X2: X-Men United
The conflict gets rather brutal and bloody (well, PG-13 bloody) in X2, the first racehorse out of the summer-movie box. As before (in 2000’s X-Men), mutants are pitted against their genetically inferior human counterparts and against each other; the stakes couldn’t be higher, on the screen and behind the camera. But director Bryan Singer, whose first X-Men was a sly and modestly scaled piece of work, makes sure the animating theme of this series — the freedom to be different in the face of intolerant authority — doesn’t get lost in the din of battle. It is possibly not a message that our government wants millions of American moviegoers to hear just now, but hear it they will.
The mustache-twirler in this piece is not Magneto (Ian McKellen), who spends half the movie in a plastic cell and the other half in grudging, necessary collaboration with the heroes who put him there. No, this time it’s General William Stryker (Brian Cox, doing his specialty of self-amused malevolence), who has the ear of the President and wants to see all mutants eliminated. Unlike the first film’s human bigot Senator Kelly, who could only whine from the senate floor to get his Mutant Registration Act pushed through, Stryker wields shadowy commandos who barge into the mutant-training school of the noble Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart).
X2 punches up the action. The claw-fisted Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) gets his blades dirty more than once, most notably with one of Stryker’s pet mutants, Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu), who has similar appendages and quick-healing abilities. A new character, the loose cannon Pyro (Aaron Stanford), makes short and fiery work of some misguided police. The major addition to Xavier’s flock is Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), who can teleport himself anywhere and, for reasons we eventually discover, stages a sneak attack on the White House. It’s as if violent bigotry brought out concussive retaliatory rage in the oppressed; Singer, an openly gay director, has approached the series as empowering wish-fulfillment, and possibly a pre-emptive strike against the ignorant (take that, Rick Santorum).
The events — involving, among other things, the kidnapping of Xavier, the discovery of potentially fearsome powers in Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), and a nice coming-out moment between teen mutant Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and his family — rocket along, but Singer knows what to do with convoluted narrative, as he proved in The Usual Suspects. The movie feels loaded but not overloaded. Unavoidably, some characters — the untouchable Rogue (Anna Paquin), the weather goddess Storm (Halle Berry) — take a slight back seat this time out; some of the nuances, like Magneto’s doting relationship with his blue-skinned changeling Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) or the irony of the devoutly religious Nightcrawler’s looking like a devil, are just sketched in, and the movie teases us with more oblique references to Wolverine’s origins. Like The Two Towers, much of X2 seems like a way station to a third movie.
Still, the typically brain-dead summer-movie season has at least launched with a deafening example of craft, pride, and unity. The final image promises redemption and rejuvenation, and that’s a refreshing drink right about now. Until further notice, the X-Men movies continue to be the most exciting and relevant mega-franchise since the Alien series closed its doors. Sometimes it takes fantasy to sneak in the side door and speak truths about our reality.