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

Ian McKellen in X2 (2003) (© 2003 - Twentieth Century Fox - All Rights Reserved / IMDB)

X2: X-Men United has a much stronger plot than X-Men, a surprising amount of social consciousness, better action and visual effects, and it caps things off with a killer cliffhanger ending.

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.

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