Rogue, and Pyro get into an argument with two obnoxious kids. Both Pyro and Iceman use their powers, and Xavier is forced to telepathically “freeze” everyone in the museum to protect his students.
Wolverine returns just as the X-Men make plans to track down the mutant who attacked the president, hoping to get their hands on him before the authorities do. Xavier uses Cerebro to find him in Boston and sends Grey and Storm there to retrieve him. As it is, this attack will undo the work the X-Men did in stopping Magneto in the previous movie (and the work Mystique has done to reverse Senator Kelly’s positions).
Colonel William Stryker, an Army scientist, is the one who created Magneto’s plastic prison, as seen at the end of the prior film. His son, Jason, is a master illusionist, whom he brought to Xavier years ago in the hopes of getting the professor to “cure” him. The fluid from Jason’s brain can be used to control someone’s mind, and he has been using it on Magneto to get information about Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters in general and Cerebro in particular.
Stryker exposes the former to the president, who authorizes a commando raid on the school. Mystique is in the meeting, still posing as Kelly, and she learns that Stryker is the one holding Magneto. She breaks into Stryker’s office (disguising herself as Stryker’s assistant Yuriko and a maintenance guy) and retrieves various pieces of information, including the schematics of his base (where he intends to build a new Cerebro), but not its location. She also pulls all the files on Magneto’s prison.
Xavier and Cyclops go to visit Magneto to see what he knows about the attack on the White House, leaving Wolverine in charge of the school. Magneto reveals to Xavier that he was coerced into revealing the school’s secrets—to his credit, he is genuinely regretful. We also find out that it’s Stryker who’s after them, and that Magneto and Xavier both already know that Stryker is the one responsible for implanting adamantium into Wolverine. Yuriko subdues Cyclops and gasses the cell, and she captures both Xavier and Cyclops for Stryker.
Stryker himself is busy leading the raid on the school. He did not expect to see Wolverine there, and seeing him prompts some memories in Wolverine. However, the latter’s priority is to safeguard the students (though Rogue has to remind him of this at one point). Colossus gets several of the kids away at Wolverine’s urging, about half a dozen are captured by Stryker, and Wolverine, Rogue, Iceman, and Pyro get away in Cyclops’s car.
Wolverine heads for Boston, as he knows Grey and Storm are there. Iceman’s family lives there as well, and they head over to the Drake family house. Pyro looks longingly at the happy family pictures in the house. When Iceman’s parents come home, he outs himself as a mutant. Iceman’s little brother calls the cops and Pyro reacts by throwing fireballs at the cops.
Mystique poses as a normal human (who looks just like Rebecca Romijn!!!) who seduces one of Magneto’s guards, and injects him with a major supplement of iron. The next day, Magneto senses the extra iron and yanks it out of his body, exsanguinating him. He turns the iron into three ball bearings and escapes.
Storm and Grey find their mutant: Kurt Wagner, a.k.a. Nightcrawler. He was not in control of his actions when he attacked the White House, and Grey mind-scans him to verify. They bring him along when they rescue the gang from the Drake house, and as they approach the mansion, they’re harassed by F-16s. Storm uses her powers to disable the planes, and the pilots have to bail out, but one fires two missiles before ejecting. Grey is able to prematurely detonate one of them, but she can’t stop the second one before it damages the jet.
Luckily, Magneto is nearby, and he rescues the jet. He proposes they set aside their differences to combat the greater threat: Stryker. The colonel has copied Cerebro and kidnapped Xavier, and will use Xavier and Cerebro to kill all mutants. They just need the location of Stryker’s base, which Nightcrawler has been to. Grey is able to extract the location telepathically—it turns out to be under the abandoned base that Wolverine visited at the top of the film. Oops.
The only way into the base is through the spillway of the dam that powers it. Wolverine believes that Stryker won’t kill him, so he should go in, but Mystique can actually operate the equipment and find Cerebro, so she goes in disguised as Wolverine, takes out Stryker’s commandos, locks herself in the control room, and lets everyone else in. Wolverine faces off against Yuriko, who has Wolverine’s healing abilities and razor-sharp adamantium fingernails that grow out of her fingers. Grey has to fight Cyclops, who is under Stryker’s control—their battle leads to the dam being badly damaged, though Cyclops eventually shakes off the mind-control. Mystique locates Cerebro and brings Magneto there, but instead of freeing Xavier, he reverses the polarity of the neutron flow (or something) so that Xavier will instead kill all humans. Nightcrawler teleports himself and Storm into Cerebro, and Storm starts a blizzard in the room, which stops Jason, and allows Xavier to recover himself.
Unfortunately, the dam is bursting. Magneto and Mystique steal Stryker’s helicopter, joined by Pyro, who defects to Magneto’s side. Nightcrawler frees the students who are imprisoned and they all join up with Wolverine to escape the base. Rogue semi-competently flies the jet to their location, and they all board—but the engines won’t start back up. Grey telekinetically holds the dam back and starts the engines up, enabling the rest of the team to escape, at the cost of her own life.
The X-Men visit the White House (Xavier doing the freeze-everyone-mentally trick again) and give the president a #notallmutants speech and also say they’ll be watching. Back at the school, Xavier senses that Grey may still be alive. Meanwhile, Wolverine assures Cyclops that Grey made her choice, and it was Cyclops, not Wolverine. (Though not for lack of trying on Wolverine’s part.)
The last shot is of the lake, now set free by the busted dam, a reflection of a phoenix in the water.
“You are a god among insects—never let anyone tell you different.”
With X-Men having established the milieu, it’s left to X2 (which was hastily given the “X-Men United” subtitle when it occurred to Fox that not including the name of the most popular comic-book super-team of the 20th century was perhaps an error in judgment; everybody was abbreviating every damn thing in the 1990s and 2000s, and this was one of the more of the more ridiculous examples) to expand it.
Where Rogue’s fellow students were glorified extras in X-Men, she, Iceman, and Pyro are major supporting characters, and several others (Colossus, Siryn, Artie, Kitty) have tiny if important parts to play. (In Artie’s case, it’s a simple case of having a blue lizard tongue, used to good effect at both the start and the end of the movie.) One of the best moments in the entire film is when they’re at the Drake house and Pyro just stares at the wall of happy family pictures. Aaron Stanford plays it superbly, as you can see the envy, the regret, and eventually the anger, which he immediately uses against the cops who try to take them in. More to the point, it’s immediately followed by the Drake family betraying them, whether philosophically (Iceman’s parents’ inability to accept that their son is a “freak”) or with actions (Iceman’s brother calling the cops). It makes Pyro an easy recruiting target for Magneto, but it also shows just what mutants have to go through.
The big add to the cast is Alan Cumming’s Nightcrawler, and he’s perfect. The movie emphasizes Kurt Wagner’s Catholicism even more than the comics have (though some writers have dealt more aggressively with that than others), probably because the notion of a demonic-looking mutant who is devout was too good an idea to resist. But Cumming also captures Nightcrawler’s physicality, and his inherent goodness. (I love that he constantly tries to introduce himself as a circus performer, a hifalutin intro that the other characters waste no time in getting tired of hearing.)
Bryan Singer also does a much better job showing everyone using their powers, perhaps learning from the mistakes of the first film. Storm uses her powers far more impressively (taking care of the F-16s, freezing out Jason); the kids in the mansion also use their powers effectively against Stryker’s commandos (Iceman’s wall of ice, Kitty phasing through her bed to avoid capture, Siryn’s sonic scream, Colossus’s general awesomeness); Nightcrawler’s combination of acrobatics and teleporting in the White House attack is superbly choreographed and shot; and Magneto’s prison break is beautifully done. Having said that, Magneto is bizarrely subdued in the attack on Stryker’s base—why bother with Mystique’s subtle entrance when he can just rip the roof off?
I remember being disappointed with the film when I first saw it in theatres in 2003, but that was mostly because I let myself be fooled by the hype saying that it would be based on God Loves, Man Kills. The Chris Claremont/Brent Anderson graphic novel remains one of the finest X-stories—hell, one of the finest superhero comic book stories, period—and it remains so in a world still ravaged by stupid prejudices against LGBT folks, against people of color, against Muslims. So when I watched the movie and saw that Stryker had been changed from a popular evangelist to an Army scientist, and tied into Wolverine’s origin, I was severely disappointed. It reminds me of Barb Wire, oddly—that movie aped the structure of Casablanca, as if that movie was a classic for the plot. All X2 takes from GL,MK is a person named William Stryker with an animus against mutants who attacks the mansion, kidnaps Xavier, and uses him in a plot to wipe out all mutants, and the X-Men have to team up with Magneto to stop him. But again, what makes GL,MK great is not the plot, which is at heart a pretty basic evil-villain plot to wipe out mutantkind. It’s the more philosophical issues that are the heart of it—the graphic novel’s climax isn’t a fight scene, it’s an improvised debate between Cyclops and Stryker during what was originally a televised Stryker rally, during which he was going to wipe out all mutants. And it’s brilliant.
X2 is not brilliant on anywhere near that level, but fifteen years later, I’m much more able to appreciate its strengths. Grey’s power increase nicely foreshadows what will happen in the next movie. Getting more insights into Wolverine’s origins work nicely, setting up his forthcoming solo movie while also expanding the character’s arc in this one. (That both those movies disappointed is not this movie’s fault, and we’ll get to both in due course, the former next week, the latter in a couple of months.) Stryker is actually a fine antagonist, mostly due to Bryan Cox’s superlative presence, and Hugh Jackman continues his fantastic work as Wolverine.
It’s not perfect. For the second movie in a row, Xavier is taken out of the action, though here, at least, it makes more sense. However, it deprives us of Sir Patrick Stewart on screen, which is majorly disappointing. So is the fact that Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen only really have one scene together (well, two, but Stewart is silent during the second one, mesmerized as he is by Jason). Having said that, the whole movie’s worth it for Xavier’s threatening to make Wolverine think he’s a six-year-old girl for the rest of his life if he keeps smoking his cigar in the mansion. (“I’d have Jean braid your hair.”)
Halle Berry won an Oscar between movies for Monster’s Ball, and one gets the feeling that Storm was given the big save of Xavier due to wanting to give the award winner more screen time. (Berry has also dropped her Kenyan accent for no compellingly good reason.)
The person who’s really screwed by this is James Marsden. While Wolverine has always been the most popular X-Man, Cyclops has always been, in essence, Xavier’s right hand, and very much the heart and soul of the team. Of course, when you’re doing a bunch of monthly comics, you’ve got room for everyone—not so much when you’re only doing a movie every couple years, so some people will get shafted, and James Marsden isn’t as sexy as Jackman or Famke Janssen, hasn’t won any Academy Awards like Berry, and isn’t one of the great draws of the movie in the first place the way Stewart and McKellen are. So Cyclops is dispatched by Yuriko (who is never actually identified onscreen as Lady Deathstrike) and barely seen the rest of the movie.
Not that being famous always helps, as Anna Paquin’s Rogue is also given depressingly little to do. Having said that, she has a lot of great moments, from grabbing Pyro’s ankle in order to snag his powers long enough to mitigate the damage he’s doing to the Boston cops to her hilarious flying of the jet to rescue the team.
Kelly Hu is a delight as Deathstrike, as her fight with Wolverine is a high point. Having said that, she was as much a pawn of Stryker as Nightcrawler and Magneto and Cyclops were, and the fact that Wolverine killed her is disappointing. Then again, Wolverine was literally fighting for his life, and that was probably the only way to counteract her own healing factor.
At the time the first two films were released, I thought they were trying to avoid making erstwhile model Rebecca Romijn have to actually act by giving most of her dialogue to other actors playing the people Mystique is disguised as (Romijn has all of one line herself in the first film). This is hilarious to see now, considering that Romijn is currently the lead on a successful TV show in its fourth season. And X2 does give Romijn more to do, including one of the three or four best lines in the movie: when Nightcrawler asks her why she doesn’t look normal all the time, she says, “Because we shouldn’t have to.”
More to the point, the movie works as a movie. The characters are all well-defined, as Singer’s fantastic ability to explicate character with one or two lines of dialogue (Mystique and Nightcrawler’s exchange) or a longing look (Pyro in the Drake house) is on full display here. The action sequences are more confident and thrilling, the bigger cast is mostly well balanced, and splitting them up enables most everyone to get at least a moment to shine. It’s a true ensemble piece, and one that continues to deal head-on with the issues of mutants trying to find their place in a world filled with people who hate them just for what they are. Stryker is a particularly un-nuanced boogeyman, unfortunately, but Cox helps ameliorate that, and besides, prejudice at its heart is un-nuanced. Makes for an excellent sophomore entry, solidifying the series.
Next week, we look at the third film in the trilogy, and the first not directed by Singer, X-Men: The Last Stand.
Keith R.A. DeCandido urges folks to support his Patreon, where you can read his takes on things like Black Panther (which he won’t get to in this rewatch for at least another year), Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and more. In addition to monthly movie reviews and weekly TV reviews, Keith provides exclusive vignettes featuring his original characters and excerpts from his works-in-progress.