This is the fifth article in my ongoing series, examining the imact and importance of comic book movies since 2000. Check out my take on X-Men, Blade II, Spider-Man and Daredevil. Continuing now with 2003's X2: X-Men United, the sequel to the 2000 original, continuing to bring Marvel's iconic team to life.
The Film: X2: X-Men United (2003)
Director: Bryan Singer
Producers: Lauren Shuler Donner, Ralph Winter
Distribution: 20th Century Fox
Cast: Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Famke Jannsen, James Marsden, Rebecca Romijn, Brian Cox, Alan Cumming, Bruce Davidson, Shawn Ashmore, Aaron Stanford, Kelly Hu, Anna Paquin, Daniel Cudmore
Plot: The X-Men have to deal with the new threat of Willaim Stryker, who has a vendetta against all mutants. Also, Wolverine discovers more about his past, the team meets Nightcrawler and forms an uneasy alliance with Magneto.
This is a biggie. As Spider-Man, Blade and Daredevil continued to bring solo stories to the big screen, X2 continued as a team orientated movie. However, it keeps the plot rolling by not giving every character an individual arc, bogging the movie down. Furthermore, whilst other superhero films had a message to some degree, this was the most political superhero film yet, perhaps ever. The strength of the X-Men in comic book form has always been their allegorical nature, raising issues of persecution and accepting yourself, and that is tremendously well here. Additionally, it wasn't just hero vs Villain. Magneto is a complex character with different motivations and beliefs, but he is not evil; and Stryker is the kind of nutcase bigot that exists in real life (just read some YouTube comments). Nightcrawler too, tries to kill the president, not something you normally associate with a hero, and yet his motivations make sense and you feel sympathetic towards him. Singer really utilises the decades of comic-book lore to form some great characters, and proves that a superhero movie can have something to say, and can have an important message.
In my opinion, X2: X-Men United is one of the best ever superhero films. It expertly blends some great characters with smart political subtext that isn't overblown. It is not only a great action film but a film which also stands out as one of the most thoughtful superhero movies. The effects are excellent, especially the breathtaking Nightcrawler scene at the beginning and the rest of the action is well constructed.
It's not perfect though, whilst characters like Magneto, Wolverine and Nightcrawler are fantastic; Cyclops, Storm and Colossus are shadows of their excellent comic selves. Cyclops in particular is one character which the X-Men movies have never gotten right. Also, whilst still a powerful scene, the mutant "coming out" of Ice-Man may have been a little too far.
Still, the movie brings us some great action, and the political subtext that runs through X-Men comics, and it manages ensemble cast superbly.
Rotten Tomatoes: 87% Certified Fresh (72% Top Critics, 85% Audience)
Budget: $110 Million
Box Office: $407.7 Million
X2: X-Men United is one of the smartest and most ambitious comic book movies. Blending expertly shot and choreographed action with political undertones and allegories. Hugh Jackman is superb again as Wolverine, backed up by strong performances from McKellen, Stewart, Cumming and Cox. This is the type of superhero movie that we don't see often enough, a superhero movie that tries to say something, and does.
3 Lessons from X2: X-Men United
1. Superhero movies don't have to be shallow, they can have a strong message and still be great.
2. Do something different with a Superhero sequel, change the stakes, develop characters.
3. Hire great actors; McKellen, Stewart, Cox and Berry are all celebrated dramatic actors and they are good here (maybe not Berry as much), don't settle for "action stars".