Shock and Awe – X2: X-MEN UNITED (2003)

With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.

We continue with Bryan Singer’s sequel, 2003’s X2…

Though far more of a muscular and accomplished film than its predecessor, X2: X-Men United would never have worked without it.

X2 is in danger of being overlooked in our era of dominant comic-book movie franchises and behemoth superhero pictures as one of the key, formative pieces of cinema in the genre, something we must work hard to avoid. Bryan Singer’s sequel is a skilled piece of work which does precisely what a follow up is designed to do – build on the foundations of the previous film, add complications and greater depth, and provide a heightened, meaningful experience. X2 does that very successfully. It is The Empire Strikes Back to X-Men’s A New Hope. It even has strong shades come the denouement of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in how it punches you with an earned sacrifice on one hand, while promising a rebirth on the other. X2 feels like a picture that everyone involved had been constructing in their minds long before it was ever committed to celluloid.

On that basis, X2 feels on some level like the first truly meaningful X-Men movie but one that needed the prologue of the original 2000 film in order to function in the manner it does. When Singer came back to helm the sequel, he combined screenplays by David Hayter—who penned the previous movie—and Zak Penn, brewed up with rewrites from Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, in order to fuse together a film which develops many of the established character arcs from X-Men, placed the film distinctly in a post-9/11 context, and digs deep into the ideological and existential conflict between Professor X and Magneto – namely whether mutants should believe in humanity or reject and destroy them. It does this while never forgetting the human cost of being different, exploring the difficulty of living with what genetics, evolution, gives you in a less than tolerant society.

X2 does this with a poise and panache that few comic-book movies have equalled since.

Though released just three short years after the first X-Men movie, X2 fills a space both in cinema and wider popular culture that was already markedly different.

X-Men, building off the financial success of the Batman series in the 1990’s and buoyed by Marvel Comics producers who understood the material, including future MCU head honcho Kevin Feige (who also co-produces this sequel), triggered what one might term the ‘Age of Marvel’ in cinema. We may still be five years away from the launch of the incumbent Marvel Cinematic Universe with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, but post-X-Men we had already seen in 2002 the return of Wesley Snipes in Blade II and the launch of Sam Raimi’s (largely) critically and commercially successful Spider-Man trilogy. In 2003 alongside X2, Ben Affleck arrived in the flawed Daredevil and Ang Lee’s Hulk delivered a more artful, introspective look at the big green guy than we had seen in the classic Lou Ferrigno TV series. Not all of these films would be rampant successes, or necessarily remembered with complete fondness, but their existence would have been much less likely without X-Men showing that comic-book cinema could be more than just silly costumes and exuberant artifice.

Many of these examples began to mine the idea that the characters behind these heroes were real people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Bruce Wayne was a billionaire playboy, Clark Kent an alien from Krypton, but Peter Parker was a teenage boy bitten by a radioactive spider who had to experience the growing pains of adulthood through the prism of having an alter ego; Matt Murdock was a blind man fighting, and avenging, crime in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen even with his disability, while Lee’s Hulk was a soulful, sad exploration of man and monster, beauty and the beast, putting Bruce Banner at the forefront. More so than any of these examples, X-Men (particularly in X2) strives to give these characters real, dramatic motivations at the core of their unusual mutant powers. Singer explores allegory and metaphor with several of the main X-Men as a way to draw out meaning from their experiences.

A chief example of this is in how Singer’s film develops Bobby ‘Iceman’ Drake (Shawn Ashmore). One of the younger breed of emerging X-Men at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, Bobby is little more than a prospective love interest for troubled newcomer Rogue (Anna Paquin) in the first film, but in being driven from the X-mansion and attempting to hide out with his family at their Boston home, Bobby has to confront a family with the truth about his mutant powers. His brother is angry and scared, his father confused, and his mother unconvinced. “Have you ever tried just *not* being a mutant?” she asks, as if it is something Bobby can control. A clear allegory for homosexuality, Bobby has to ‘come out’ about his emerging mutant powers to a traditional American family unit who simply cannot understand who he now is, and fear it in equal measure.

In the wake of Iceman actually coming out as gay in 2015’s All-New X-Men, Singer discussed his thought process about this parallel:

As a gay or bisexual guy, which is what I am, I don’t know if I’m the guy who at that moment in my career was ready to make an “issues” film. So that scene where he talks to his parents was blatant and meant for humor. And that was always something very specific about the X-Men, which related to the LGBT community. You’re born into a family or a neighborhood which you do not identify with. A person of a certain religion or race is born into a community of similar faiths or physical attributes. But an LGBT person is born into a world—to use the example that X-Men uses—like a mutant. And of course the parents aren’t mutants, the brothers and sisters might not be mutants. And they feel a unique kind of aloneness. I’ve always felt it made sense to include that in the comic universe. 

Fear plays a big part in X2, indeed it informs the entire narrative and challenges being faced by the characters as the stakes begin to grow.

X-Men presented a fairly traditional superhero paradigm. Xavier’s organisation was well-established, facing existential threats from Senator Kelly’s (Bruce Davison) hawkish Mutant Registration Act, but the primary threat came from an external source in Erik ‘Magneto’ Lensherr (Ian McKellen), an all-powerful manipulator of metal who, with his Brotherhood of Mutants, was a fanatic directly opposed to his old friend Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) in ideology. X believed mutants could work with humanity to create a better future, Magneto believed a war was inevitable and mutants must destroy them before they could be destroyed. The first movie establishes the X-Men, presents the Magneto threat, confronts the brewing US government anxieties about mutant kind, and deals with both. Magneto is locked away warning the ‘war’ is still to come.

X2 proves him right. Singer’s sequel was produced in 2002, in the immediate shadow of the existential American trauma of the Twin Towers attack in New York on September 11th, 2001. Subsequent fears of the ‘Other’, the alien posing a threat to American civilisation, took hold in the public psyche, and the Bush administration immediately launched a vengeful war in Afghanistan to hunt the terrorists responsible which later blossomed into the Second Iraq War to dethrone Saddam Hussain, which employed the infamous tactical doctrine known as ‘Shock and Awe’. The climate X2 was produced in was one of anger, fear, confusion and a deep hostility to anything un-American, to a degree not witnessed since the early days of the Cold War in how Communists were pursued within American society. Mutantkind serve as the perfect allegory for Middle Eastern terrorism within this paradigm; an unknowable force living amidst American society who are perceived to pose a direct threat to their way of life.

The striking opening scene, in which Kurt ‘Nightcrawler’ Wagner (Alan Cumming) storms the White House in order to seemingly murder the sitting US President, is a stark reminder of the near-magical power of mutants in comparison to humans. Ororo ‘Storm’ Munroe (Halle Berry) later at a museum visit describes the jump from Neanderthal to Cro-Magnon development as if to hammer home the point that mutants are a distinct evolutionary trend leaving human being behind in the dust. X fears Nightcrawler’s attack, designed to bring a message demanding mutant freedom and sovereignty, could lead to the US government coming after them and this is precisely what gives General William Stryker (Brian Cox) his remit to treat mutants as domestic terrorists who need rounding up and dealing with. Stryker even describes Xavier’s school as a “mutant training camp”, using terminology analogous to how US military forces would describe Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan, and later sends US shock troops into the school in the manner of US forces storming terrorist training facilities.

It is a stunning parallel to witness just after 9/11, as the US military machine was bearing its entire weight down on Afghanistan and the Taliban, but even more striking is how X2 renders the mutants as an oppressed, victimised and subjugated sub-culture being unjustly hunted by a fearful government military-industrial complex looking to justify their continued existence. Stryker, with all his vengeful motivations and dubious ethics, exemplifies that machine in one man, and is backed by a President who felt the ‘enemy’ get too close to his back yard and wants to make a statement. Yet at the same time he is conscious of how mutant subjugation and persecution will read in a public sphere who don’t yet directly consider them the enemy. “The last thing we need is the body of a mutant kid on the 6’o’clock news” the President tells Stryker, conscious of the fact Americans haven’t experienced a mutant-instigated 9/11. Not yet.

X2 builds on the pre-9/11 anxiety inherent in the first X-Men film of significant change on the American and Western horizon. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) seeing the first embers of her dark ‘phoenix’ power beginning to emerge is not just foreshadowing for a later, legendary X-Men comics story arc, but also speaks to this continued nervousness. “I keep feeling something terrible is going to happen” she tells Cyclops (James Marsden) before Strkyer’s crusade against them begins. It deals with not just forward-looking anxiety about the future but also the spectre of the past reaching out with its tentacles to ensnare many of the characters in the present. X2, in the wake of 9/11, is quite brave in suggesting that American hands may not be clean, and that elements of the government still may not be working in our best interests. This is right at the point The X-Files has ended and shows like Alias or 24 or even Star Trek: Enterprise are fighting analogous extremist threats and painting the American government (or its far future equivalent) as the heroes. X2 suggests it’s not altogether that simple.

Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) turns out to be a central component to the primary narrative and the film successfully manages to delve into his enigmatic backstory while simultaneously servicing the plot, and the broader themes in play. Wolverine discovers that Stryker ‘created him’ at the secret military facility on Alkali Lake, fusing his bones with the rare adamantium metal, meaning him to become a prototype ‘super-soldier’  who could be exploited by Stryker’s military machine as a controlled weapon to give the United States a geopolitical upper hand. “If you knew the kind of person you used to be, the work we did together… People don’t change, Wolverine. You were an animal then and you’re an animal now. I just gave you claws.” Stryker tells him, and it is surprising how many narratives have played with such an idea of secret government exploitation; The X-Files developed a significant chunk of its core mythology around the idea of an alien ‘supersoldier’ program in tandem with the US military, and Wolverine’s amnesiac circumstances and revelations about him being used as a programmed assassin lean heavily into territory explored just a year earlier in 2002’s Robert Ludlum adaptation The Bourne Identity.

Interestingly enough, Brian Cox plays roles in X2 and The Bourne Identity (plus The Bourne Supremacy a year later in 2004) which could be considered of a piece. In both instances, he is a shadowy, mercurial guiding light for a brainwashed, manipulated killer now coming to realise the darkness of their pasts. Jason Bourne turns the tables and goes after his government creators and their sinister, illegal programs, and Wolverine’s point of revelation forms part of his continued bond with Xavier’s organisation as Stryker attempts to exploit X’s powers to destroy every mutant in the world. It is interesting how, in the wake of 9/11, films such as these seem keen to detail a lingering American guilt about secret programs and nefarious military-industrial conspiracies created under the auspices of ‘national security’. There is a deep, existential distrust of government in these films that belies the unity following the attacks on New York. It is as if X2 wants us to remember even in times of great weakness we are capable of the darkest deeds.

This is the warning Magneto has been providing since the beginning, with Stryker proving his assertion that humanity cannot be trusted. In reality, Stryker turns out to be a gigantic hypocrite given how he utilises his own mutant son—warped over years of testing into a powerful, illusion-creating weapon—to gain control of Cerebro through manipulating Xavier, who for the second film running proves himself to be quite fallible for the necessities of the narrative. All Stryker wants is revenge and in that sense is little different from Magneto himself, who himself was warped by his rage as a Jewish orphan who lost his family to the Holocaust and turned into the very emblem of fascism he despised. Magneto attempting to twist Stryker’s plan to a Holocaust of his own, the murder of every human on the planet, removes any possibility that Magneto could be an anti-hero, despite how the X-Men have to work with him to stop Stryker.

In that sense, X2 eschews the traditional formula of the heroic good guys hunting down the clear and visible bad guys. For much of the film, the X-Men are fugitives, with their base of operations attacked by the government, and they are forced to partner with who would otherwise be their sworn enemies—and indeed *were* in the previous film—to try and prevent mass genocide. X2 proves how Marvel is a company far more interested in the heroes than the villains of these films, which wasn’t the case with much of DC’s output during the 80’s and 90’s, when certainly the Batman movies became far more about the bad guys to the point that Arnold Schwarzenegger is top billed as Mr Freeze on Batman & Robin. Those movies were colourful 90’s adaptations in some sense of the celebrity villains inherent on the 1960’s Batman series, and after the first Tim Burton Batman film were far more interesting and flavoursome than the hero himself. This isn’t corrected until Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins in 2005.

While the heroes are clear and defined in X2, the line between villainy and heroism is at times less easily drawn. Magneto and Mystique *do* help the X-Men and are just as invested in removing the threat of Stryker as X and his team, even if for less altruistic reasons. Stryker has been corrupted and lost his soul but his motivations are partly out of protecting humanity. Pyro (Aaron Stanford) ends up giving in to his darker impulses and eventually joins the Brotherhood. And then you have Nightcrawler, a Germanic-speaking, outwardly demonic-looking mutant who turns out to have a devout Christian faith, after we first see him about to kill the most powerful man in the Western world. His body is adorned with angelic symbols supposedly passed onto mankind by the archangel Gabriel. “One for every sin. So quite a few” he claims, suggesting he is a man atoning for a darker past.

In truth, his faith-based bond with Storm is one of the few character beats that doesn’t quite ring true, almost feeling included to give Berry more to do (she again feels an accessory to a storyline that doesn’t know what to do with her). Nightcrawler is an intriguing contradiction between Christian and demonic iconography, and outside of Mystique is the most outwardly *alien* mutant on screen, but his faith and belief that Christ may be testing him, and the faith he tries to imbue in Storm, never really go anywhere. Nightcrawler very quickly becomes less of an ambiguous figure and more of a mournful encapsulation of what humans fear about mutants: the unknown. He is visibly different and therefore stands out, starkly, from everyone else.

X2 consequently is a sequel which feels incredibly rich. It takes almost every lingering character thread from the first movie and builds on it, leaving far fewer characters behind. It develops Jean and her romantic entanglement with Wolverine and Cyclops without overplaying it, and her ultimate sacrifice to save the rest of the team feels earned given their struggle to survive from all quarters. It is sudden and devastating to the team in the way Spock giving his life to save the Enterprise or Han Solo being frozen in carbonite was. Sadly, X2 will never quite get its The Search for Spock or Return of the Jedi to pay off many of the narratives it develops and sets up for an equally rewarding third film, given Singer will go off and make Superman Returns instead, and the eventual X3: The Last Stand from Brett Ratner will undo much of the goodwill created here and almost kill the entire franchise.

Balancing a number of political and social allegories with consummate skill, X2 is one of the earliest superhero sequels, pre-MCU, to truly stand the test of time as a finessed piece of comic-book cinema. It is just a tragedy we were denied the X3 we deserved, which could well have cemented this franchise as having one of the greatest superhero trilogies in history.

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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