Wednesday, October 19, 2011

X2: X-Men United (Marvel Entertainment/20th Century-Fox, 2003)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was X2: X-Men United, the 2003 (post-9/11) sequel to the original X-Men movie from 2000 we had watched a few nights before. Though longer than the first one (133 minutes rather than 108 — though bear in mind that these timings include 10 minute-plus closing credit rolls so interminable even I wouldn’t sit through them) and nowhere nearly as well constructed as a plot (the first X-Men had three credited writers — Tom DeSanto and Bryan Singer, story; David Hayter, screenplay — while this one had six: Zak Penn, David Hayter and Bryan Singer, story; Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris and David Hayter, script — apropos of my general field theory of cinema that the quality of a movie is inversely proportional to its number of writers), X2 has quite a lot of the power of the original. The commonality is mainly from Bryan Singer’s direction: dark, subtle, riveting and managing to sustain interest throughout the film instead of just leaving us twiddling our thumbs impatiently waiting for the next big action sequence. I’d never read an X-Men comic or seen any of the movies until Charles and I recently watched the most recent in the series, the origin story X-Men: First Class (which Singer was scheduled to direct until the shooting schedule interfered with his pre-production on Jack the Giant Killer), but it seems as if X-Men — whose story premise is that the increase in the world’s background level of atomic radiation from weapons tests and nuclear power plants has created a new race of mutants, whose members and supporters regard them as the next step in human evolution and whose opponents see them as an incipient menace to the human race that needs to be wiped out by any means necessary.

X-Men the comic began in 1963, at the height of the civil rights movement, and it took on some of the rhetoric of the African-American civil rights movement — though, as I’ve noted in my comments on the first X-Men movie as well as X-Men: First Class, there’s an even closer parallel between mutants and Queers than there is between mutants and Blacks. Not only do the mutations first manifest as the mutants enter puberty — i.e., have their sexual awakenings — but mutants, unlike Blacks but like Queers, can conceal themselves and appear as “normal” humans. Indeed, much of the X-Men mythos centers around that very question: whether to remain closeted in “normal” guise or “come out” and express “mutant pride.” There’s a subtle but unmistakable change in the Zeitgeist between the first two X-Men films that’s quite likely because the first was made before 9/11 and the second was made afterwards — though the villain of the piece this time around is not a mutant (the first film revolved around the rivalry between the leader of the “good” mutants, the assimilationist Prof. Charles Xavier [Patrick Stewart], and the leader of the “bad” ones, Magneto [played by openly Gay actor Ian McKellen], who’s the advocate of mutant pride and is convinced that the humans mean to fight a war to exterminate the mutants and the mutants had better be ready to fight the war and win it) but a human, William Stryker (Brian Cox), a U.S. general who plots to kidnap Prof. Xavier and build a replica of Cerebro, Xavier’s combination super-computer and thought-projection device that allows him to monitor literally everyone, both human and mutant, on earth. The idea is to trick Xavier into using his own machine, and the thought energies he can transmit through it, to will the death of every mutant on earth.

Stryker kicks off his plot by recruiting a disaffected German mutant named Kurt Wagner, a.k.a. Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming, who reportedly got the part over Neil Patrick Harris — of all people! — because Cumming could speak German and Harris couldn’t, an interesting parallel to the story that Marlene Dietrich got her star-making role in The Blue Angel because UFA planned to make both German and English versions of the film, and of all the actresses tested Dietrich was the only one who could speak English), to stage an attack on the President of the United States that actually involves him invading the Oval Office and confounding the Secret Service with his ability to change his location instantly. The X-Men stories get confusing sometimes, not only because there are so many mutants but because they often change sides; though introduced as a free-lance assassin and later revealed as a pawn in Stryker’s plot, Nightcrawler ultimately ends up an agent of good on Xavier’s team, while Xavier himself spends a lot of this film on the side of the bad guys, since his will has been taken over by Stryker’s son Jason (Michael Reid MacKay), who sometimes appears in his natural form — a drooling, catatonic, wheelchair-bound man but one whose body secretions have the power to take over anyone’s mind — and sometimes as a six-year-old girl who, in the film’s most chilling sequence, calmly and in an innocent-sounding voice order Xavier to use his projected mental energies via Cerebro to kill all the world’s mutants.

The subtitle X-Men United come from the way Xavier’s usual team — Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Jean Grey (Famke Janssen, who tends to get lost in the shuffle because her character has rather amorphous powers and doesn’t get a cool mutant alias), Storm (Halle Berry) and Rogue (Anna Paquin), plus a few new recruits, including Bobby Drake a.k.a. Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and John Allerdyce a.k.a. Pyro (Aaron Stanford, the extraordinary young actor who played the lead in Tadpole and whom the industry hasn’t quite known what to do with since) along with Yuriko Oyama a.k.a. Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu) — has to hook up with Magneto and his allies, including Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), to defeat Stryker’s plot — only once they’ve incapacitated Stryker, instead of unhooking Xavier from Stryker’s diabolical contraption, Magneto simply reverses the message so instead of killing all the world’s mutants, he’ll kill all the non-mutated humans instead.

We also get Wolverine’s backstory — unlike the other mutants, who are that way for the same reasons natural mutations exist, he’s a laboratory creation, the result of a research project Stryker ran 20 years ago that involved creating a new metal, “adamantium,” out of which Wolverine’s claws are made — and some romantic rivalries, including one between Wolverine and one of the other “good” mutants for Jane Grey’s affections, as well as one similar to the plot of Walter Miller’s story “Dark Benediction” in which Bobby falls for Rogue but can’t have sex with her since anything longer than the barest touch from her renders the person she touches either comatose or dead. (Charles and I have both noticed how much the plot of Steven Eliot Altman’s sci-fi novel Deprivers, in which certain people have the ability, by touching others, to deprive them either temporarily or permanently, of one of their senses, owes to X-Men — and when I interviewed Altman for Zenger’s Newsmagazine I mentioned “Dark Benediction,” in which a microbe from an alien planet lands on earth and, spread by touch, changes everyone infected by it into a gray, scaly monster with hyperacute senses, as a prototype; he said he’d never heard of it but it seems likely the X-Men creators, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, had. I still hope someone with the right imagination and taste will make “Dark Benediction” into a film.)

In the end Jean Gray gives her life to save Xavier from mind control and the world’s mutants and humans from extermination at the hands of Cerebro and the various people and mutants trying to control it and Xavier — though, like the writers of the Alien series (who gave Sigourney Weaver a moving scene at the end of the first film to the effect that she was sacrificing her life to keep the aliens from getting to earth, only they revived her character for three sequels with various degrees of preposterousness, until in Alien IV we were supposed to believe Weaver’s character was a clone of the original!), these writers apparently intended to use a gimmick of the comics by which Jean was revived as the mutant Phoenix (rose from the ashes, get it?).

Also X2 was based on a graphic novel in which Stryker was not a rogue military officer but a Fundamentalist minister anxious to wipe out the mutants because he considered their existence an affront to God — which would have brought this movie even closer to the mutant/Queer parallels of the first film. Instead this element is played down in X2 except for a quite remarkable scene in which Bobby brings Wolverine and Pyro home to his parents and comes out to them as a mutant — and (reportedly due to Hugh Jackman insisting that the writers do this) the scene is written very much like a coming-out scene, down to Bobby’s mother wondering if it’s her fault and asking, “Have you ever tried … not being a mutant?”

Overall, X2 isn’t as good as its predecessor — its plot, though at least coherent, moves in fits and starts and there are some confusing match cuts between the various storylines (all too often the leonine head of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine suddenly appears in the middle of a scene not involving him and we wonder, “What the hell is he doing here?,” before we realize Singer has cut to a plot strand featuring him) — and it probably would have benefited from being cut to the same 108-minute length as the first film, but it’s still a strong, riveting piece of drama, legitimately sophisticated and deeper than your average superhero movie but without the dull pretentiousness of the Christopher Nolan Batman movies.