‘X2: X-Men United’ Perfected the Comics-Film Blockbuster Sequel Formula

As May 2003 approached, expectations were extremely high for the release of X2: X-Men United (henceforth referred to as X2). After all, X-Men (2000) had truly begun the comic book film explosion that was sweeping through Hollywood. That film had been a success at the box office, but had gained even more fans on home video since then, leading to higher expectations for the sequel. Also, the massive success of Spider-Man (2002) had everyone looking for the next major breakout success in the comic book film world. That success was not Daredevil, however, which had enjoyed moderate financial success but also endured a critical lashing just a few months earlier. Fox (the distributor of Daredevil and X2) seemed to have faith in its second X-Men film, bringing back Bryan Singer, director of X-Men, and budgeting X2 at $110 million, which was significantly greater than the $70 million price tag of the first film. The intention was clear: build upon the success of X-Men with a bigger, better follow-up.

On the comics side of things, the X-Men were experiencing a bit of a renaissance since the release of the first film. The X-Men books were rightly criticized in the ’90s for having casts that were too large and plots that were too convoluted for the casual reader to enjoyably comprehend. X-Men had caused renewed interest in the X-Men books from casual readers, so Marvel strived to make the comics cool and enjoyable again. Marvel began by hiring highly-respected writer Grant Morrison to take over the secondary X-book, titled simply X-Men, and revamp the property. Morrison renamed the book New X-Men and brought it back to basics, with a small team of popular characters and an increased focus on the students at the school. At the same time, New X-Men linked to the films by replacing the characters’ colourful costumes with black leather or street clothes, and putting Wolverine, Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Professor X at the forefront. The revamp, and Morrison’s bold story choices, made the book an unequivocal success. It became the flagship X-Men title, and all other X-books modeled themselves after its approach.

In the end, all these efforts seemed to work in X2‘s favour. The film opened with a massive $88.5 million weekend, the second largest opening weekend of the year, close behind The Matrix Reloaded. It went on to have the sixth highest box office gross in North America for 2003. The box office receipts of X2 were still only about half of Spider-Man‘s take, but they were still a significant improvement over the first X-Men film. More importantly, X2 is an excellent film.

It’s not just excellent — it’s the best Marvel film up to that point and a model for how blockbuster sequels should be made. Some of the success of X2 can be attributed to external advantages such as the greater budget, the longer running time (a full half-hour longer than X-Men), and the fact that the first film did much of the heavy-lifting by introducing the concept, world and numerous characters. But none of these factors would have made any difference had Singer and his colleagues not used their advantages to the fullest. X2 succeeds because it delves deeper into the world of the X-Men and the characters inhabiting that world in meaningful ways. It also has a much stronger plot than the first film, a surprising amount of social consciousness, better action and visual effects, and caps things off with a killer cliffhanger ending. X2 has it all.

One of the main weaknesses of X-Men is the plot, or lack thereof. Magneto’s plan to mutate most of the leaders of the world is silly and undercooked. This is understandable, however, as the film had to introduce so many elements and characters in its short running time that the plot got the short shrift. This is not the case in X2, which takes advantage of a longer running time and relatively few new character introductions to tell a compelling tale.

Unlike X-Men, the villain of X2 is a human. William Stryker is a career military man and scientist who despises mutants. He uses mind-control to compel a teleporting mutant, Nightcrawler (sweetly played by Alan Cumming), into attacking the President at the White House. Stryker then stokes the anti-mutant fears that follow to gain authorization to attack Professor Xavier’s School. The School is invaded at night by Stryker’s team, while the house is inhabited by only young students and their babysitter, Wolverine. Stryker’s real aim, however, is to gain access to Cerebro, a machine which amplifies Xavier’s telepathic abilities to connect him to the minds of every human and mutant on the planet. Stryker captures Xavier and plans to manipulate him into killing every mutant with Cerebro. The only people who can stop him are the X-Men, who are scattered after the school attack and must unite with Magneto and Mystique, villains from the first film, against this common threat.

The plot is certainly “comic-booky” but it’s sold almost single-handedly by Brian Cox, who plays Stryker as a fanatical rogue military man of the highest order. Prior to X2, the character of William Stryker had only appeared in one comic book story, but it is a classic. In “God Loves, Man Kills” (Marvel Graphic Novel #5, cover-dated January 1983), Stryker is a television evangelist who devoted his life to eradicating mutants shortly after killing his wife and newborn mutant son. As in the film, he hunts mutants and uses Xavier’s amplified power to try to kill them. In the book, however, he’s defeated by the X-Men in a televised debate, not an action-packed finalé. That the filmmakers changed Stryker from a crazed evangelist to a crazed general is telling, as it speaks to the fears that the American military might could be abused by those in power in the early ’00s.

This fear was particularly acute after the attacks of 11 September 2001, when horrifying acts of terrorism stirred up feelings of anger, fear and hatred among many Americans. The event was used as motivation to invade Afghanistan and, shortly before the release of X2, Iraq. Many Americans supported these actions at the time, but there were justifiable concerns over whether these responses were motivated by a genuine desire for peace, justice, and an end to terror, or whether there were more insidious or personal motives at play. In X2, Stryker orchestrates his own terrorist attack (Nightcrawler in the White House) and uses it as justification to raid a terrorist training camp (Xavier’s School). He then proceeds to strike first, attempting to kill all mutants in one fell swoop. He justifies his actions with his unerring belief that mutants are The Enemy, and they must be eradicated before they have a chance to strike against the humans. X2 is the first comic book film to thematically address the post-9/11 world and it adds serious depth to the film.

The other major piece of social commentary in the film is mutation as a metaphor for homosexuality. Stryker’s true, underlying motivation is that his son, Jason, is a mutant capable of projecting fantasies into people’s minds. Years earlier, Stryker sent Jason to Xavier to be cured of his powers but, of course, one cannot be cured of mutation. Stryker blames Xavier for not curing his son, and his son for causing Stryker’s wife to take her own life. The references to intolerant parents of LGBTQ children and so-called “gay cures” are clear. This commentary is most clear in what is arguably the film’s best scene.

Bobby Drake, aka Iceman, was introduced in a minor role in X-Men as a boy who befriends Rogue at school. In X2, he explains that his family doesn’t know he is a mutant and believes Xavier’s School to be a prep school. After being forced from the school in the attack, Bobby suggests his family house in Boston as a safe haven for himself, Rogue, Pyro and Wolverine. When they encounter his parents and brother, Bobby decides it is finally time to “come out” to his parents. The scene is purposely uncomfortable, with Bobby’s parents trying to square their fearful feelings about mutants with their love for their son. This is a situation that many in the LGBTQ community have faced in their own way.

In their commentary on the film, the writers of X2 attempt to broaden the scope of the scene to include one coming out as a different religion or political association than one’s parents, but the inspiration clearly lies in LGBTQ experiences. Lines such as Bobby’s mother inquiring “Have you tried not being a mutant?” make that clear. The scene ends tragically, with Bobby’s brother calling the police, forcing Bobby and his friends to escape into the X-Jet with Jean and Storm, leaving his family behind. Though typically less action-packed, this is similar to the experience of many people after they come out to their families. They leave with relationships strained or even broken, and wait/hope for acceptance that may or may not ever come. Bobby retreats to the acceptance of his new family, the X-Men, with all of the mixed feelings associated with such a momentous personal event.

Not many CGI-laden, blockbuster films feature such deep, dramatic subject matter. Addressing social issues has always been a hallmark of the best X-Men comics and it sets X2 apart from many of its contemporary blockbusters.

Next page: Stormy Drama

Stormy Drama

Furthermore, that the most dramatic, deeply personal moment of the film belongs to a character that was minor in the first film demonstrates the commitment in X2 to strong character development. Halle Berry’s Storm doesn’t have much more screen time than she had in X-Men, but she makes the most of it. Her distracting attempt at a Kenyan accent and odd wig are gone, and she spends X2 struggling to balance her anger at past mistreatment by humanity and her mission to protect them. Anna Paquin’s Rogue explores how her powers impact her life, specifically her ability to have a relationship with Bobby. This relationship is one of several elements of Bobby’s life that Aaron Stanford’s Pyro seems to envy, as he is set up as a foil to Bobby. Pyro’s arc ultimately illustrates how someone can be lured onto the wrong path. Magneto’s brand of mutant superiority speaks to Pyro’s arrogant attitude, and he leaves the film with Magneto and Mystique

Speaking of the once and future villains, Mystique is given ample opportunity to show her skills beyond shapeshifting. She orchestrates Magneto’s escape from prison and is essentially a highly-skilled badass the whole film. She and Magneto join the X-Men only as long as it serves their aims. Magneto’s late-film heel turn, where he reprograms Cerebro to kill humans rather than mutants, is deliciously true to character.

Most of these character arcs are relegated to a couple of solid scenes each, but Singer and the screenwriters excellently balance the large ensemble, giving nearly all the characters attention and dimensionality. This film acts not only as a perfect model for the future X-Men team films, but also other ensembles such as the Avengers films.

I said nearly all the characters are given attention because sadly, James Marsden’s Cyclops is given an even less significant role than the first film. He’s present in act one just long enough to be captured by Stryker, then reappears in the third act, mind-controlled and attacking Jean. At this point in the history of the X-Men, Cyclops was absolutely one of the most significant characters, equal to Xavier, Storm and Wolverine. The fact that he still doesn’t get his due attention in X2 is disappointing. Part of the problem is the continued focus on Wolverine, who doesn’t hijack the film like in X-Men but certainly receives disproportionate attention. Stryker is revealed to be central to Wolverine’s origin, tying him to the film’s main villain in a unique way. The film also integrates him more into the team, making him guardian of a group of younger mutants and having him officially join the X-Men at the end. Don’t get me wrong, I love Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, but I would have liked him to share the screen a bit more.

The other character that draws much of the focus in X2 is Jean Grey. In one of the best regarded storylines from the X-Men comics, Jean becomes possessed by the Phoenix Force, a galactic entity that initially augments her powers then turns her evil and destructive. X2 begins this storyline, establishing her growing power in fits and starts, then allowing Jean to make the ultimate sacrifice at the end to save her allies. Jean’s death was a bold and confident move for the film, allowing for real stakes. Of course, as her name would suggest, dying and being reborn is one of the Phoenix’s defining traits. The film hints at this, cribbing from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) by having the fallen teammate narrate the closing monologue. Casual filmgoers who were unfamiliar with the Phoenix Saga in the comics would have been uncertain of Jean’s fate, baiting them for the sequel. Fans of the comics were excited at the implication that such a significant storyline would be adapted from the comics in the next installment. This was another bold, confident move on behalf of the filmmakers. They were so certain of a sequel that they basically end X2 on a cliffhanger.

All of these elements define X2 as a model for comic book film sequels. It expands on the previous film, digging much deeper into existing characters, introducing new characters, expanding the world, and giving the film a finale that is large in scope but also in emotions. X2simply hit all the right notes.

It’s also worth noting that many technical aspects, such as the action, visual effects, editing, and score are much improved from the first film. The latter two elements are credited to John Ottman, a frequent Singer collaborator who was unable to work on X-Men due to a scheduling conflict. He gives the film a soaring, energetic, memorable musical score that immediately feels classic. The editing is also much more classical, especially compared to the frenetic, confusing action editing of the first film.

There are many good action scenes, as well. Bigger is typically the keyword when making a sequel, and X2 doesn’t disappoint. The opening sequence of Nightcrawler attacking the White House is spectacular. It’s a showcase for the editing, taking what could be a jumble of shots following the teleporter and making it coherent. As Nightcrawler teleports from hallway to hallway, or to different points in the same room, the geography is never confusing. Other standouts include the attack at Xavier’s school (when audiences finally got to see Wolverine cut loose), Magneto’s prison escape, the jet chase, and the Wolverine/Lady Deathstrike fight. Every one of these scenes is superior in scope and excitement to anything in X-Men. The trap most sequels fall into, however, is bigger action and visual effects at the expense of character, plot, emotion, etc. As I have detailed in the above paragraphs, X2 a film that prioritizes characters, plot, and even social relevance. The action only serves these deeper aims of X2, and therefore are elevated above cheap thrills and flashy imagery.

Finally, X2 is notable for its extensive use of practical effects at a time when CGI was increasingly used as a catch-all for any fantastical element of difficult stunt. The sets are mostly built, rather than being mostly green screen. An ice wall created by Bobby was actually created, and blown up, on set. Nightcrawler’s tail was often real and operated by wires. On many stunts, wire removal was the only digital effect used. Some elements, such as the tornadoes during the jet chase and the wall of water rushing through the broken dam in the climax, are of course digital. They are used sparingly enough, however, that X2 avoids feeling dated by subpar CGI effects.

Clearly, this article is a bit of a lovefest, but it’s worthwhile to praise films that do so many things right. X2 set the standard for comic book film sequels. It has an interesting plot, it’s socially conscious and relevant, it’s primarily focused on deepening the characters, and the action and visual effects serve each of those aims rather than distracts from them. I could discuss the fact that these lessons were largely ignored by future comic book films, even within this particular series, but that’s a topic for future articles. I prefer to end on a positive note.

X2 is a successful film. It remains one of the best comic book films of all time, although it’s often forgotten amidst talk of Superman: The Movie (1978), Spider-Man 2 (2004), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Avengers (2012), among others. It has become something of a hidden gem from a time when comic book films were beginning to boom, but (with a few exceptions) had not yet hit their stride.

Stan Lee Cameo Corner: No Stan Lee cameo this time. It’s amazing that, six films into this series, he has only appeared in three films. When asked about an X2 cameo, Lee claimed that he would not be appearing in sequels. That policy, if it ever existed, would change very soon.

First Appearances: Zak Penn receives a story credit on X2. He would contribute to at least four more Marvel films after this one, so welcome aboard, Zak!

Next time: Ang Lee brings his art-house sensibilities to an enormous, green rage monster with dull results.