Reviewed by John Hussey
As you could probably tell from my X-Men review I didn’t think it was a good representation of the X-Men franchise, with the film feeling quite bland and having no real depth or direction. It was what it was, for better or for worse. So one can imagine that I wondered where the heck Bryan Singer, and 20th Century Fox, could go with the sequel. Luckily, as it turned out, X-Men 2 actually surprised me and became a good film.
I can’t exactly say it’s a perfect film, or a perfect X-Men film, but it was certainly good. It’s almost as if Singer, and 20th Century Fox, realised that X-Men wasn’t all that good and needed to pull something out of their arses for the sequel. One of the clear differences between the two films is the characters. X-Men 2 actually tried to give each of the characters some kind of development (for better or for worse) and almost brought them closer to their comic-book counterparts.
Things weren’t as bland within this sequel compared to the first film. It was clear what Singer wanted to do with the original film but simply didn’t know how to do it, and ended up going with the strategy of flinging common sense against a brick wall, resulting in a massive steamy turd devoid of any real identity. Here, there is clear identity which instantly makes it a superior film. But, unfortunately, it still doesn’t hold up to X-Men: Evolution, which still stands (for me personally) as the best adapted version of the franchise. But at least we’re getting there.
X-Men 2 starts off quite bold with a really cool action sequence which featured the introduction of Kurt Wagner (i.e. Nightcrawler). The scene is shot incredibly well, with each edit seemingly unnoticeable as Nightcrawler teleports around the White House attacking each of the armed security guards protecting the President. This confusing introduction brings about more conflict, escalating the already existing tension between humanity and Mutants. This introduces us to Colonel William Stryker (played by Brian Cox) who begins preparations for his own personal vendetta against the Mutants.
Meanwhile we are shown the development of certain characters within Professor Xavier’s School for Mutants, specifically Rogue, Bobby Drake (i.e. Iceman), and John Allerdyce (i.e. Pyro). Rogue has now settled into her life at the institute, and as established within X-Men, has now formed a relationship with Iceman. Iceman is very caring towards Rogue and feels her pain of not being able to make full contact with the ones she loves, whilst also establishing himself as a student that follows Xavier’s rules. Pyro, on the other-hand, is quick to showcase his rebellious nature which slowly becomes his undoing. It’s a neat little addition to the ongoing plot and slowly becomes an intriguing friendship breakdown.
What’s also interesting is the continuation of social community, specifically the subject matters of indifference and intolerance. This stood as the only major positive note for X-Men, which is carefully carried over to X-Men 2 to establish further examples of fear created by misunderstanding. A lot of these elements are incorporated into Stryker’s character (which I’ll talk about later), but one interesting scene which develops is when Iceman returns home and is forced to inform his family about his Mutant abilities.
His parents believed he was attending an ordinary boarding school, and are quite shocked to learn about his powers, to the saddening of Iceman as he tries desperately to convey his innocence against the negative imagery from the media. Rogue attempts to defend Iceman and convince his parents that his abilities are a gift and that they should be proud of him. The turning point comes when Iceman’s little brother actually calls the police which is a low blow and just shows how the media can convince individual minds how to think, making this ongoing conflict born out of a fear from misinformation and lack of understanding the full picture.
We then have Wolverine (reprised by Hugh Jackman) continuing his quest to find answers to his hidden past. I will admit that I had my problems with Jackman’s performance within the first film (though it is duly noted that not all of it was down to him and rather the poor writing) but here he begins to adapt and become one with the role, bringing his own unique take to the character, rather than feeling like a cheap knock-off, or a piss-poor interpretation. Gone is his constant angst and pathetic comebacks. Now it feels like he has a real purpose and really shines as the sequels starring role.
Wolverine is faced with many conflicts within X-Men 2, from his struggle to discovering himself, his confrontation with Stryker, his role of protecting his fellow X-Men, and of course his desperate attempts to show his love for Jean Grey. I will admit that his affection for Jean still feels awkward and uncalled for. It doesn’t really add much to the narrative and makes for this really annoying pissing competition between him and Scott Lang (i.e. Cyclops). I always saw Cyclops and Jean as a thing, and so this forced arc really pisses me off as it pushes Cyclops into a really irritating corner in which his character is spoilt.
Cyclops from X-Men: Evolution served as a leader to the X-Men, whilst Wolverine served as back-up with other veteran X-Men Ororo Munroe (i.e. Storm). Here he’s almost completely wasted and serves as a petty rival to Wolverine. Yes Cyclops had his moments of disobedience within X-Men: Evolution, but this was usually down to character development reasons and not just him being an over-protective, and cocky dickhead. Plus we never really get to see much chemistry between Jean and Cyclops, making their relationship feel artificial. They’re essentially together because the law of the franchise says so.
This is made even worse by the forced chemistry between Wolverine and Jean, which literally comes out of nowhere because there wasn’t any scene from the first film that gave them time to develop feelings for one another (unless we’re counting their first encounter, in which case Jean must be pretty desperate to want to fall for a man who’s full of himself, with his only personality being “spout out shitty remarks to make himself look cool – even though it makes me look like a complete twat”). Thank God Jean decides to decline his feelings part way through the film because of her commitment to Cyclops, but even then it’s simply because the law says so.
Moving past the gripes, the narrative itself is really fucking awesome and utilises the great ideas from X-Men and allows them to fully develop (instead of being mishandled and turned into a fucking mess). Stryker decides it’s his duty to rid the world of the Mutant infestation and takes cunning steps in order to make this happen. It’s slowly revealed that he has been manipulating events from behind-the-scenes, from orchestrating the attack on the President, to manipulating an imprisoned Erik Lehnsherr (i.e. Magneto) into giving him not only the security details of Xavier’s mansion, but also the schematics of Cerebro (the device Magneto and Professor X designed to locate Mutants across the world).
This puts in motion a diabolical scheme to imprison Professor X in order to brainwash him into killing every single Mutant on the planet. This is done by kidnapping him upon a visit to see Magneto, before being mind-controlled by Stryker’s son, Jason. Jason’s character added to the madness of Stryker (which I felt Cox really nailed) as he felt Mutants were a disease and demanded Xavier to cure his son, but ultimately failed, resulting in Jason’s condition growing steadily worse to the point where Stryker’s life was in danger and his wife was driven to suicide because of Jason’s twisted mind games, caused by resentment. Jason was then cruelly turned into a tool to enable Stryker’s plans to succeed.
Stryker has Xavier’s mansion invaded by troops and several of the students are captured for experimentation. This segment is actually really cool in establishing Jackman’s more badass, and aggressive, approach to Wolverine as he races through the mansion and cuts down his enemy, whilst protecting the students. That’s not to say that his wit has been deleted all together but it has certainly been toned down for the better, utilising his comebacks in short supply for better pay-offs. We also get to see his first confrontation with Stryker as he begins to understand his past, beginning Wolverine’s decent into temptation as he desperately tries to discover who he was fifteen years ago.
Whilst all this is going we have the cunning development of Mystique as she continues to disguise herself as Senator Robert Kelly in order to manipulate the government into to preventing warfare. We also get to see her brilliant infiltration skills as she enters Stryker’s base and downloads key information from his computers in order to learn about his plans. This also leads her to the clever break-out of Magneto. Like with Jackman, Ian McKellen was certainly a questionable casting decision within the first film. But here, like Jackman, he’s given better material and really feels at home with his performance and character.
In X-Men I really couldn’t take McKellen seriously as Magneto. He lacked any real threat. Here, we see a different side to his character, one that is more desperate and broken due to being imprisoned and humiliated by Stryker through being drugged by the insane Colonel to spill his deepest, darkest secrets. Upon Mystique injecting iron into one of the guard’s bloodstream, Magneto is able to escape his plastic prison by extracting the metal (viciously killing the guard, whom had repeatedly tortured him for pleasure). This moment is awesome and McKellen feels truly scary as he triumphantly floats over to the other guards and kills them.
As with the first film McKellen plays perfectly against Patrick Stewart‘s portrayal of Professor X as you can really see this unique rivalry in which they used to be old friends that understood one another and now stand at opposite ends of the spectrum trying to desperately make the other see their side of the argument. It’s just a massive shame we don’t get many of these moments throughout the film. Instead Stewart is kept out of the main plot whilst he’s trapped within his mental lock with Jason, slowly manipulated into using Cerebro to kill Mutant-kind.
Other characters that get some development are Jean and Storm. It is made clear throughout the film that Jean is experiencing problems with her telekinesis abilities, foreshadowing her outcome at the end of the film and her arc within the next film, X-Men: The Last Stand. With Storm, on the other-hand, we are given some insight into her feelings towards humanity and why she fears them, which makes her feel a little bit more involved with the conflict. This links in with Kurt (who is played perfectly by Alan Cumming) and his own personal beliefs on the world, utilising faith as his means of moving forward.
Kurt almost becomes the spiritual binding of the X-Men and helps certain characters to understand their inner-demons through his own terrible experiences with humanities ugliness, making him a rather tragic, and yet, beautiful character. This helps to make X-Men 2 a great film as I get the feeling that we have an expanded character range and the X-Men feel bigger. We even have the interesting dilemma of the X-Men having to team-up with the remaining members of the Brotherhood of Mutants (with Toad and Sabretooth being stupidly misused and discarded in X-Men) in order to takedown Stryker, with both parties having a bone to pick with the insane Colonel.
But just as it feels like we have more characters to follow, rookies Rogue, Iceman, and Pyro are told to remain behind which is a stupid fucking idea, by hey-ho. Also it’s really irritates me that the suits the characters wear are just so sloppy, bearing barely any resemblance to the original costumes from the comics. Like with the first film each X-Men are devoid of any real identity besides piss-poor additions to vaguely resemble the comics, such as Storm having a cape and Cyclops having his googles. But where the fuck are the distinct colour schemes? Or better still, where the fuck is Wolverine’s iconic costume? Not once do we see it in this entire fucking film series which is absolute bullshit!
Again, moving on from the gripes and we have ourselves a really kickass third act full of tension and really high stakes. The X-Men have to find Professor X before he destroys every single Mutant on the planet (which becomes a very close call), whilst Jean has to deal with a brainwashed Cyclops (which is the only decent fucking thing he does throughout the film, besides taking out a few guards as Professor X is being captured), and on top of that Wolverine has to confront Stryker and his henchmen Yuriko Oyama (i.e. Lady Deathstrike).
The fight between Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike is certainly short but it’s still mightily effective, showcasing a real struggle between two powerful Mutants that can instantly regenerate, added by the cruel knowledge that they are both by-products of Stryker’s twisted experiments with Mutants. Wolverine is truly tested and suffers greatly during the conflict but ultimately prevails by injecting Lady Deathstrike with Adamantium, which quickly hardens within her bloodstream. Wolverine then confronts Stryker and is given hints into his “supposed” terrible past, but eventually gets past his temptations to discover the truth and accepts who he is in that moment, granting Jackman’s interpretation more development.
It’s fair to say that X-Men 2 is more ballsy. The sequel isn’t afraid to be more adult by incorporating more graphic imagery, making the tone rather deep and personal throughout. The theme of genocide is certainly something that is truly frightening, which is inspired by fear of not being able to understand, or control, what cannot be understood. It is pretty much confirmed that Wolverine used to be apart of Stryker’s elite force, the X-Force, in which he used Mutants to perform special infiltration, and assassination, missions, spreading Stryker’s unhinged mind-set into even further twisted areas of development.
I really enjoyed the moment when Magneto revealed his own agenda. It was clear that he was never there to help Professor X, and his fellow X-Men, save the day but rather to aid his own personal plans for Stryker. Though his plans here feels completely rehashed from his previous plans, they at least feel more organic, and have clear meaning. At the end of X-Men I found it hard to believe he was doing what he felt was right for his Mutant-kind, and instead felt like a mad-man. Here, he feels like a mad-man, but a mad-man that has been driven to pure desperation. He cunningly declares that he’s “returning the favour”, thereby reversing the evil deed that mankind intended for his kind.
This meant the X-Men had to then save humanity before Professor X was once again exploited. It became a really bleak third act full of carnage and destruction, filled with high tensions that X-Men completely failed to establish. Just when you think everything is beginning to look brighter everything turns to shit again as the dame above Stryker’s base collapses and begins to engulf the valley. The X-Jet is unable to fly, resulting in Jean making the ultimate sacrifice against the advice of her teammates, and her partner Cyclops (which results in an over-the-top outcry by Cyclops, which again displays the fact that him and Jean had no real chemistry to make this scene emotional, added by the subtle inner crying of Wolverine and his cringe-worthy relationship problems).
So, yeah, X-Men 2 really did its job of fixing the abominable mistakes of the first film and tried its damn best to stand on its own two feet. It added a lot of great elements to the series, had a compelling narrative, a sinister villain, and lots of intriguing dilemmas which shifted the tone to a darker, grittier, and more emotional front. I think all these elements, and plot-threads colliding together, really enhanced my experience of X-Men 2 in order to make it a really good, and enjoyable, film. I can’t say it’s the best superhero film out there, but if we’re going by the selected Marvel films that aren’t produced by Marvel Studios it’s certainly up there.