Movie Review: X2 (2003)
WARNING: ONCE AND FUTURE SPOILERS
Does any superhero movie have as many good scenes as this one? Let’s count ’em off:
- In the opening, Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), to the pulse-pounding grandeur of “Dies Irae” from Mozart's Requiem in D Minor, poofs in and out of existence, climbs walls, swats secret servicemen with his tail, and comes within seconds of killing the President of the United States with a knife on which a note is tagged: MUTANT FREEDOM NOW!
- The forces of William Stryker (Brian Cox) lead an assault of Xavier’s School for Gifted Children, in which most of the students, even those with powers, flee, but Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), the lone adult in the joint, takes out half the special forces. Snkt!
- Magneto (Ian McKellen), incarcerated in a plastic prison, discovers that—thanks to his partner-in-crime, Mystique (Rebecca Romijn)—his slovenly and brutish guard, Laurio (Ty Olsson), has metallic particles in his bloodstream. But what can Magneto do with a little metallic dust? Everything. He levitates Laurio, pulls the particles out of him—killing him painfully in the process—and manipulates the dust into three small metal balls with which, zinging and pinging like bullets, he destroys his plastic prison. Then flattening one metal ball into a platform, he rides it out of his prison while the other two orbit around him as if he were the sun. Brilliant.
- The cops surround the house of the family of Bobby Drake (Shawn Ashmore), called there by his brother, Ronnie, and proceed to shoot Wolverine in the head, and order the others, Bobby and Rogue (Anna Paquin) and John (Aaron Stanford) onto the ground. Bobby and Rogue comply. John, also known as Pyro, doesn’t. Breathing heavily, looking at his hands, assessing the situation, he says, “You know all those dangerous mutants you hear about in the news? I'm the worst one.” Then he shows them.
As I was writing these scenes down, all favorites, I realized they have something in common. They are moments when mutants let loose; when they no longer hold their powers in check and instead strike back against an unjust world. In each, we, the weak, popcorn-munching audience, who deal with unjustness all the time in our day-to-day, get to thrill at seeing unbridled power used against 1) an unjust government, 2) an unjust army, 3) a sadistic guard, and 4) an unjust world—a world where brothers turn you in to the cops and the cops shoot first and ask questions later.
What else do they have in common? They all involve either a hero who’s almost a villain (Wolverine), a hero duped into villainy (Nightcrawler) or actual villains (Magneto, Pyro). They don’t involve the main X-Men heroes: Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Storm (Halle Berry), Jean Gray (Famke Janssen) and Cyclops (James Marsden), our first, fourth, fifth and sixth-billed stars.
Why? Because these characters are dull. Dull dull dull. Professor X was always dull. Cyclops, too. It’s a problem as old as Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” in which Satan is a fascinating character and God is a bore. But does it have to be so? Professor X has the power to kill everyone on the planet with his mind. We see this power utilized in the film. So how about giving us some of that tension, the weight of that awful power, instead of Patrick Stewart’s bland benevolence?
I remember Storm having a fascinating backstory as a pickpocket in the “X-Men” comic books. That backstory was blown off in “X-Men” and only vaguely alluded to here. On the X-Jet, Storm goes back into the hold to try to draw out their new companion, Nightcrawler, whom they’ve picked up in a run-down church in Boston, and they have the following conversation:
Nightcrawler: You know, outside the circus, most people were afraid of me. But I didn't hate them. I pitied them. Do you know why? Because most people will never know anything beyond what they see with their own two eyes.
Storm: Well, I gave up on pity a long time ago.
Nightcrawler: Someone so beautiful should not be so angry.
Storm: Sometimes anger can help you survive.
Nightcrawler: So can faith.
When I first heard this conversation, in movie theaters in 2003, I thought Storm was implying that feeling pity was beneath her, that she had a larger spirit than that. No. She’s actually saying “Pitying humans is too good for them.” But that’s backwards. When you’re angry with someone it’s because they’re not living up to a certain standard you expect. When you pity someone it’s because they’re not living up to a certain standard ... and you know they never will. You’ve given up on them. Plus her anger, her contempt, comes out of nowhere, as if the filmmakers suddenly realized, “Oh yeah, Storm,” or as if Ms. Berry, post-Oscar, demanded a bit more screentime and wound up with this. But she doesn’t sell it. She never seems angry. She never seems Storm. She just looks slightly sad and way, way beautiful.
Storm. Angry. So angry.
And, hey, is Nightcrawler really implying that most people only know what they see because they don’t have faith? As if most people around the world don’t believe in something unseen? As if most don’t believe in God?
Despite that, and despite “X2”’s loutish, truncated title, designed to appeal to all the exxxtreme dudes playing their Xboxes and watching “XXX,” it’s still a great superhero movie, not only for the scenes above but for the quiet moments before the scenes above. It luxuriates in the language and embraces the mystery. I’m thinking Wolverine and Bobby in the kitchen before the attack; Wolverine and the cat in the Drake household; Rogue looking at Bobby’s old room in the Drake household; and Bobby’s “coming out” conversation with the Drakes (“Have you tried ... not being a mutant?”). There’s that beautiful visual, Bobby’s ice wall coming between Wolverine and Stryker, and the two men, seeing the shadow of the other on the other side, putting their hands on the wall.
I’m a fan, in particular, of the conversation between Magneto and John/Pyro on the X-Jet hurtling toward Alkali Lake. John begins poorly, dissing Magneto’s helmet. Then we get this:
Magneto: What's your name?
Pyro: [staring at his lighter in Magneto's hands] John.
Magneto: What's your real name, John?
Pyro: [summons lighter's flame to his hand] Pyro.
Magneto: Quite a talent you have there, Pyro.
Pyro: I can only manipulate the fire. ... I can't create it.
Magneto: You are a god among insects. Never let anyone tell you different.
It’s that last line. The way McKellen sells it. The scene is our first indication of Magneto’s recruitment technique. What does Professor X offer young mutants? Sanctuary. Safety. Companionship. Tutorial. He helps mutants control their powers, tamp them down. Magneto offers the opposite. All that power you feel within you? Let it loose.
“You are a god among insects. Never let anyone tell you different.”
How does Magneto not have more acolytes? And shouldn’t there be a greater tension between the two camps? Young and scared, they flock to Professor X, but as they mature, as they come into their own, as they abandon the need for safety for the need for power, how can they not throw off the bland father figure, Professor X, for the completeness, the absoluteness, and the absolution Magneto offers? You are a god among insects. Who wouldn’t want that?
So if “X-Men,” the first movie, was about learning and combating Magneto’s plan to turn humans into mutants, “X2” is about learning and combating William Stryker’s plan to kill all mutants via Cerebro and a duped Professor X—who, despite his monumental psychic powers, never seems to see it coming. The final big battle takes place in an old military facility beneath Alkali Lake in British Columbia, and it is, well, a final big battle, with many moving parts, which director Bryan Singer handles well. But I’m a little tired of final big battles. You know there’ll be this, and that, and in the nick of ... and the final escape as ... and then (whew) safety. Did we all make it out OK? Here, Jean doesn’t. But anyone who knows the “X-Men” series knows she’s not just Jean Grey; she’s the Phoenix.
Is it a coincidence that all three patriarchs in this movie—Professor X, Magneto, Stryker—have powerful female sidekicks? Of course Stryker’s sidekick, Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu), is there against her will, making her death at the hands of Wolverine all the more poignant. I guess Professor X’s sidekick, Jean, is there against her will, too, isn’t she? We find that out in the next movie. Only Magneto’s lady is hanging with him because she wants to. Let’s hear it for the villains.
I could’ve done with a different final White House scene. Stryker dupes Professor X into using Cerebro to almost kill every mutant on the planet (including himself?), but Magneto, maintaining the dupe, has him target every human on the planet instead. It almost works. Does every human on the planet crouch in pain like Stryker does? What a story! ALL OF HUMANITY ALMOST KILLED BY LONE MUTANT. You’d think then, when presenting himself before the powers-that-be, in this case the President of the United States, who was nearly killed by Nightcrawler before he was nearly killed by Professor X, you’d think Professor X would be a bit more ... apologetic. Abashed. Sheepish. No. Professor X freezes time before POTUS’s speech to the nation and the other mutants arrange themselves around the room in dark, stormy, threatening postures. They present evidence against Stryker, who instigated the attempted Nightcrawler assassination, but offer no mea culpa for the near-global genocide. Instead Professor X says, “We're here to stay; the next move is yours.” Wolverine adds, “We'll be watching.” Oh, and about killing nearly everyone on the planet? Sorry. Won’t happen again. Pinky swear.
The saddest part of the movie, though, is the knowledge that it's the last one with this director. Bryan, we hardly knew ye. And look who you left us with.