Whilst the modern box office is a time of comic book movies, with at least one comic book film releasing in growing frequency and attention every year since 2000, films inspired by superheroes weren’t as big business in the early 2000s as they are now, and those that did well seemed to try to divorce themselves somewhat from their bright coloured, ridiculous counterparts on the page. One series that did this were the Fox X-Men films. Despite taking inspiration from one of the more brightly coloured and eclectic teams Marvel Comics had on offer, the first film took a gloomier, more grounded approach with heroes in black leather rather than yellow spandex. With 2003’s X-2: X-Men United, however, some of the more fantastical elements began to leak through.
Despite the success of the first film in the franchise, it was criticised for a lack of action and spectacle. There were few fights in the movie, and what was there tended to be over pretty quickly. Straight out of the gate X-2 looked to be ready to rectify this, with an opening scene that depicted new mutant (not those New Mutants) Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) breaking into the White House, using his teleporting abilities and acrobatic skills to take down secret service agents as he made his way towards the President to kill him. Thus begins a first act that would send our resident heroes out on different missions as they investigate the attack.
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Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Cyclops (James Marsden) go to question Magneto (Ian McKellen) who’s been imprisoned since the first film, whilst Jean (Famke Janssen) and Storm (Halle Berry) track down Nightcrawler. This leaves Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) to look after the students at the X-Mansion. Unfortunately, a military scientist named William Stryker (Brian Cox) launches an attack on the mansion in the wake of the assassination attempt on the president, and captures several of the children. At the same time, Xavier and Cyclops are also taken into custody. With the mansion lost, and their leaders gone, the remaining X-Men have to turn to Magneto for help.
Much like with X-Men comic books, the plot of X-2: X-Men United seems fairly complex at first glance, but underneath all of the moving parts is a story that the franchise has done numerous times: humanity hates and distrusts mutants, and will do anything it takes to wipe them out. It’s a tale that fans of the franchise will recognise, and it’s one that has been covered in many different ways in the comics. And the fact that one of the main writers on this movie, David Hayter (yes, that David Hayter, Solid Snake himself!) is a huge comic nerd really translates into this movie. Whilst the film kept the more grounded tone of the first movie it added more comic book touches to it than first time viewers would expect.
The story not only touched upon the themes of humanity’s hatred towards mutants, but also explored a little of the history of several of the characters. The film introduced Stryker’s son, who was an early student of Xavier’s, and dealt with some of the early failures of the school. Stryker also had heavy connections to Wolverine, and the film began to address some of the questions that were hanging over the mystery mutant’s head.
Most surprisingly, however, the film would introduce new powers for Jean Grey, the Phoenix. Throughout the movie we’d see her powers grow, and at the end fire would begin to form around her as she made the ultimate sacrifice to save her friends, apparently drowning in the process. This set off alarm bells for comic fans, who recognised these as key story points for the birth of one of the most powerful and iconic X-Men characters. A small tease at the end of the movie set up for big things to come from a third movie (even if that third film failed to deliver).
X-2: X-Men United taking the real-world aesthetic established in the first film and introducing these more fantastical elements made it stand out amongst other comic movies at the time. Spider-Man debuted the year before, and whilst definitely being more brightly coloured and fantastical, it still played it fairly safe by making the Green Goblin a mech-suit, and moving away from the weirdness of the comics.
The only other comic movie grabbing headlines at the time was Blade, and that being horror meant that most people failed to count its bizarre elements as anything more than an extension of monster myths. X-2: X-Men United was the first step towards showing both audiences and film makers that you could include the wilder elements from the source materials in these films. Without this film it’s likely that comic movies wouldn’t have been as popular as they became, and that the landscape of the medium we have now would take a lot less risks.
Part of what really helped to sell the movie was the acting. The first film made the incredibly clever move of casting classically trained actors like Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in the lead roles. Mutants and people with super powers are a fairly ridiculous concept, and it’s a key one to the franchise. But having actors of that calibre in the roles helps to ground it, it helps to make it feel realistic for the audience, and it makes it feel like a real issue when the two men argue their sides.
The sequel makes a similar move in bringing Brian Cox in as the antagonist. We’ve all seen the kill-happy army general in film before, but Cox manages to not only make his feel like a threat, but brings a surprising level of pathos to the role. The scene in which he describes his son’s powers, and what he did to his mother is one of the more chilling parts of the film, and whilst it doesn’t justify any of his views or actions it does make them understandable.
Unfortunately, much of the good this film did would be undone in the third film in the franchise (and the fourth), and it would be a number of years before fans would consider another X-Men movie to be as good as X-2. Even today, there are some fans who would count this as the best outing for the X-Men to date. Whether you consider it the best or not, it’s hard to argue that it isn’t one of the best, and that however the MCU tries to bring their own version of the X-Men to the screen it’s going to end up being compared to this film.
X-2: X-Men United was released in the UK on 24th April 2003.