X-Men (2000) & X2: X-Men United (2003)

Posted by on Dec 30, 2011 in Comics & Superheroes | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: Some mild language and sexuality, intense discrimination, and violence, including socio-political jabs.

Unlike most comic book series that pit one superhero at odds with a handful of villains (one at a time), this hugely successful franchise for Marvel and Stan Lee involves about a dozen heroes and villains. Also unlike most other comics, which have a hero preventing a villain from destroying the world, this one has mutant heroes and villains striving toward the same goal (equality) – they just use very different means.

The first film opens with the metal-manipulating Magneto (Ian McKellan) realizing his powers as a child in the Holocaust. Years later he would become leader of “the bad guys.” Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), having extremely powerful telepathic abilities, leads the other side and runs a school for mutant children. The duo used to be close friends – and still are in a sly, “Nice show ‘ole chap” kind of way – but are separated by their faith in humans. (See the mediocre prequel X-Men: First Class for more exposition.)

The other main characters include xmen2stripe-coifed Rogue (Anna Paquin), who can suck the life from anything she touches. She’s a major player in the first film but takes a romantic side role in the other installments. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), though still learning, has great telepathic and telekinetic abilities. Her testy boyfriend, who has laser eyes, is Cyclops (James Marsden). Storm (Halle Berry) is a surly leader who can manipulate weather and Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) is a sensitive, religious mutant who can transport himself. Other “good guys” include Rogue’s love interest Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Pyro (Aaron Stanford), Beast (Kelsey Grammar), Jubilee, Angel, Kitty Pryde, and Colossus. The sarcastic, cigar-chomping Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), arguably the series’ main character, is a former member of the military and has tremendous healing powers. Somehow the loner ended up with indestructible metal grafted to his entire body, but he doesn’t remember that. Their enemies include Sabretooth, Deathstrike, Toad, and Juggernaut, but none is more dangerous than Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), who can morph into any likeness and has cat-like grace and just as much scratch.

This film trilogy – with at least two character spin-off films (Wolverine and First Class) – has extremely simple plots that weave within controversial socio-political issues. In the first film a senator (Bruce Davison) tries to challenge the freedom of potentially dangerous mutants, so “the bad guys” plan to change the world’s leaders into mutants. In the second, a military man (Brian Cox) takes charge of the “mutant issue” when one attempts to assassinate the president. “The bad guys,” meanwhile, try to cure the “human issue.” The third once again involves the government as it finds a “cure” that can allow mutants to become “normal.”

The message of the films is essentially the same throughout and the white men in power display about as much tolerance as they did for African Americans and women decades ago, or as Nazis did for Jews. “Women and children, whole families, killed because they were born different than those in power,” Magneto says. Their thinking is quite simple; all men may have been created equal, but Abraham Lincoln never said anything about mutants. I mean, they can be dangerous and stuff. The senator of the first film challenges the freedom of those potentially dangerous mutants by echoing Sen. Joe McCarthy. “People like you were the reason I was afraid to go to school,” Mystique tells him. The villains of the series aren’t simply written off as “bad guys.” Their means may be extreme, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t justified. An over-simplified analogy could be that Professor X’s crew is to Martin Luther King Jr., as Magneto’s is to Malcolm X. Quite simply, it’s more political than your typical comic, graphic novel, or manga.

Of course, the films are noted for their action status, not their political commentary. An excellent battle at a train station and the finalé on Liberty Island are basically the highlights of the first movie. While the first installment was a bit lacking in the action department (they had a lot of characters to introduce, after all) the sequel picks up the slack nicely. The action begins with Nightcrawler’s terrific opening sequence at The White House and continues with an attack at the school, Magneto’s escape, a “fiery” encounter with the police and Air Force, a lover’s quarrel, and Wolverine’s standoff with Deathstrike.

McKellan leads the performance xmen3department as he takes Magneto to gleefully evil proportions and is the best character of the film series (it may have been different if they ever allowed Gambit to join the game). Jackman’s character gets the best treatment and he carries the role with the fierce intensity required. In the first film, Paquin gets a little empathetic depth, while the second film concentrates more on Janssen. The other characters, meanwhile, have sadly little time to breathe let alone develop. So much so that Berry reportedly wanted to leave the third installment until they gave her some character arc.

The first two installments were both directed by comic book fan Bryan Singer, who included fun in-jokes for other comic lovers (such as the “yellow spandex” line) and captured the rivalry between Wolverine and Cyclops pretty well. Singer left the third installment to Brett Ratner, so he could take on Superman Returns instead. As it turns out, both movies were gross disappointments. The prequels are decent, with X-Men: First Class (2011) definitely the best of that bunch, but the Wolverine spin-offs are pretty missable unless you’re a superfan.

The second installment is the most action-packed and interesting of the trilogy, and Nightcrawler is a welcomed addition, especially for setting up the best one-liner in the series – and one that encapsulates the X-Men message perfectly. “They say you could imitate people, even their voice, then why not look like them all the time?” he asks Mystique. “Because we shouldn’t have to,” she responds.

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