Title: X2: X-Men United
Release Date: May 2, 2003
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Bryan Singer
Release Format: Theatrical
Due to the success of X-Men, not only was a sequel fast-tracked into production, but it also led to the studios grabbing every comic book property they could get their dirty hands on. This led to good films like Spider-Man 2 & The Punisher, as well as several waiting apologies like Hulk, Elektra & Blade: Trinity. The first X-Men sequel, X2: X-Men United, was somewhere in the middle for me. I liked a great deal about this film, especially in regards to its story, the development of certain characters and the appearance of X-Men fan favorite, Nightcrawler. That being said, there are also many elements that I felt were either just plain bad, unnecessary or mediocre. I understand that many fans and critics prefer X2: X-Men United over the first film. However, I still find this movie to be seriously overrated. Not bad, just overrated.
Let’s look at the story. After a mutant tries to assassinate The President, General Stryker (played by Brian Cox) reveals that he knows the whereabouts of a Mutant Stronghold; The Xavier Institute. When Stryker raids the institute, a few mutants, including Wolverine, Rogue, and Iceman, manage to escape while the rest are captured. After obtaining Professor Xavier, Stryker sets his plan into motion to eradicate all mutants while Wolverine, Jean Grey, and the other mutant refugees team up with old enemies, Magneto, and Mystique, to stop him. Based on the story, it seems we’re in for something pretty epic in scale. Not only would an attempt on The President’s life cause more action to be taken regarding the mutants, but it causes the X-Men and the Xavier institute to be exposed as a result. Not to mention, teaming with the primary villain of the series could lead to some interesting and thought provoking moments. Seeing how the good guys and bad guys play off of each other while trying to work together sounds like a pretty cool idea.
Okay, just like with the last one, I’ll get into my positives first because there are many great moments in this film. The last movie opened with a debate between Jean Grey and Senator Kelly discussing their different views on mutant registration. This wasn’t a bad idea as it set in motion everything that happened in the film from then on in. However, while interesting, the film didn’t get exciting until the fight between Wolverine and Sabretooth. I have to be fair, X2: X-Men United did its opening better. It’s an action sequence that shows Nightcrawler (played by Alan Cumming), a mutant with the ability to instantly teleport, fighting his way into the oval office in an attempt to kill The President while holding a knife that reads, “Mutant Freedom Now.” From just this opening, we’ve established a new mutant, the conflict for the rest of the movie and a fantastically shot action sequence. It was clever, thrilling, fun and having Nightcrawler in your movie is always a plus.
The acting is great from most of the cast and, in some cases, even better than the first film. Hugh Jackman is even better than before as Wolverine. Being that there is an entire subplot devoted to this character, Jackman is able to deliver a more raw, emotional and ferocious performance. Rogue is developed further through a relationship with Bobby Drake a.k.a. Iceman (played by Shawn Ashmore), as she is still dealing with not being able to touch people. We didn’t get to see much of Iceman in the last film, so it was great to see him get more screen-time here. The relationship developed between him and rogue was an interesting one and while Bobby isn’t the wisecracker he is in the comics, we get more insight into who he is as a person and it works nicely with the film’s narrative. We not only get a nice scene involving his family, we also see a rivalry take shape between him and Pyro (played by Aaron Stanford). This rivalry may or may not have an incredibly underwhelming payoff in the next film but let’s not tempt fate.
Speaking of Pyro, when he’s not trying to one-up Iceman or impress Rogue, there’s a nice father/son relationship forming between him and Magneto in X2. The two of them have some nice moments together and Pyro wanting to join Magneto and his cause fits perfectly with his character. He’s rebellious and doesn’t believe he should have to hide who he is, as Magneto tells him “You are a god among insects.” There are some really great character moments between these two that I’m sure will pay off beautifully in the next film… did anyone else just get a cold chill down their spine? There’s also a nice friendship that forms between Storm and Nightcrawler. Storm has given up trusting the human race and we see Nightcrawler slowly but surely restore her faith in others. It’s actually very touching at times, one battling with an internal conflict while the other seems at peace with his external conflict.
Okay, so after I just got done praising X2: X-Men United, how could I possibly find it overrated? Well, there’s actually a number of reasons, the first being the villain, William Stryker. Now, before you all start lambasting me in the comments section, hear me out. Brian Cox is amazing in the role of William Stryker. He’s calculating, prejudiced, ruthless and manipulative; all traits of an awesome villain. Brian Cox is no stranger to playing a bad guy. He was the first actor to play the role of Hannibal Lecter in the Michael Mann film, Manhunter. He’s a brilliant talent and his work here is no exception. The way he plays off each actor is wonderful. So, no, my problems with the villain of this film have nothing to do with the actor who played him. Brian Cox is a fantastic talent and I am glad that they got such a good actor for the role. My problem stems with how the character was translated from comics to film.
Look, I know it’s annoying when I have to say “In the comics” because it’s an adaptation. I get that you have to make changes in an adaptation because what works in a comic might not work on a film. However, when said adaptation changes a character so drastically that it completely misses the point of what made him important and memorable, I have to take issue with that. So, in the comics, William Stryker is not some generic army general; he is a televangelist. This movie is primarily based on the Chris Clermont graphic novel, God Loves, Man Kills, and the X-Treme X-Men follow-up, God Loves, Man Kills II, and you can definitely see the other influences from both in the film’s storyline (Lady Deathstrike, Xavier being kidnapped, Strykers plan to replicate Cerebro, etc.). But the point is, William Stryker in the comics is a racist, bigoted, reverend, who believes that all mutants are abominations and that the earth should be cleansed of their presence. He and his followers were like the comic book version of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. Hell, I used to wonder if William Stryker was actually modeled after Fred Phelps, given how similar they look.
Stryker and his anti-mutant brigade represented the hatred of mutants from a religious point of view, something that hadn’t really been done in the X-Men comics before with a major villain. At least, not to this extent. That’s why it angers me that X2: X-Men United decided to just make him some random military guy who happens to have ties with both Xavier and Wolverine (isn’t that convenient). Instead of having something refreshing and new, we were given a militaristic point of view because god knows a million other comic book films hadn’t done that already. To me, the entire thing felt like one big wasted opportunity to explore something different. We could have had something truly unique and meaningful if they did the character any justice. Instead, we just got more gunplay, more military ops, more forced drama and a whole subplot with this character and how he gave Wolverine his claws. In the comics, Stryker had nothing to do with Wolverine getting his claws and while his son was a mutant just like in the film, he killed his own son at birth. That’s how sick and twisted Stryker was. X2: X-Men United basically just kept his son alive and, for whatever reason, turned him into Mastermind. There was really no reason for these changes, they just kind of made them and I still don’t get why. The Stryker/Wolverine dynamic will later prove to be one of the most problematic things in this series but we’ll get to that when we get to that. In the end, Brian Cox was still awesome and I loved his performance. However, the character he played in X2: X-Men United paled in comparison to his comic book counterpart and I stand by that statement.
Speaking of paling in comparison to your original character, I can only say this; Lady Deathstrike, what has Hollywood done to you? Look, I let the whole Wolverine/Sabretooth thing slide in the last film. I figured it was a minor screw up and maybe Singer would learn from the mistake but now we’re in the sequel and the kiddie gloves are comin’ off. This is not Lady Deathstrike. I don’t know who this is but it sure as hell isn’t Lady Deathstrike. At least with Sabretooth in the first film, Tyler Mane looked and acted the part. They only messed the rivalry between him and Wolverine so, that’s one thing they got wrong. When I tell you that X2: X-Men United got everything about Deathstrike’s character wrong, I’m not exaggerating. She’s supposed to be a cyborg (not a mutant) with deformed adamantium hands and this film has her as a mutant with retractable fingernails. She’s supposed to be vengeful, boastful and charismatic and Kelly Hu plays her like she’s barely awake. She’s supposed to have a long, complicated history with Wolverine and instead of that, they fight one time before she’s killed off. She’s supposed to be an intelligent master assassin and this film portrays her as a brainwashed lackey. They literally got everything about this character, except for her being an Asian woman, completely wrong.
These changes might not have bothered me if the character was even remotely interesting; she’s not… at all. Taking away my issues with the comic to film translation of her, Lady Deathstrike is absolutely worthless as a villain in this film. She just stands around with a blank, expressionless look on her face for most of the film until she fights Wolverine at the end. Yes, the fight looks cool but it lacks any meaning or substance and the fact that this character doesn’t say a word throughout the entirety of the film (no, really, she’s mute in this movie) doesn’t help its case. Watch this movie again and you will see that the only relevant thing she does is capture Cyclops and Professor X for Stryker, which we already established he could have just done himself anyway. So why did we need this character other than to give Wolverine someone to fight? I… I don’t get this. This is one of the worst portrayals of any comic book character I have ever seen. Whew, so glad I got that off my chest, let’s move on.
But, above all of those issues, my biggest problem was the movie being far too centered on Wolverine. In the first film, this was fine as he was just being introduced to the rest of the team and his big presence was offset by Rogue’s story and their father/daughter-like relationship. But here, he takes center stage so much that it takes away from the rest of the characters, even ones that were beginning to develop. Yeah, the scene with Iceman and his family is nice, the moments between Storm and Nightcrawler were excellent and the rivalry that formed between Iceman and Pyro was a cool touch. The problem that all of these things have in common is that they are few and far between and feel more important to the characters than they do to the plot. While they are great touches, if you removed all of those things from the plot of this movie, the story would not be different at all. Stryker still would have invaded the Xavier mansion, he still would have had Cyclops and The Professor kidnapped, he still would have used the professor to try and kill all of the mutants with his Wal-Mart Brand Cerebro, The X-Men still would have defeated him and the day would still be saved. These moments add to the characters a bit but they contribute virtually nothing to the story of this film. If you disagree, I respect your opinion but let me ask you this; What do Iceman, Rogue, and Pyro actually do in the climax of X2: X-Men United? That’s right… nothing.
It isn’t just that, either. We see The Phoenix Force begin to rear its head within Jean Grey but, again, we are so focused on what’s happening with Wolverine and his tragic past that we only end up seeing this in a couple scenes before the climax, where The Phoenix Force takes center stage. It’s because of this that, I’m sorry, the death never felt earned to me. If people are going to complain about Superman dying two movies into the DC Movie Universe, I’m gonna complain about this. This isn’t a second-rate hero sacrificing herself in this film; it’s Jean Grey, the woman who will one day become The Dark Phoenix. She is a force to be reckoned with, one of the best X-Men characters ever written and she deserves time and respect devoted to her. I’m not angry that she died to set up The Dark Phoenix for the third film, I’m angry that there is almost no time in this movie dedicated to her at all. Oh, and how could I forget Cyclops being insultingly sidelined. If it was another mutant, I might not care as much but this is leader of The X-Men and he’s barely in the movie. Even when he is in the movie, he barely does a thing. What does this film series have against Cyclops?
Before I wrap this up, I have one more thing to address. There is a scene in X2: X-Men United where Magneto, willingly and through his own design, leaves Professor X to die in a bunker that is ready to collapse. Even if you want to make the argument that “he did it to finally accomplish his goal of mutant superiority by killing all of the humans,” you still can’t argue the fact that this is completely out of character for Magneto. Even at his most evil, Erik Lehnsheer has always loved and respected Charles Xavier, despite them being on two sides of the same coin; one side looking for hope, the other looking for vengeance. Charles isn’t just some disposable mutant to him, nor is he just a friendly acquaintance; Charles is Erik’s best friend. Enemies on the battlefield, yes, but best friends nonetheless. Charles visits Erik regularly in prison just to play chess with him and he’s the only one who still sees any good left in him. I’m sorry, as a big fan of who Magneto is and what he stands for, Magneto would never leave his best friend to die alone and broken the way he was, let alone orchestrate said death himself. It’s actually a bit insulting to both characters when you really think about it. This moment in X2: X-Men United pretty much tells us that their friendship was meaningless to Magneto. I can’t think of any other reason he’d kill his best friend for his own benefit.
Overall, while X2: X-Men United has its strong points and is a somewhat passable film, it’s not without many weak and downright awful points that make it a colossal disappointment. Now, I can understand why people would like it. In all fairness, it does what most good sequels are supposed it do. It continues right after its predecessor and I will also give kudos that, in some respects, it does advance the characters and the story of the first film. Hell, I’ll even concede that this has arguably the best score of the entire series. Seriously, composer John Ottman always brings his A-Game with these movies. At its core, though, X2: X-Men United is a big, often unfocused mess that puts too much attention on one character while it should be focusing on how all the characters function as a team. It is not that other characters don’t get their moments, they’re just too few and far between and the film could have benefited from having more of those moments. If you love X2: X-Men United and if you think it’s the best X-Men film, I think that’s great. I’m glad you get more enjoyment out of it than I do. However, as a longtime X-Men fan, it didn’t hold up as well for me. So I’m gonna take it for what it is; X-2: X-Men United is a merely passable effort that should have just been titled Wolverine And His Amazing Friends.
- Characters – Some moments of character development work in X2: X-Men United, but most of the development is too centered on Wolverine and not the team as a whole. Like the first film, many characters from the comics are watered down to fit a film aesthetic with mixed results.
- Cinematography – The film still looks impressive for the most part and some of the action scenes are fun to watch.
- Story – The story behind this film is very intriguing and, at times, even provocative. But much of that intrigue gets a bit lost in a shuffle of subplots.
- Acting – The acting is spot on for the most part and some performances are even better than the first film. Kelly Hu is dull as dishwater but, other than that, no complaints.
- The Acting (Minus Kelly Hu)
- John Ottman's Beautiful Score
- Some Great, Albeit Short-Lived, Character Moments
- Thought Provoking Themes & Ideas
- Too Much Focus On Wolverine & Not Enough On The Rest Of The Characters
- A Few Poorly Translated Characters
- Lady Deathstrike Is Boring As Brick
- A Few Out Of Character Moments
- A Disjointed Plot With Moments That Don't Add Much To The Story