A Sequel that Celebrates the Best Sequels Ever

You’ll think you’re watching a Star Trek film when X2:X-Men United opens. First, there are stars… and then the voice of a former Enterprise captain expounding upon mysteries and the future.

I doubt the resemblance is accidental. Echoes of Trek resound throughout Bryan Singer’s exhilarating, exhausting X-Men sequel — specifically, references to Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan.

And that’s not all. Singer has clearly devoted his attentions to those Second Films that have been better than the First: The Empire Strikes Back and Terminator 2 clearly influenced him as well. The film culminates with a soggy disaster similar to the climax of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers alongside an act of heroism that mirrors another of these classics. A top-secret “rebel base” is discovered and invaded by stormtrooper-militia. A highlighted kiss mimics the most memorable sequel-kiss of all-time. One metal-framed hero duels another in a brutal smackdown that must make Terminator’s James Cameron feel like a proud mentor. Instead of an airborne chase through an asteroid field, the X-Men pilot a jet through something just as destructive, and the jet behaves like a relative of the Millennium Falcon. A troubled hero learns the startling secrets of his origins. A villain stops just short of Darth Vader’s invitation: “Join me, and together we can rule…” And let’s face it: Hugh Jackman is Han Solo with claws and a cigar.

That’s not to say Singer is plagiarizing. Not a bit. He’s paying tribute to unlikely adventures that took their standard-setting source material and took it higher and farther than anyone expected it to go. X2 boldly goes farther into mythologizing the experiences of alienated and oppressed — from the persecution of the Jews to prejudice against homosexuals and Christians and racial minorities. There’s even a mutant “coming-out” scene, and timely references to the potential mass arrests and interrogations of a certain subsection of the population.

But Singer works these ideas cleverly into the film’s almost non-stop action. He grounds familiar social dilemmas in strong characters and snappy dialogue, so that the focus remains where it should be: on plot rather than preaching. Things move fast on so many varying plot threads that the film becomes dizzying and almost confusing.

Do you need to see the first movie in order to enjoy X2? No… the visual effects thrill, the characters vivid and endearing, and the comedy whip-smart. But will you understand X2 without seeing the first movie? It’s unlikely.

In fact, even if you did see the first installment two years ago, you would do well to revisit it on video before going to X2, because this one picks up right where X-Men left off.

A Quick Review of What’s Going On:

X-Men introduced us to a familiar modern society in which an increasing number of “mutant” humans are learning to speak out about their incredible varying abilities, even though society is showing signs of violent prejudice against them. This prejudice is fueled by the rants of government officials who look suspiciously like some anti-gay or anti-Muslim or anti-anything politicians.

Among the persecuted mutants, two factions are forming. One is in favor of violent “pre-emptive strikes” against those who dislike or plan to hinder the mutants. That group is led by the deeply-wounded and vengeful Magneto (Ian McKellan, masterful as always), who has the power to alter metal with his mind. At his side is Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), the shape-changing reptilian beauty who exploits her sexuality to weaken those obstacles that happen to be male.

(Mystique continues to effectively represent the skin-deep artificiality and destructive influence of the popular American “ideal.” In short, she’s Madonna… exploiting sexuality to take advantage of men and get what she wants. Good thing she’s played as a villain.)

Then there’s the other faction: Peace-loving mutants who favor education and diplomacy over violence. They are led by Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who heads a secret school and refuge for mutant children. Under his care and command, a team of impressive talents strive to prevent rising tensions from spilling over into all-out war. When last we left the X-Men, Magneto was jailed in a plastic prison, Mystique was on the loose, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) was searching for answers to the questions raised by his armored skeleton and limited amnesia, and Charles Xavier was grimly clinging to a temporary peace.

Now, things go from not-so-bad to everyone’s worst nightmare. I’ll forego detailed plot description: you can get that in any other review. Suffice to say that the much-feared war is on the way. Those mutant factions that were debating now need to form a rapid truce in order to save themselves from extinction at the hands of a hasty government officials controlled by fear and hysteria. That hysteria is the product of clever hype and political maneuvering by a hateful and malevolent villain, William Stryker.

A Talented Team That Could Teach George Lucas Some Lessons

Bryan Cox plays Stryker with devilish enthusiasm, giving him a Vader-like stride and an unhinged jaw that tends to shift from side to side in a crooked grin. Cox is riding the high of his career, showing up in three to four movies a year and making a memorable mark each time.

Cox is just one strong performer in an impressive cast. If George Lucas attends X2, I hope he walks away deeply shaken by what is possible with a smart script, strong characterization, and letting actors act. The X-saga has become the true inheritor of that original Star Wars spirit, while Lucas’s new trilogy has been running almost solely on the visual wonders of digital animation.

Bryan Singer should be commended for achieving something other superhero films fail to achieve: He makes the heroes more interesting than the villains. With so many characters, some X-Men are bound to get the short end of the stick. Last time it was Halle Berry’s Storm, but she gets a much stronger role here. (In fact, X2 is a story of the heroics of X-Women, while the men are jailed, traumatized, or controlled by villains.) This time, it’s Anna Paquin’s Rogue who is left with very little to do but act as an object of desire for the charming Bobby Drake (Shawn Ashmore, who is showing promise as an actor). Wolverine (Jackman) remains the character most likely to earn movies all his own; Hugh Jackman is clearly the inheritor of the action-hero crown formerly worn by Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, and Harrison Ford. Jean Grey (Famke Jannsen), Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), and Magneto also get their own showstopping scenes.

But if anybody steals the show, at least for this viewer, it is Mystique. While she was merely voluptuous and strange in the first film, here she’s more complex and fascinating. Her shape-changing capabilities are used to brilliant effect, and she earns some of the biggest gasps and heartiest laughs in the movie.

Punchlines and Powerful Metaphors

Did I mention laughs? Here’s the best reason to see X-Men 2: It is the funniest of all the serious action movies. In fact, the crowd roared with more laughter than they’ve enjoyed at any of this year’s comedies so far. There’s not a groaner in the whole script—every punchline works. I saw the film the night before it opened, and again on opening night, and both times the audience missed a good deal of dialogue because the comic touches kept them howling.

And it’s a good thing. Without humor, X2 would teeter into self-importance. Its serious subtext is clearly a subject of passion for the storytellers.

The war that Stryker wages against mutants lends itself to many interpretations — a virtue usually reserved for art films, not action adventures. Its dynamic of a fearful and prejudiced majority’s war on a minority they do not understand might have spoken too directly to issues of sexual minorities. But Singer’s not-so-subtle allegorizing could just as easily be about Christians who are persecuted for their faith, or about Christians ignoring Christ’s example and using force and legislation to persecute and marginalize people they deem more sinful than themselves. There are also plenty of references to adolescence, to mysterious changes in body and perspective.

Another interpretation that lends itself to my mind is this: The world is currently suffering from forces who want to strike out at other nations and nationalities. Enemies of the U.S. engage in terrorism with bombings. The U.S., in the name of liberty and God, responds with… bombings. In X2, those who respond to destruction with similar tools of destruction are the villainous mutants. They make dangerous generalizations that clearly will eliminate those who threaten their existence, but they will also eliminate countless innocents and ruin all hope of diplomatic progress. The heroic X-Men are those that echo Christ’s exhortation to resist the urge to strike back, and they press forward, suffering bodily injury and humiliation, in order to gain ground through faith, reason, compassion, and love. Singer’s story is soberingly relevant to current events, without ever losing its grip on the plot.

Some of you are thinking I am taking this comic book movie too seriously. But the more I look at the history of comic books and at the stories that make these characters memorable — Superman, Batman, Spider-man, Hulk, X-Men — the more I realize that these adventures are powerful metaphors for alienation, isolation, oppression, the struggle to connect in a cold and cruel world; the struggle to succeed when surrounded by selfish and unforgiving neighbors; the search for father figures, mother figures, and soul-siblings in a world of broken families; the struggle to deal with physical, intellectual, and spiritual limitations.

Wolverine is the orphan fighting for his place in the world. He, like Hulk, manifests that power of anger and the necessity of self-control.

Rogue reminds us of adolescence, of that feeling of being contagious. She taps into our fear of hurting those we love, of abandonment. In a world when physical expressions of love can just as easily become the pathways of disease, she is a strong metaphor of fear and sadness. She represents our desire for unconditional love in spite of our flaws and failings.

Professor Charles Xavier shows us the burden of responsibility, but he also is truly heroic in his example of restraint, patience, and shepherding love for the lost and the lonely. He is powerful in spite of limitations. He resists striking back with force. He accepts persecution but believes in self-defense.

Cyclops is the crown prince, readying himself for responsibility. He is the jealous lover.

Jean Grey is the pupil, the apprentice… and in this one, she ascends to represent so much more.

Nightcrawler, the film’s most interesting new character, is haunted by spiritual questions, marked by mysteries. He wrestles with feelings of guilt, but his faith has guided him through dark days of humiliation and suffering. He provides a strong alternative to reacting in anger.

And we will see so many more examples in the near future. Still ahead: The Hulk. Hellboy. The League. More Spider-man. More Star Wars. More Lord of the Rings. More Shrek. More Matrix. The Chronicles of Narnia. Fantasy lends itself to highlighting of the truth in some ways much better than stories set in contemporary reality. Fantasy is made up of elemental things, simpler and stronger symbols.

The most interesting dilemma at work in X2 has nothing to do with prejudice, persecution, or alienation. The movie begins and ends with Jurassic Park-style talk about mutation and evolution. There is something striking here (and I give my wife Anne full credit for pointing this out after the movie): When the movie makes its big point about evolution, it is interesting that the speech is referring not to an act of survival, but an act of sacrificial love. How is that consistent with Darwinism? It seems far more consistent with the teachings of Christ. Is X2 inadvertently suggesting that the real “evolution” is each human being’s potential to become like Christ, rather than to develop traits of self-preservation?

A Strong Sequel, Despite an Unfortunate Stumble

X-Men 2 misses opportunities to have a greater impact by playing to the audience’s desire to see the bad guys “get it.” One of the film’s villains has been the victim of mind-control by a villain; for all we know, she is actually a decent person when she has control of her wits. Thus, this villain’s fate has a note of the tragic, meeting a fate that might have been avoided if freewill had been in play.

But more troubling is the fate of another villain, who might have been incarcerated and interrogated for important information, but instead is abandoned to die.

X2 is not the perfect adventure film. It is still overcrowded, keeping us from really getting to know these characters’ hearts. (X-Men was more successful at that.)

And it stumbles in its final minutes. It suddenly concocts a circumstance leading to a choice that should break our hearts, but the sequence comes out of nowhere. It’s too hastily executed and does not carry the weight that it should.

But these are minor gripes. As a big screen comic book, X2 is the most rewarding I have yet seen. Anybody working on comic book films — or Star Wars films — should be devoting themselves to understanding what makes the movies of Bryan Singer (and even moreso, Peter Jackson) work that will remain engaging and rewarding time after time, for years and years to come.