X2’s Nightcrawler Opening Is Still a Standout Superhero Movie Scene
Twenty years later, the scene where Alan Cumming’s Nightcrawler goes to the White House remains one of the best action sequences in superhero movies. Can we have more like this?
Beginning an X-Men movie by quoting Abraham Lincoln can sound like a loaded choice. It can also be sublime, as was the case in X2, which 20 years ago opened on a solemn recitation of Lincoln’s closing remarks during his first inaugural address in 1861: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”
So starts one of the best sequences in any superhero movie: Nightcrawler’s less-than-sanguine visit to what is almost assuredly the George W. Bush White House.
X2 landed like a thunderbolt after the first X-Men of 2000 was praised for many things by fans, but not its action sequences. Hampered by a sparse budget of $75 million and a timetable that was cut six months short by studio 20th Century Fox, X-Men relied on the strength of its casting—particularly Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier, and Ian McKellen as Magneto—and those thespians’ ability to offer a level of gravitas to the proceedings. Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man in 2002 also fell a little short of fan expectations when it came to web-swinging action with Tobey Maguire fighting Willem Dafoe above the streets of Manhattan.
But X2? We start with Lincoln and end with the dizzyingly well-choreographed sequence where Nightcrawler (a superb Alan Cumming) weaves between the hallways of the West Wing like a demonic jack rabbit, teleporting and “BAMFing” between doors and behind Secret Service agents. A few years after 9/11, it’s genuinely disconcerting how aggressively the film depicts a character entering an American institution with ease, and until he’s literally laying waste to all the bodies in the Oval Office and straddling the President of the United States atop the resolute desk, knife in hand.
So much of it intriguingly works, too, because of Lincoln and all the other little flourishes that seek to turn this comic book adventure into something that reflects our world. It doesn’t want you to escape into the fantasy.
Lincoln’s speech was of course intended to be heard by the nation’s Southern states after the election of 1860, making it something of a final overture toward reconciliation before South Carolina began firing cannons at federal soldiers, all in the hope of preserving their “peculiar” institution of slavery. But the specter of real-life persecutions and injustices always linger over the best X-Men stories.
Consider that elsewhere in the X2 opening, Cumming’s Nightcrawler hides his blue and tattooed physicality beneath a trenchcoat, hat, and mask, lowering his head in a stance that perfectly mimics the White House portrait of President John F. Kennedy, another leader who saw difficult days marred by the threat of war and the promise of civil rights. The movie trusts viewers to know what happened to JFK, just as it does Lincoln. After all, the opening is nothing if not a comic book riff on such horrors.
Hence the movie’s fabulous table-setter, complete with composer John Ottman eschewing his own thematic music for something a little more classical yet undeniably urgent. The score reworks Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Requiem,” a piece of music Mozart left unfinished at his death in 1791 and the writing of which has amusingly been suggested to have killed him, at least per the film Amadeus (1984). One cannot even help but ponder if Mozart’s own posthumous history with racist and bigoted movements—with the Nazis claiming Mozart’s music as one of the triumphs of German culture in their nationalist propaganda—is also intentionally being echoed in a movie about minority groups who are persecuted by those in power.
Indeed, so many of the best X-Men stories embrace the characters as a metaphor for the marginalized and oppressed, and how they can be scapegoated and segregated by society. Comic book writer Chris Claremont’s choice to turn the villain Magneto into an antihero in the source material, one who saw his family murdered during the Holocaust, became the backbone of the X-films, serving as the opening prologue of both X-Men and X-Men: First Class (2011). And in 2003, America was flirting with its own 21st century flavors of oppression with then-President Bush preparing to launch a successful reelection campaign partially built around the disingenuous promise that his second administration would seek a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage. It was an empty talking point that nevertheless inflamed the more hateful corners of American life, and which helped get Bush back in the White House.
The filmmakers are aware of their political moment in X2, with the fictional President McKenna (Cotter Smith) bearing a passing resemblance to Bush as he weighs the idea of mutant registration—as well as then surreptitiously ordering a paramilitary force to round up mutants in Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. He is manipulated into thinking this is a good idea because of the events in the opening sequence, where Cumming’s devilish-looking Nightcrawler attacks him where he lives.
The character of Kurt Wagner (aka the amazing Nightcrawler) was created by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum in Giant-Size X-Men #1 in 1975. He was also an ingenious addition to the X-team because while the original X-Men line-up created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were all of a white Anglo-Saxon disposition, Nightcrawler appeared to be a literal demon in a shade of blue. He had fangs, fur, and a pointed tail. Yet he also was the most innocent and happy-go-lucky of the 1970s X-Men add-ons, a sweet soul who invites readers to initially misjudge him due to his appearance.
Over the years, the German mutant’s backstory was elaborated upon, with a deep Catholic faith being added to the character, making his sinister appearance all the more ironic—and bitter when bigots assumed he was evil. X2 embraces that latter element and heightens it with Cumming’s Nightcrawler being a sincerely devout religious soul, driven by his faith even though others use the same Bible to persecute him.
Even the added tattoo markings to the character in the movie—which give his blue skin an unusually tactile quality—feed into the misdirected menace of a character who starts the movie by being brainwashed by an institutional hate-monger (Brian Cox’s William Stryker). When the film starts, viewers unfamiliar with the comics wouldn’t know Nightcrawler is behaving out of character. Like the president, you are encouraged to jump to a conclusion based on Kurt’s countenance, which is being used by the film’s real human villain to create a fictitious boogeyman who’ll scare a president (and maybe the audience) into an emotionally charged reaction. But therein lies the universal danger of judging entire groups of people by the actions of one (especially if those actions can be distorted or manipulated).
Thus begins X2 with the not-Bush POTUS being so scared of a potential internal threat that he’ll send the military after the wrong target. The fact the movie premiered the same year that the Iraq War commenced could not be planned by screenwriters Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris, or David Hayter. The fact that it also had a scene where a mother asks her mutant son, “Have you tried not being a mutant?” just as the debate over gay marriage was about to reach a fever pitch, is no accident though.
All of that subconsciously is informed by the choice of location, context, and imagery in the X2 opener. The viewer is keyed in, subliminally or otherwise, to recognize an outlandish and distorted reflection of their world. And once they’re in that mindset, the action suddenly looks all the more visceral.
The sequence itself relies primarily on practical effects as a combination of Cumming and his stunt doubles gallop like a leopard across red carpeted hallways and leap over Oval Office furniture. Digital effects are used to create the BAMF teleportation effects, and to likely remove the wires of some of Nightcrawler’s most acrobatic stunts, and yet it all feels urgently real and grounded as the sequence mostly involves one (blue) man absolutely wrecking the unmistakable iconography of modern power: faceless agents and a well-tailored politician they desperately struggle to defend.
It’s a kinetic and exhilarating action sequence that works just as well now as it did in 2003, and for mostly the same reasons. The lack of overemphasized computer-generated imagery means the action is far less prone to aging. We’re watching a well-edited, shot, and scored sequence with living human beings occupying tangible sets instead of glossy, graywashed green screens that had the details finished in post.
There is no snark, no self-deprecation, and no irony about the action. It’s as serious as the assassination attempts quietly suggested by portraits of Lincoln and Kennedy. And finally, it’s that last aspect—how it reflects our reality instead of creating a weightless one we can escape into for a few hours—that gives the sequence teeth as scary-looking as those in Kurt’s mouth. It still packs a BAMFing punch, and more superhero movies should strive for this level of immersion.