As of this writing out of the X-Men franchise’s 6 movies, I haven’t seen The Wolverine or X-Men Origins. Of the remaining 4 movies, however, I have a hard time choosing between X2 and First Class when choosing which title is my favorite of the franchise.
X2: X-Men United was a marked improvement over the first movie in nearly every category. The special effects are much better and the story feels more personal (at least to Wolverine) and less like a comic book super villain plot.
Logan returns to Xavier’s school after his trip to Alkali Lake yielded no answers. Meanwhile, an attack at the White House reignites the mutant debate and at the front lines of the supposed “war” is William Stryker (Brian Cox) a man with a warped view of mutants and a threatening amount of power.
There’s more to the plot, of course, but I’ll leave it there. The movie runs with the militarization of the human/mutant debate in an extremely satisfying way. I’m speaking, of course, about the attack on the school.
Early in the movie, Wolverine is charged with babysitting while Jean and Storm hunt down the mutant behind the attack on the White House. What ensues is an assault on the school by Stryker’s men and an incredible display of PG-13 carnage and bad-assery by Wolverine.
Wolverine’s mutilation of the military red shirts is the kind of action sequence that was missing from the first movie. It’s stylish and violent in the best way. It’s also worth noting that it’s morbidly refreshing to see this kind of violence in a comic book movie.
A popular tenet of many of the comic book movie genre’s main protagonist is a moral code centered on not killing people. Wolverine doesn’t follow that code and seeing him tear people down with his claws is really satisfying. I can’t stress enough that there’s nothing wrong with vigilante morality tales. I mean, I don’t know that anyone who would argue that the X-Men franchise is better than Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy; not by a long shot. But sometimes it’s just fun to watch a hero kill a bunch of bad guys.
In the character development department, X2 is a big step up from the original, more or less. The opposing factions led by Xavier and Magneto (respectively) are drawn together to defeat Stryker. In doing this, the movie fleshes out the characters in new and unique ways.
Introducing Iceman and Pyro brings out an intriguing dynamic that would almost make Magneto’s cause more sympathetic, if Pyro wasn’t so sociopathic. Elsewhere, Mystique shares a scene with Nightcrawler that not only reinforces the social commentary but adequately depicts the anger that Magneto’s band of mutants feels.
Oh yeah, Nightcrawler is in this movie. Alan Cumming plays the religious teleporter mutant. I mentioned in my last review that I had a passing relationship with the X-Men cartoon in the 90s. From what I saw of it, I culled a fandom for Nightcrawler. If I were to have a favorite mutant, it would be him.
Unfortunately, this is Alan Cumming’s only appearance in the franchise. It’s really a shame because I find the character so interesting and Cumming plays Nightcrawler’s timid pain very well. And the scenes between him and Halle Berry are the only things keeping Storm relevant in this movie.
Where the movie falters for me is in the love triangle between Jean Grey, Wolverine and Cyclops. The triangle was established well in the original movie and yielded some really great comic relief between Wolverine and Cyclops. Here, however, Cyclops is barely in the movie; effectively killing the comic relief and leaving us with a melodramatic star-crossed love story.
Wolverine and Jean worked in the first movie because Logan was cocky and didn’t like Cyclops. Sure, his frenemy relationship with Cyclops was based on Wolverine’s attraction to Jean but I feel like X2 demonstrates why the subplot works best as a vessel for quippy one-liners.
Throughout X2 we get a lot of forced tension that really only made me dislike Jean and even Logan a little too. What little chemistry the two characters have is wholly dependent on the first movie’s established dynamic instead of developing the relationship further. In doing that, the movie leaves us with a source of comedy that feels like it’s been forced to change itself into a dramatic storyline.
X-Men United delves deeper into Wolverine’s backstory while expanding on the franchise’s social commentary and most of its character development. I’m also happy to say that the special effects are a big improvement over the first installment and the plot involving Stryker is more sinister and original.
This movie is a high point of the franchise and would have led into a really great third movie. More on that in my next review, though.