X2: X-Men United (2003)

Bobby, have you tried… not being a mutant?
— Bobby’s mom (Jill Teed), X2

Logan, sometimes the mind needs to discover things for itself.
— Xavier (Patrick Stewart), X2

The hairstyle, Halle’s wig, got a lot of criticism on the first picture. So we sat in a hotel room with Halle for half a day going through different hairstyles and wigstyles. It’s hard, with the white hair on an African American woman.
— Bryan Singer, commentary track, X2

“This is that scene… where the audience had been waiting one and a half movies, for this.” At this point, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) finally opens up his knife-knuckle-claws and penetrates an intruding soldier’s chest from two sides: a brutal, swift, and efficient kill, witnessed by young Bobby/Iceman (Shawn Ashmore). And director Bryan Singer, on the commentary track for X2, goes on to describe the cuts he made — owing to “certain violence restrictions” — in order to accommodate an anxious ratings board. That is, he likes the “full-on roar,” but shows Bobby’s astonished face, breaking into what he calls “a very Wolverine, classic, Frank Miller moment.”

Fox’s DVD version of X2, heralded by many as the summer’s first and best action movie, confirms that cast and crew have a solid sense of their project. Neither so self-lovingly grandiose as, say, Hulk, nor as unreflectively earnest as The Matrix sequels, the X-Men sequel delivers some pleasant surprises (namely, the utterly strange and wondrous Germanic-branded-Christian-blue-wormy Nightcrawler, played with equal aplomb by Alan Cumming and a raft of engagingly wifty effects) and some yeah-what’s-new? un-surprises (the apparent inability of anyone in the X-World to make sense or good use of the wilder girls — Anna Paquin’s teen-sexy Rogue or even more entertainingly, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos’ most fabulous Mystique). And of course, there’s the quandary of Storm’s hair.

The DVD — packaged as two discs — features two full-length commentaries, one by the incredibly boyish-looking Singer and cinematographer Tom Sigel (apologizing “for any slurping sounds from our yummy vanilla blend coffees”), and another by producers Lauren Shuler Donner and Ralph Winter, and young comic book fans and scriptwriters David Hayter, Michael Dougherty, and Dan Harris (who appear, along with Singer, as security guards on a computer screen perused by Mystique). Disc Two includes a gaggle of scene studies and featurettes: “Nightcrawler Attack multi-angle scene study; “Wolverine/Deathstrike fight rehearsal”; “The Second Uncanny Issue of X-Men; the Ultimate Making-Of Documentary”; “The Secret Origin of the X-Men: A Complete Anthology” (Stan Lee in crafty nostalgia mode); and “Nightcrawler Reborn: The Adventure Before X2” (Chuck Austen, writer for the Nightcrawler comics, states right out, “Nightcrawler rocks!”); and “Introducing the Incredible Nightcrawler.” He is incredible, no doubt.

The two commentary crews are less so, for the most part chatting about their memories of what happened on set on which day (unusually, the writers were expected on set to “troubleshoot” every day). Singer and Sigel are prone to discuss details. The latter likes to point out, quite usefully, “the advantages and limitations of CGI,” and Singer is particularly effusive when admitting his affection for the “mo-co cameras” (motion control cameras), “our new favorite toy, the Frazier lens,” or the effects of “incorporative lighting,” that is, a “Kubrickian style of source lighting rather than stage lighting.” He’s devoted to the project (“I do believe a film is written three times, once on the page, again on the set, and then in the editing room. And you have to provide yourself with the best material but at the same time not be afraid to move things about.” and he’s happy to tell you where he gets his ideas (as Mystique appears, transforming from Senator Kelly to Deathstrike, he offers, “This was stolen from an episode of The Twilight Zone in which the devil is unleashed and walks past these pillars and slowly transforms into the devil”), and enthusiastic about the project’s general hugiosity.

He insists, “I try not to mire myself in complex storylines, and yet there are still things about illusion world and real world that I’m constantly juggling with.” Indeed. The X-World, derived from Lee by way of Marvel Comics and now in its second big screen formation, is complex and dark, inhabited by angry mutants and fearful humans. (Singer says he wants the third installment to be a musical, “to accommodate Hugh Jackman’s brilliant baritone.”) The second film, he says in “Making X2,” was daunting, most especially because he saw it less as a sequel than as “part two of a saga” that continues to evolve.

This chapter begins with the introduction of Nightcrawler, a.k.a. is teleporter mutant Kurt Wagner, infiltrating the White House. That he’s under the control of some evil force troubles poor little blue guy, but you don’t know this until after he’s crashed the Oval Office, blowing past the Secret Service guys with ease. At once all powerful and utterly powerless, this involuntary terrorist literally bounces off the walls as he dodges bullets, bodies, and best efforts by highly trained professionals. As wily Kurt makes his way to the Oval Office, agents scatter, regroup, slam doors, spit orders into their headsets, to no avail. Within minutes, this little blue whirly-guy knocks all opponents flat and snatches up the Bush-like President. Here, Kurt straddles Mr. Leader of the Free World, blade in hand. And then — pfft! — Nightcrawler is gone.

The genius of this scene (easily the movie’s best — the most fun, the most elegant, and the most apparently timely) lies in its undeniable, self-satisfied glee. For these few whizzy instants, X2 has no worries about explaining who’s who, no interest in crafting a context, no care except to fling you from wall to wall and thrill to thrill.

Following this energetic intro, however, the film returns more or less to the form established by 1999’s mightily lucrative X-Men. First, a brief re-acquaintance session at the School for Gifted Children (where adult mutants teach young mutants how to survive in a world full of haters): fatherly Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) nods wisely; Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) frets because, as she says (again demonstrating her special gift for stating the obvious), “Something’s wrong”; Storm messes with atmospheric pressures; and Jean’s whiny beau Cyclops (James Marsden) has so little to do that he might as well have stayed home. It’s understandable that he’s so pouty, because again, the film focuses on the charismatic and perennially traumatized Logan/Wolverine (Jackman), still pursuing his lost past.

Down in the food court (the School is assiduously state-of-the-art), the kids emulate their mentors: as Rogue flirts with very well-mannered fellow student Iceman, the slightly less well behaved Pyro (Aaron Stanford) gets jealous. (She can’t manage the touching part, of course; as Sigel describes her efforts to glove and over herself, it’s “sex in a time of AIDS.”) One of her boyish suitors throws ice, the other fireballs: these new white-boy mutants aren’t exactly innovative, but their friction suggests that this next generation will replicate the rift between Xavier and his ex-friend Magneto (Ian McKellan). In other words, while Professor X notes, “Sharing the world has never been humanity’s defining attribute,” the truth is that the mutants also have trouble getting along.

This would be the most obvious point made by X-Men, the Marvel comic books and the movie franchise: everyone lives in fear (of persecution, invasion, exposure) and the X-men are victims of prejudice (representing queers, racial minorities, etc.). This premise is underlined Nightcrawler’s incursion at the White House, which frightens him more than anyone else, when he realizes that someone unknown has grabbed control of his body. This is the daily dread for mutants: their bodies define them. They’re named for what their bodies can do, and judged for same. They can’t escape their bodies and powers, and neither can they always control them.

The mutants hang together, forming stable communities of unstable bodies. Here, teleporter Kurt, shapeshifter Mystique, and powers-sucker Rogue are emphatically emblematic — their gifts make them become something or someone else, they take on traces of other beings, they have no fixed identities. The X-Men, as their name both suggests and resists, must be identified, limited by those who behold them.

Chief among these terrified beholders in X2 is the President’s man, the aptly named General Stryker (Brian Cox). He’s like a cartoony amalgam of Dick Cheney meets Norman Schwarzkopf meets General Buck Turgidson, angry and afraid and sure that he’s right. Once the President feels vulnerable, he does two things: 1) he signs the Mutant Registration Act, which resembles current draconian measures against “immigrants”; and 2) he gives Stryker free rein to round up suspects and gather information (ditto on the Patriot Act). Not only does the General call in the attack choppers and super-troops with night-vision goggles; he also deploys his very own assassin-mutant, the formidable Deathstrike (Kelly Hu), all in the hopes of taking down Xavier and company.

Stryker has intensely personal motivation for his rage: his own son, Jason 143 (Michael Reid MacKay), is a mutant. Botched efforts to “cure” him of his affliction have left Jason 143 essentially vegetative in a wheelchair, but with a mind so powerful he can control Xavier’s. Even better, Jason 143 still wants to please his father. And so, Stryker sends him after Xavier and Cerebro (X’s Big Fat Mind-Link Machine), which leads to a holodeckish showdown that might have been vaguely familiar to Captain Picard if his mind wasn’t under Jason 143’s potent sway.

As tends to happen in movies that pursue themes like this, Stryker and Jason 143 are only one father-son pairing. Logan also seeks his parentage, while serving as a kind of father-protector to some students. Kurt is deeply invested in his Catholic God, which means he’s given to reciting the Lord’s Prayer. And Iceman has to out himself to his parents, who are thoroughly dull in their rote rejections. And of course, X is the father figure to beat all, having it out with Jason 143 in order to save his worldwide mutant brood.

Amid all the father-son business, this familiar search for stability and definition, the shifty mutants are the most exciting creatures, the least predictable, the least like other heroes. Mystique, for her part, makes the most of her flexibility, revealing in the sequel an oddly engaging personality. She’s crafty and confident, insidious and sinuous. And though she, along with most everyone else, falls victim to X2‘s Logan fixation, Mystique does make the most of her on-screen minutes. Aside from Kurt’s breathless first scene, the liveliest scene pitches Mystique and Magneto against the uptight, morally straight X-Men. (See especially, their girlish dishing over Rogue’s new streaks: “We just love what you’ve done with your hair!”)

Particularly delightful is the scene where Wolverine can’t figure out quite whom he desires. Approached by Mystique in disguise, he’s startled as she takes on several, serial forms while straddling him, including Jean Grey and Storm. Singer observes, “This scene, originally [came about when] my attorney asked me if there was a way if I could get Halle and Hugh to have sex in X-Men 2. And I said, ‘Well, they’re not with each other in the picture.’ ‘What about Rebecca?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t think she’s his type, Mystique.’ And [he asked,]’ ‘Can’t she be anybody’s type?’ And I said, ‘That’s true.’ And that’s how this scene was born. And then eventually, it was also about Wolverine’s real desires are.” At which point Sigel comes up with the perfect answer: “Sex with Stryker.” That is, his dad.

Unsurprisingly, Mystique and Kurt abscond with the few scenes they’re in. Moving and mutating within themselves, they’re less vulnerable to the films’ lapses: narrative overextension and surprisingly cheesy effects. Determined to do “justice” to their source and show a little bit of all the mutants, both films focus on numbers (lots of X-Men, lots of crosscuts, lots of plots) rather than their built-in perverse substance. Really, the weirder, more volatile mutants are where the action is. It’s good to have X, Logan, and Storm around as comparisons, but the perpetually mutating mutants are more inventive, appreciating and incarnating lack of definition, by definition.