In the 14 years since the big-time success of Spider-Man opened up the superhero genre to completely overpower the American industry as we know it, I don’t think we’ve ever received a single superhero film as intelligent or human as X2: X-Men United. Yes, we have movies that lean towards one or the other – The Incredibles, Raimi’s Spider-Man films – but none of them felt as in the now and aware of the cultural and social climate as Bryan Singer’s second forte with the X-Men – a group of persecuted mutants under the leadership of wheelchair telepathic Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) dedicated to defending humanity as a whole. It is perhaps the first time in the genre that a superhero movie realized it could dedicate itself to substance rather than style and spectacle, with co-writers Michael Doughety (later directing two of my favorite holiday-themed horror movies), Dan Harris, Zak Penn, and (Solid Snake himself) David Hayter intertwining psychological exploration, message picture, and action thriller – with a fugitive subplot – all in one.
Which is not to say that X2 doesn’t have spectacle at its own helm as well. On the contrary, the film opens up with an arrestingly ambitious chase setpiece as a teleporting mutant we later will identify as Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming in a physically huddled performance that makes me regret his later absence) infiltrates the White House and, despite the pursuit of the Secret Service, effortlessly makes his way to holding the President at his own desk, ready to assassinate him before being thwarted by a lucky bullet. This scene alone would probably make its own fantastic short film, being the best work in Singer’s career. Singer and editor/composer John Ottman – the fact that Ottman fills both roles explains so much about his rhythmic feel for action scenes – having a roving patience for the long takes of cinematographer’s camera movement laying out a physical maze for Cumming or his stuntman to play around in, while the effects keep in mind the spacing so that we’re both confused when Wagner disappears and shocked in realization when he reappears. That alongside the painful looking but so worth it makeup design on Cumming’s face and the special effects team working right there in tandem with the music, editing, and camera movement without taking the spotlight from any of them. It’s basically one brilliant concert overture and while the movie never matches that scene again… how the fuck was it going to?
Needless to say, this event is enough to light a fire under the President’s ass to force him to do something about the very out-in-the-open School for Gifted Youngsters that Xavier runs, giving Special Defense Operations director William Stryker (Brian Cox) an inch to question their potential involvement in the attempt on his life, which Stryker takes as a mile to arrange a full-on Black Ops assault on the school imprisoning nearly every single mutant within it. Recognizable face of the franchise Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), left in charge as the one adult in the school at the time, outsider power leech Rogue (Anna Paquin), Iceman Bobby Drake (Shawn Ashmore), and Pyro John Allerdyce (Aaron Stanford) are among the few that make it out of the assault, but not before making it clear that Logan and Stryker have some history.
Meanwhile, Xavier himself is investigating into the assassination on his own terms, sending psychic Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and Ororo Munroe/Storm (Halle Berry) to intercept Wagner, as well as juggling that matter with his attempt to console Logan’s dismay at finding a dead-end in his attempt to unlock his old memories. The two matters probably leave Xavier distracted enough to have him and Scott Summers/Cyclops (James Marsden) kidnapped by Stryker during one of his regular prison visits of his old-friend-turned-bitter-rival master of magnetism Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Ian McKellan).
I know that seems like a convoluted plot already (and that can almost be expected with so many cooks in the script kitchen), but the movie effortlessly just uses these events as set-ups to the real climactic payoff within the second half. And so, with all those pieces put in place within the first hour, the rest goes on to present the real ethical center of the franchise and it’s statement in bold terms – This movie is all about Gay Civil Rights. I mean, the X-Men have always had a basis in the Civil War Rights of all minorities (personally as an Arab-American, I saw a clear 9/11 parallel between the opening attack and the xenophobic hysteria that came from it), but Singer’s X-Men clearly have gay rights as its front and center, indisputable. Anything else is just reading more into it than is there. No way could you apply with the sort of self-loathing of characters like Rogue and John and Wagner (the latter especially tied to religious presence, holding himself accountable for sins), the paternal fear and shame Stryker shows when it’s revealed to us that he fathered a mutant Jason (Michael Reid McKay) (“my son is dead,” Stryker declares as he leaves Xavier to be mentally tortured by Jason), and most of all, the central “coming out” scene where Bobby confesses that he’s been a mutant – right down to the line “have you tried not being a mutant?”. While anybody could ideally relate to these things, you can’t apply moments like that to other minorities – black or female or any other stigmatized race or gender, the air of prejudice lies in something that is not visually apparent, exempting Nightcrawler and maybe Magneto’s shape-shifting henchwoman Mystique (Rebecca Romijn, back when a –Stamos was attached to her last name) hence why we see so many characters hating themselves simply for existing. Such would be the case when Singer, co-writer, and co-star Ian McKellan are all gay (Cumming himself is bisexual) suffering under the especially homophobic landscape in the early 00s.
McKellan – the most outspoken member of the production on Gay Civil Rights other than Cumming – especially relishes this opportunity (from what I’ve heard, he co-directed Bobby’s coming out scene) to portray Magneto with heightened flair akin to Dr. Pretorius in The Bride of Frankenstein. From his bored sarcasm towards his prison guards to the way he whispers maliciously with Mystique in that sort of bestie manner (“We love what you’ve done with your hair”, he giggles to Rogue, in one of my favorite line readings in a performance with so many line readings) and, most importantly for me, his “seduction” of John into accepting himself as a mutant is a work of gay coding that outdoes James Whale’s own work, the way McKellan gives John a like soul in his inner… fire (fuck me, man)… that nobody else in the movie can. McKellan is certainly the standout of a pretty well-done cast (Exceptions: Marsden is unfortunately worse in here than he was in X-Men even with little to do, while Berry is just a touch better after abandoning her chewy accent, though she’s not able to meet up to some of the character’s expectations during her one-on-ones with Wagner) and is single-handedly responsible for making X2 the (for lack of a better word) gayest superhero film since Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin. Except where that movie was a dumpster fire, this is top-notch filmmaking and storytelling in most accords.
During all of this, the script still has four different plots – Stryker, Nightcrawler, Wolverine’s history, and the evasion of the authorities – and instead it smartly goes ahead to organically mix into one plotline by the third act, in a manner that makes perfect sense. It also unfortunately is completely done with the commentary on homosexual identity by that third act, setting fully on being an action-thriller, but it’s a really strong action-thriller climax that leaves one satisfied, cross-cut between objectives (save the children; stop the evil plan; find out my past) and conflicts that makes everything feel bigger despite its relatively-to-the-genre small stakes and Guy Hendrix Dyas’ muted and rustic and worn-out design for Styker’s Alkali headquarters (they clearly new how to make Cerebro, an already cold and intimidating set, feel like a prison and nightmare in Stryker’s basatardization of it).
The only exception to Ottman’s editing is the claw-handed Wolverine’s fight with the claw-nailed Deathstrike, a fight clearly trying to go out of its way to earn a PG-13 rating in avoiding what we can see and leading us to blatant insert shots because something shocking was about to happen. It’s still got a lot of comic book framing to it (even if some of them are repeated) and there’s even some real momentum behind shots, but the energy just isn’t there all the way and it’s probably the best support for the eye-rolling argument that the only good Wolverine movie is an R-rated one (thankfully, an earlier Wolverine central setpiece where he mindlessly rushes his way into slaughtering as many of the guards as he can in Xavier’s Mansion as a human ball of rage is a support that PG-13 Wolverine can still be violent and unnerving, even if it’s conspicuously bloodless – THIS was apparently the most “butchered” scene to avoid an R-rating, but damned if I can see it).
Things wrap up on an impressive note that leaves most things self-contained, but still promises a certain sequel hook that gets comic book fans reeling, so I don’t know why X2: X-Men United gets forgotten among the rest of the comic book hype, but them’s the breaks. People are missing out on a movie that brought the best out of nearly every single person involved (I actually am really trying hard to avoid calling it the career-best of everyone save for Stewart, for whom I’m too much of a Star Trek: The Next Generation fan… but I’ll imply it strongly) and it’d be a long time before another thinking man’s superhero movie came along. But it would never come back to the franchise. Here, Singer and co. made a stand that “this is what the X-Men movies are about, this is what we have to deal with – and while we’re at it, we know how to make some great action setpieces”. This was as good as it got.