Bryan Singer’s X-Men 2: what it got right

In 2003, Bryan Singer returned to the superhero realm with X2: X-Men United. It resulted in one of the best comic book movies ever...

With 2000’s X-Men, Bryan Singer gave the cinematic superhero sub-genre a kick up the backside, inspiring a string of comic book adaptations that continue to dominate the worldwide box office to this very day. The film was a huge success financially and critically – and that was no sure thing when it was greenlit.

Demand for a sequel came immediately, and when Mr Singer returned to X-Mansion for a second bite at the cherry, there was bound to be heaps of pressure to repeat the achievements of the first.

The script for X-Men 2 (or X-2, or X-2: X-Men United, depending on your geographical location) didn’t come together easily. Between the screenplay and the story, six names are credited on the finished film.

Characters were added in (Angel, a returning Sabretooth) before being written out again. Further rewrites were ordered to give Halle Berry more screen-time. The Sentinels and the Danger Room were lost in a budget cut.

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Essentially, what we’re getting at here is that X-Men 2 didn’t have the smoothest road to getting made. It may not qualify for a ‘troubled production,’ but it was hardly a walk in the park either.

This doesn’t show in the finished product, though, with X-Men 2 widely lauded as one of the finest superhero films ever. Here’s why it works…

This time it’s personal

X-Men 2’s script is an absolute slam-dunk. It has interesting arcs for most of the core cast, an intriguing new X-Man – Alan Cumming’s Kurt Wagner (known in the Munich circus as The Incredible Nightcrawler!) – and an impressive villain in the shape of Brian Cox’s military scientist William Stryker. Most importantly, though – this story is personal.

The main threat, Stryker, is tied seamlessly into the pasts of two of the lead characters. Way back when, he experimented on Wolverine, resulting in the loss of his memories and arguably turning Hugh Jackman’s Logan into the grumpy loner he is today. Well, his scientific meddling certainly didn’t help in that regard.

This backstory is handled with care, as the script unfurls the secret’s of Logan’s past gracefully throughout the course of the film. It’s not a stretch to say that X-Men 2 is a better Wolverine origin story than X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

Two brief snapshots from X2’s Wolverine arc have always stuck with me – the moment where a wall of ice separates Logan and Stryker (they both put their hands on the ice) is beautiful, while Logan’s bloody flashback to the day he lost his memories still has the power to send shivers down my spine. This is the best writing Wolverine has ever got on the big screen, and Hugh Jackman steps up to the challenge with his best performance in the role.

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Also long before the events of the film, Stryker sent his own mutant son Jason to Charles Xavier’s school, but was bitterly disappointed when Professor X could not ‘cure’ him. This is explained purely through dialogue – first between Magneto and Charles, then between Charles and Stryker – but it never feels shoehorned or unfeasible at all.

It isn’t easy to achieve this with a sequel villain (just remember the ‘No, Sandman really killed Uncle Ben!’ stuff from Spider-Man 3), but Stryker feels like a very natural fit for this film – his backstory expands on what we know from the first film, and his return here throws up some hefty character material for Logan and Charles.

While Logan gets the harrowing flashbacks, Charles has to deal with Stryker’s son, the aforementioned Jason Stryker, now lobotomised. Under the eerie whisper-in-the-ear control of his father, Jason projects images into Charles’ head in an attempt to convince the good Prof to kill the world’s mutant population using this back-alley recreation of Cerebro. This father-son-teacher dynamic is creepy in of itself, and Singer shoots these scenes with unsettling off-kilter angles.

Stryker isn’t a one-dimensional bastard, either – he has the death of his wife as a result of his son’s pre-lobotomy mental manipulation to motivate his actions. Although ‘killing all the mutants’ is clearly evil, you can at least see why Stryker has it in for them. An uncontrollable mutant killed his wife, and Stryker is just trying to get revenge.

Needless to say, Brian Cox handles this material extremely well. He treads the line between hammy comic book villain and intimidating military general very well, adding in a tinge of vengeful widower when appropriate. While Ian McKellen’s majestic Magneto could have been a hard act to follow, Cox steps into the primary villain role with aplomb.

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Meanwhile, X2’s script weaves in strands of character development for the other stars from the first film. Anna Paquin’s Rogue and Shawn Ashmore’s Bobby’s romantic life – or lack thereof – makes for an attention-keeping side arc, which both young actors rise to well. They’re utterly believable here, and Paquin even impresses in action sequences. She exudes cool in the scene where she absorbs Iceman and Pyro’s powers simultaneously, and shows some real dramatic chops when panicked-ly flying the X-Jet at a crucial moment later in the film.

Ashmore is worthy of praise, too, particularly during his ‘coming out’ scene (“have you tried… not being a mutant?”), which remains a highlight of the series. As an everyman cipher for any teenager who’s ever kept a secret, he does very well. It’s a shame he doesn’t really get any action beats in this one.

Elsewhere, Jean is clearly showing signs of losing control (as well as having her own love-life issues), Mystique is yearning to free the incarcerated Erik (who later gets a chance to reverse Stryker’s mutant-killing plans), and Pyro is coming to realise that becoming a bad guy might be a better fit for his smarmy personality (even attacking some police officers at one stage).

Nightcrawler only talks in a handful of scenes, but is still served some meaty character moments. In a reversal to most of the characters, Nightcrawler starts with a terrific action scene (more on that later) before delving into emotional, personal material later on. Alan Cumming sizzles throughout, particularly in the church scene when he first interacts with the X-Men.

As scripts go, this one juggles a massive ensemble cast and gives almost everyone something interesting to do. Storm is the only one who feels a little short-changed – getting action beats but none of the personal stuff.

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Balancing the tone

If the core story of this film was remade today, you might expect it to be a dark, gritty Dark Knight-y tale, considering all the horrific flashbacks and genocide plotting. On the other hand, the teen angst that runs through the side strands would possibly end up as an Amazing Spider-Man-ish young adult superhero movie. Balancing these disparate strands was hardly a simple task.

However, Singer and the scriptwriters manage to reach a tonal balance, with the key ingredient arguably being comedy. Wolverine draws his claws at a housecat at one stage, then Singer cuts away to show Ian McKellen’s Magneto brutally busting out of prison by ripping the high-iron-content blood out of a prison guard. These are literally consecutive scenes, but somehow it doesn’t jar at all.

Indeed, X-Men 2 doesn’t shy away from violence. The scene where Stryker’s goons invade X-Mansion sees Logan go berserk, lashing out and stabbing as many of them as he possibly can. Later on, he injects Lady Deathstrike with liquid Adamantium that then pours out of her eyes as she dies. It’s grim stuff.

However, there’s always room for comedy to stop proceedings getting too miserable. There’s verbal sparring between Logan and James Masden’s Cyclops (“your bike needs gas”/“then fill her up”). Kurt repeatedly fails to theatrically introduce himself. Professor X threatens Wolverine with some note-perfect deadpan, saying “you’ll spend the rest of your days under the belief that you’re a six-year-old girl […] I’d have Jean braid your hair.” The radio in the getaway car plays N’Sync, for crying out loud.

Tonally, this is a comic book movie that knows it’s a comic book movie. It doesn’t shy away from the fact that viewers will want emotional arcs, interesting stories and a few laughs. It doesn’t sacrifice the light-heartedness or the darkness – instead it balances both perfectly via some excellent witty dialogue and unflinching aggressiveness, each in turn, when the story demands them.

The stylistic pallet of the film matches up to this changeable tone, too. This isn’t a movie entirely set in dimly lit caves – it mixes grim underground bases with lush outdoor visuals, making sure that we never veer too far from the green, homely grounds of X-Mansion for too long.

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Here’s a bit of an aside. Speaking of X-Men 2 as an unashamed comic book movie, there’s also plenty for hard-core comic book fans to enjoy throughout.

There’s the Phoenix Easter egg at the end, the Remy LeBeau computer namedrop, a background reference to Archangel, and even Hank McCoy showing up on a TV set. This is another example of X-Men 2’s seeming determination to please everyone. And we’d say that it worked.

For those who aren’t the type to go hunting for those Easter eggs, Singer makes sure to have fun with mutant powers to keep you interested: Iceman cools down a soda for Logan, Pyro messes with cigarettes, Logan starts Scott’s car with his claw. This is just a fun movie, set in a super-powered world, until all the genocide stuff starts happening.

Minor characters are given their moments to shine, too: Colossus helps defend X-Mansion in style; Kitty Pride drops through the floor; the snake-tongued boy gets two chuckle-inducing moments; heck, even the kid who can change the TV channel by blinking manages to win over our hearts in a matter of seconds.

All these minute moments prove something important about X-Men 2. This film doesn’t shy away from its high concept premise, it embraces it – and finds the fun in it – at every given opportunity.

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Visuals and direction

X-Men 2’s visuals are perhaps its biggest strength, from the very beginning. The first action sequence – where a brainwashed Nightcrawler invades the White House and acrobatically incapacitates every guard going – remains one of the best comic book action sequences ever represented on screen.

Effects, choreography, direction and performance are in perfect sync throughout this scene. Alan Cumming makes Kurt feel like a real threat, the fight choreography makes him look like a total badass, the teleportation SFX look jaw-droppingly believable (somehow better than X-Men Origins: Wolverine’s teleportation – despite coming six years earlier), and Singer frames the whole sequence with a frenetic glee, keeping up with the incredibly pacey action and plonking us right in the middle of it.

Spectacle-wise, nothing quite tops it, but there are plenty of other inspired action moments throughout. The aforementioned raid on X-Mansion lets Wolverine loose more so than any other sequence in the franchise to date, and again we witness this violent rage in close-up. Anyone who still wasn’t sure if Hugh Jackman was right for the role – this was probably the scene that silenced them.

The battle at the Alkali Lake facility between Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike is brilliant, too. It comfortably tops the showdown between Wolverine and Mystique from the first film, pitting Wolvie against an adversary every bit as vicious and indestructible as him. Each punch (or, rather, each stabbing) really connects here, and there’s even a jump scare when Deathstrike emerges unexpectedly alive from the tank beneath Logan.

The only action scene that hasn’t held up particularly brilliantly is when Jean leaves the X-Jet in an attempt to save everyone (it looks very green screen-y by today’s standards). However, this scene was never really about the effects, it was all about the emotions. Famke Janssen always impresses, no matter how dodgy the effects look.

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The same goes for the Cerebro scenes between Jason, his adorable female avatar, and the neurally-inhibited Charles. The effects here aren’t much better than the Cerebro moments from the first film, but the added emotional stakes make the scenes more powerful. While the chances of all the mutants actually dying were never higher than zero, these creepy scenes still make you feel something.

All in all, then, X-Men 2 is a film with a stellar script, which effortlessly juggles an ensemble cast. Everyone gets a cool moment, and the majority of important characters get some form of arc, too.

The X-Men franchise’s best action scene remains the Nightcrawler White House sequence, and X2 offers plenty of other impressive visuals to keep everyone interested. Wolvie’s fight with Lady Deathstrike is one of the best, too.

The main strength of X-Men 2 is simple, though – it’s not ashamed of being a comic book movie. It embraces the backstories of its characters, shows off their abilities at every opportunity and even chucks in some Easter eggs for the die hard fans. Laughs abound, too, if nerdy spots aren’t your thing.

If the X-Men franchise ever does better than this, I’ll be genuinely amazed. And very happy about it, too.

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