Superman For All Seasons

I’m not certain there’s a movie from the 2010s about which I have grappled so much more than Man of Steel. I’ve seen it about 5 times in the time since it premiered in the summer of 2013, almost all of which took place within those last two years of my time as a film school undergrad (2013-’14) for various social reasons. Which in some ways makes me grateful that I’ve waited so long to finally drop a review proper ’round these parts, which could have gone either way between mutedly negative or mutedly neutral throughout the years. I don’t know flicked a switch in me what about the rewatch of Zack Snyder’s Superman movies back in March in anticipation of HBOMax’s release of the long-murmured-about Snyder Cut for 2017’s Justice League, but something did the trick in this watch and I finally moved up to strong positivity.

It might have just been the retrospect of where popcorn cinema has gone in the past 5 years, particularly superhero blockbusters, being more and more muted in personality. In 2013, particularly in the wake of the ill-advised attempt at feminism that was Sucker Punch, a Zack Snyder picture was the most unappealing concept for me. A Zack Snyder Superman – especially in the wake of the massive misread of one of my favorite works of literature, comic book or otherwise, Watchmen – was especially an unappealing concept for me. And sure enough, the resultant picture is absolutely emblematic of all of Snyder’s indulgences as filtered by an interest to at least capture that same grounded atmosphere of the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, sharing the weaker link of that trilogy’s writers room in David S. Goyer and Nolan, Emma Thomas, and Charles Roven in the producers’ slate with Snyder’s regular producing partner Deborah. Those indulgences being slow-motion, color timing to the point of draining it away, and generally a sense of sound and fury that rivals Michael Bay.

Well, frankly the last few years have made me more and more hungry for indulgent blockbusters, with that 800-lb gorilla that is Disney literally outlawing any semblance of personality in their output. And I do mean this review as a one of a trilogy of documents of my “come to Jesus” moment with Snyder’s Superman trilogy so in spite of all the mean things I just said above and certainly the grievances I do still have with Man of Steel as a picture, I come to praise the film and not bury it.

Starting with its best foot forward: the origin story of Superman begins literally with his birth on Krypton, portrayed as a pulp science fiction planet with flying Avatar dragons and floating Meteora-esque mountains above the clouds bronzed-up just well enough to feel like it comes from the mind of the director of 300 (thought thankfully cinematographer Amir Mokri doesn’t embalm the soaring visuals with that heavy color, especially in a very marine-color sequence during this prologue). Sober scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is explaining to the High Council the environmental doom that Krypton is headed for, except that happens to conflict with the coup that militant General Zod (Michael Shannon) had scheduled on that same day, barging in to kill every council member in the room and insisting on Jor-El’s allegiance. Instead, Jor-El retrieve the genetic codex by which Kryptonian children are bred and hides it within the same escape pod through which he ejects his naturally birthed son, Kal-El, prior to Zod’s imprisonment after the coup has failed and Krypton’s inevitable destruction.

From here, we watch through impressively fractured chronology largely driven by the investigation of Lois Lane (Amy Adams) trying to find out who this mysterious man (Henry Cavill) who constantly shows up to perform feats of bravery and mercy all ’round North America through physical marvels like holding a collapsing oil tanker in hellish heat long enough for the workers to escape. We learn expectedly that this is the same Kal-El, found in the pod by farmers Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) in Smallville, Kansas and raised as Clark Kent. And I think it’s particularly in this Rockwellian vision of Midwest Americana that Snyder and Goyer particularly excel. As Clark (who is portrayed as a child by Cooper Timberline and a teenager by Dylan Sprayberry) comes to learn the hard way that he’s not like other kids and his superhuman abilities like x-ray vision and incredible strength and speed, director and writer go all the way in on communicating just how depressed and alone this kid may be while his parents do what they can to ground him back to these earthy roots.

‘Round the time of Man of Steel‘s initial release, a lot of the criticism was to the treatment of Superman as something to be wary of, distanced in his godhood rather a point to aspire to like he is at his most beloved Golden and Silver Age comic book incarnations (there is another major criticism that we will discuss later on). And while I get the criticism, I’ve always found it a bit too closed-off towards a new approach to the character. We have the bright and optimistic Superman of the comics in Richard Donner’s 1987 Superman, which lest we forget is both one of my favorite comic book performances and my absolute favorite live-action comic book movie. If you need THAT Superman, it’s available. Even when I was not a fan of Man of Steel, I certainly found its decision to wonder “how would it feel to discover you are not of this world?” and to engage it in sincere melancholy to be genuinely interesting, even if Mokri and Snyder go a bit overboard on the color correction. Despite that color timing, they constantly find ways to frame Timberline, Sprayberry, and Cavill in emptiness so that the shots can do double duty in making him larger-than-life but also profoundly isolated, amplifying that emotional uncertainty and discomfort that one could argue Cavill’s lack of footing as the titular man of steel actually feels more appropriate to the journey Snyder and Goyer set out for him.

Just as appealing to me is the way that Snyder and Mokri openly ape Terrence Malick just as much as Nolan in their loving shots of wheat fields within that Kent farm that Clark would call his home and with such warm visuals, we understand how that’d be the case too. Malick-inspired movies are about a dime a dozen these days and I’m normally not fond of them (heck, we literally awarded Best Picture and Director Oscars to a Malick rip-off last month), but somehow Snyder’s diving into such a mode with full-on worship that bows its head towards nature similarly to Days of Heaven is very much impressive. Meanwhile, the Kent parents providing Clark with a bit more conflicted and morally dubious suggestions on what would make their son safe rather than fulfill his destiny as a protector of humanity which Costner and Lane successfully deliver as “parents trying their best to help and failing” rather than “adults who would rather see kids die in a bus crash”. Crowe, for his part, shapes this further by playing Superman’s birth father as clearly someone proud and invested in his child’s future but approaches it with chilly scientific interest in stone-faced delivery, like a more matter-of-factly Atticus Finch, and it pushes us to prefer the Kents as figures without disliking Jor-El.

I have made it about 1100 words in spending most of my time on the arguably the first third of the movie, largely because in my eyes… the first third of the movie is perfect. It sets up that grandiosity, that vulnerability, that humanity that makes Man of Steel feel so much more personal and engaged as a story of one guy realizing exactly what he has to be marvelously. But I have no illusions about Man of Steel being perfect and there did come a point in my rewatch where I had to acknowledge “OK, yes, this is why I wasn’t a big fan at first”. It creeps in slowly as the primary external conflict – General Zod’s arrival to Earth seeking conquest, which to Goyer’s credit, ties in well to Clark’s journey to Superman – interrupts Superman’s internal conflict with menace and the threat of 2010s popcorn cinema’s biggest bane, CGI explosion extravaganzas that have not an ounce of the quiet intensity that the Smallville sequences had.

And of course, those sequences pop their ugly head in and take up more space until the climax of Man of Steel turns out to be a colorless gray battle in the ruins of a city that brought up that second famous criticism of the movie, its ostensible lack of concern for collateral damage and the well-being of others (which we will indulge Snyder’s infamous response to on my next review). It not only deals with effects work that hasn’t aged nearly as well as we hoped (though certainly a good amount still survives), but it demolishes the structure of the movie as somehow Goyer determined that Superman vs. Zod was a second feature’s worth of material and added unnecessary further acts and it becomes the obvious point where Warner Bros. as a studio truly mandated Man of Steel resemble as much as any other loud and addle-brained summer blockbuster, especially that there Avengers movie except make it the dark version.

But it is not all bad: we get to witness a morbid vision of Earth as preferred by Zod, ostensibly action movie moments like Lois and Superman escaping Zod’s ship or Superman engaging the World Engine that actually lend themselves to further play with the classic Superman imagery (even if it is still annoying that Zack Snyder had conflated it with Jesus Christ imagery), and the most controversial moment of Snyder’s Superman ever really is one that I think plays extremely well in this character arc.

Most of all, I’ve saved the best element for last and it’s really telling that the weaker the movie gets, the more bravura it is to carry Man of Steel to the finish line. I am speaking of course of Hans Zimmer’s score for the film, which had already done brilliant work in the first few acts subtly seeding itself within the comforts of Clark’s upbringing but once we see him in the red and blue suit for the very first time… Zimmer’s compositions function as practically an ignition to the movie’s best sequence and the climax to all that wonderful character work it was doing trying to get Superman to become THE Superman, his first flight across the globe at high-speeds where Zimmer’s strings and horns soar along with him and feel so eager and elevating in their stirring bombast that we are right there with Cavill, rising in the skies and excited by our potentials. I wouldn’t dare call it superior to John Williams’ iconic march but it is a lot closer of a race than it has any right to be, possibly Zimmer’s career-best work (barring The Thin Red Line) and certainly a miracle of making us believe a man can fly just as the 1987 picture did.

As far as Zimmer carries Man of Steel, it turns out it doesn’t need to carry the movie all the way to the finish line. The final beats of the movie collect itself from all the brainless colorless anti-spectacle quickly enough to tie off the places Snyder, Goyer, and company all brought their new vision of Superman to and earn a sense of optimism to its final dialogue exchange that feel consistent with what we have seen (in fact, that same dialogue exchange makes me grin like a lunatic every time in its obviousness). Which just goes to remind us of where Snyder’s Superman comes from: it’s no less a figure of hope than Christopher Reeve’s beloved Boy Scout, just one that finds itself working harder to get there. Sure, this is a sad Superman, a depressed Superman even, but he is not a miserable Superman as all the biggest critics of the movie seem to claim and it took me a long minute to recognize that while it is cautious about a man of tomorrow standing among the people of Earth with a sense of apprehension and disbelief and distrust about the character’s presence, it is still no less awestruck at the miracle of him and gives exactly the sort of grand scope that such a character demands, just from a different perspective than we expected. A perspective that felt like the first step in Snyder becoming a lot more agreeable as a storyteller.

25 for 25 – Why So Serious?

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I have it on relatively reliable authority (my mother) that I’ve been obsessed with superheroes since I was a child. Like go to the toy store with my mom and ask only for superhero action figures. Be taken to the comic book store by my dad and just grab whatever comic looked the coolest. Namely Batman. Especially Batman. At the risk of being basic, Batman was my favorite superhero as a child and even when I couldn’t understand the English words, I’d love witnessing him come to life from the art of Neal Adams and Kelley Jones (my very first Batman artist) growing up and how shaded and somber he’d look. I hate to say it but darkness is so much more interesting than brightness (captivating as brightness is, which is why I liked Superman a lot too).

I think child me is happy to have his love for Batman validated by the new decade (though I would be curious how he would be if he lived in 1989, when the first wave of Bat-Hype came about). For The Dark Knight is perhaps one of the biggest cinematic events that I have ever lived through and – unlike Titanic and Avatar – one that has its influence spread all over pop culture into this new decade since. For which I’m really glad I wasn’t writing about movies at the time so I could turn around in retrospect and comment on the effect.

You see, I mentioned in my X-Men review that the door was opened for superhero movies as a trend by the one-two-three success punches of Men in BlackX-Men, and Spider-Man causing everybody to run for comic book properties, but 2008 was the year comic book movies took their most important and recognizable shapes and began being recognized as legitimate arts for cinema. Iron Man supplied the universe-obsessed irreverent lively bright comic book films while The Dark Knight became the nihilistic sober-minded revisionist drama mode. Every superhero movie, even the ones that people claim to do something different like Deadpool or Logan, have the success of one or both of these movies in their DNA (like Deadpool‘s character focused, small-scale irreverence being a child of Iron Man‘s right down to the unorthodox action hero choice, while Logan‘s helpless nihilism is The Dark Knight in a Western setting).

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I think it’s very safe to say The Dark Knight may have made the bigger splash on how superhero movies can be taken seriously and its box office appeal (being the fourth movie to break the $1 billion barrier before it became a regular thing) and its subsequent critical acclaim leading to an outcry for its lack of a Best Picture nomination that led to the Oscars expanding the slate to up to 10 movies. Consensuses call it among the best movie of the 2000s, IMDb lists it as the fourth best rated movie since its release, and it’s roundly considered the best superhero film ever made.

Let’s get my opinion on it straight: it’s not my favorite superhero movie. Hell, it’s not even my favorite Batman movie. Hell, it’s not even my favorite of the Batman films directed by Christopher Nolan, of which The Dark Knight is the second part after Batman Begins (my favorite). And I wouldn’t hesitate in thinking it’s a somewhat overrated film (I am of the reducive attitude that any pop culture with that amount of popularity has to be overrated, whether Citizen Kane or The Beatles). If I’m recognizing the flaws that truly hold me back from considering it perfect, there’s infamously plodding dialogue (“NO MORE DEAD COPS!”, “Have a nice trip. See you next fall.”, etc.), the prisoner’s dilemma incorporated into the climax, and most grievously the double-edged sword of Nolan grounding the film making it feel more derivative of crime pictures (namely Michael Mann’s work) and having Wally Pfister’s cinematography downplayed after the expressionist wonder of Batman Begins‘ construction of Gotham City. Now, it’s Chicago. The Dark Knight calls it Gotham, but it’s totally Chicago. And that removes a lot of magic.

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Now that’s what I don’t like about a movie I love, so I’m gonna talk about what I do love. Grounding Batman in the real world may not be as pretty as I’d like, but it still provides a more effective narrative hook to follow – now we have legalities and public perception to worry about for our Dark Knight Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale), GCPD Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) trying to reel in the chaotic carnage of The Joker (Heath Ledger). And these factors aren’t just mentioned once and never shown up again, Batman’s arc revolves around whether or not he can retire so that Dent – the cleaner non-vigilante image for Gotham’s hero – can take over the fight that wears him down so.

There’s Nolan and Pfister’s expert usage of action setpieces. I know that’s not a popular opinion, but hell with it, I think Nolan and editor Lee Smith are the only people who have been able to follow through on Paul Greengrass’ famously kinetic physical action editing style that portrays and compels the viewer into feeling in the action while still giving a sense of confusion and incoherence without losing ourselves. I can’t imagine anybody trying to convince me the truck chase scene in the middle of the film is a poorly-edited scene and we do realize the opening bank robbery that introduces us to the Joker is kind of the favorite sequence of most viewers for a damn reason.

Aiding that editing by giving it its rhythm is one of the first scores that introduced to the idea that Hans Zimmer could not be bad in his collaboration with James Newton Howard. While much of it is just a re-packaging of leitmotifs served better in Batman Begins, it is indeed the Joker’s theme – a savage, slightly percussive undertone wonderfully described by Zimmer as “razor blades on cellos” – always able to tighten up a listener and briefly blasting horns in a consistently interrupted way as it climbs in intensity and puts our mind to the ticking timeclock Batman has to beat in order to overcome all of the Joker’s obstacles and beat his games.

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And that means addressing, finally, the elephant in the room: the much-mythologized penultimate performance of Heath Ledger as Batman’s Clown Prince of Crime arch-nemesis – the first acting performance nominated for an Oscar posthumously, the second awarded the Oscar, the subject of much speculation that the role was dangerous enough to cause Ledger’s premature death (speculation I honestly find tasteless and disrespectful to his abilities as an actor). He’s fantastic, personifying destruction and chaos in such an unexpected manner. He knows he owns each scene he appears in and drives it as far as he can, an energetic but never light or bouncy presence in the film that brings sickening darkness from his attire (provided by Lindy Hemming) to his grungy makeup to his lip smacking. He gets the closest he can to being believable in this pseudo-real world environment without losing the theatricality of a cinematic portrayal and his lack of restraint is not overzealous but measured. Sure, the other performances are fine, but people go to see The Dark Knight at this point for Ledger and it’s only serendipitous that Nolan’s movie surrounding him is also absolutely great.

I called the movie overrated, sure. But it doesn’t mean it’s not solid, intelligent popcorn cinema full of power and thunder. It’s bleak and operatic nihilism in the most accessible fashion, even moreso than No Country for Old Men. And while some of its gravitas has to have been informed by Ledger’s unfortunate death, that gravitas is still there and makes it compelling to watch without any guilt.

I mean, it’s been nearly ten years. I’m kind of gracious I gave the 16-year-old who first walked out telling his dad “I think it’s my favorite movie” time to figure out above all the overhype if The Dark Knight is still a great movie and I think the answer is loud yes. Sure, I’m not gonna call it one of the greatest comic book movies or of the 21st century and in the end I like my comic book movies bright and bouncy. But if The Dark Knight were a bad movie, it would not have survived the test of time. No, its grandioseness as a dark superhero picture in the post-9/11 world has leaked itself into so many films trying to copy some of that summer movie mojo and honestly none of them have been able to do much more than pale in imitation.

There can only be one Dark Knight.

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When You’re Strange

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I’m not very well read on Doctor Strange as bigger fans (ie. I know his story and mythology, but I never ever picked up a comic book where he headlined. It is one of the few comic books where my knowledge comes solely from wikipedia or other comic appearances) and so I don’t know the extent to which Doctor Strange’s famous red Cloak of Levitation has a sentient life of its own in the comics and I feel even if it did, it would not be with the clearly Disney-esque personality they gave it here in the newest installment of the MCU. The Cloak plays the same role in Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch takes on the role) path as the Magic Carpet in Aladdin and certainly feels just as much a product of Disney’s buying into Marvel as Ty Simpkins’ character in Iron Man 3. Regardless, the cloak is very much a character in its own right, absolutely one of the most lovable and enjoyable on-screen, and one of several impressive works of visual effects in the best effects-extravaganza ever released in a franchise that’s constantly tried to be an effects-extravaganza powerhouse. That pretty much is a good sum-up of my attitude on Doctor Strange as a film. Not to say this hurts the film when Ted and Rise/Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Life of Pi and The Jungle Book and The Lord of the Rings all pull this off as well without being a mark against them, but yes. Potentially my favorite character in the film is just another one of the many special effects.

After all, that was obvious from the moment Doctor Strange‘s trailer came out that its special effects were the name of the game and it’s absolutely dazzling and outstanding effects, make no mistake. Effects so damn good I whispered to my girlfriend during the most shameless yet absolutely fun homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite scene “maybe we should have caught this movie in 3D”. Effects that can still manage to supersede Ben Davis’ kind of underlit photography to fill scenes with color and shape (especially in fractal form that cut into the image) that – while it’s nothing that absolutely breaks the ceiling – keep things fun and dare I say even immersive at moments. I don’t want to go 100 on that last part because one of the problems with Doctor Strange in the end is that it feels like Inception as directed by someone who is not Christopher Nolan. Scott Derrickson doesn’t really know how to keep a grip on where Strange and other characters relative to each other when the world starts bending and that becomes absolutely bothersome in one of the setpieces, a chase through a four-dimensional New York where the point is to make sure that villain Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen in a thankless role whose main arc is given a monologue to another character) is far away and see how close he is to catching Strange and Derrickson doesn’t seem to know how to shoot a chase for that matter.

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This is however easily Derrickson’s best work otherwise and I know that’s kind of faint praise for the director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Deliver Us from Evil, but it’s praise nonetheless. He’s not overall bad, he keeps things in rolling and moving once the effects start a-showin’ up, there’s a pretty fantastic astral fight between Cumberbatch and Scott Adkins that isn’t Gareth Evans here but is a great amount of fun. The anti-climax to the film is a fantastic comic bit of repetition that also lends itself to some creatively violent moments in the MCU. And of course there’s also that lovable cape.

But I said things are rolling and moving once the effects start showing up and that’s another big problem with me and Doctor Strange. I didn’t stopwatch the movie obviously, but I can’t imagine it was any longer than 45 minutes that passed before the movie’s best sequence – that very same 2001 homage – showed up to show Strange and the audience what’s what, yet it felt like it took an agonizing hour for me. Part of this is because Cumberbatch makes no effort to have this performance prove to me he’s worth all the hype he’s given. The script by Jon Spaihts, C. Robert Cargill, and Derrickson clearly sets the character up to be arrogant and intolerable in all the same ways Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is and yet the difference here is that where Downey Jr. knows how to turn his sarcasm and wit to charm, Cumberbatch really ups the despicability and nastiness of Strange as a person to 11. I’m sure it’s deliberate and yet it’s a miscalculation (like, Ben, this isn’t an HBO series) and it very quickly gets to a point that I don’t like the guy and can’t be even slightly sorry for the severe damage to his hands early in the film that kickstarts his search for the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her (I’d like to say “it” as a celestial being but the movie refers to “her”) potential in making his hands suitable to be the great surgeon he once was.

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And with the Ancient One means kind of dealing with an elephant in the room… the white-washing of the Ancient One from a Tibetan old man to a Celtic woman portrayed by Swinton. To be frank, it’s extremely obvious the change was deliberately to avoid crossing China, no matter what the filmmakers say. It’s bothersome and problematic and the filmmakers attempts to off-set this are gaggingly awful – by including Chiwetel Ejiofor playing the same damn fundamentalist character he played in Serenity in the role of Strange’s future nemesis Mordo (who also has the utterly tasteless line that they’re “not savages” because they have wi-fi) and Benedict Wong as a character whose given a stereotypical role of the humorless wise Asian man who OBVIOUSLY gets a laugh at the end and whose choice to be mononymous is constantly berated by Cumberbatch (this is probably a good time to note that the comic relief is garbage and the worst thing about Doctor Strange) – but it was an inevitability in the great big machine that is Hollywood moneymaking, knowing that China is where much of the international bucks was to be grabbed. They clearly don’t want to alienate them and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but if we were going to have any non-Tibetan play the Ancient One, I’d certainly rather it indeed be Swinton.

Because Swinton is absolutely the best performance in the movie hands-down, no contest. She gives the supernatural character the ethereal presence she’s always been very good at, a sort of ability to make us feel like she’s levitating even when her character is clearly on the ground and yet we know the Ancient One isn’t a deity but a human being with the same desperations and faults as Strange or Mordo or others, which leads to the second best moment in Doctor Strange where she gets to wrap her characters’ emotional arc in a great bow and a tenderly delivered monologue. Most of the characters in the script are throwaway like Mikkelsen, Rachel McAdams or even Michael Stuhlberg (I swear to God, I didn’t even know he was in the film until AFTER I saw it), but Swinton gets to make up all for it and takes over the movie every time she gets to appear in a shot.

Before Swinton came up, it was starting to sound like I was burying the movie so I may as well quit before I do. Doctor Strange is not a perfect movie, nor the greatest in the MCU. It’s complicated. It’s as complicated as Michael Giacchino’s score blatantly pulling a James Horner on himself with lifting themes from Star Trek for the sake dramatic yet familiar undertone (as well as Pink Floyd themes too). But the moment the Ancient One shows up, it’s a complicated film that makes for a very satisfying fantasy feature and some very wondrous special effects work that I would be very surprised and disappointed if it doesn’t get nominated for an Oscar. And I will not pretend that I did not walk out of the film realizing that I had a good time, forgiving all of the flaws I elaborated on and forgetting they were there until after the fact. Isn’t that what a good popcorn film ought to do in the moment after all? Or is time just relative when you’re moving through dimensions?

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The United States of X

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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 Newton Thomas Sigel’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 worthwhile 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.

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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) hence why we see so many characters hating themselves simply for existing. Such would be the case when Singer and McKellan are gay with Cumming himself 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 the performances 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.

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, rustic, and worn-out design for Styker’s Alkali headquarters (making Cerebro, an already cold and intimidating set, feel like a prison and nightmare in Stryker’s bastardization).

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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 (some repetitions, though) and there’s some real momentum behind shots, but the energy just isn’t entirely there 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 angrily slaughters 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 impressively self-contained note, 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.

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