Among the dozens of comic-book movies that have come out in the past twelve years, “X2: X-Men United” is one of the best of the bunch. It has awesome special effects, an army of original characters, a menacing villain, and a strong plot. Like all of the movies in this particular franchise, it touches on themes such as racism, civil rights, and fear of the unknown. Only instead of people of different skin colour, it is people with mutant abilities who are being persecuted by fearful government agencies. Cheesy, but it makes great action scenes.
Ideally I should have seen a big comic-book movie like this with friends my age at some major multiplex in Canada. Instead when it came out in 2003 I was still living in Santiago, Chile, and on that particular occasion my dad wanted to spend some more time with me since he was home from work. I am the movie geek, so I get to pick the movie. Unfortunately, during the previews he asks me if this is a spy movie, meaning he had no idea what X-Men was about. So, I had to do one of the geekiest things ever, and explain to my dad what I knew of the X-Men universe, how it served as a metaphor for civil rights, and fill him in on the previous movie. Then again, how am I the geek? He used to watch “Star Trek: The Next Generation” every week.
The movie kicks off with an assassination attempt on the American president by Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) a blue-skinned mutant who can teleport from one end of the room to the next. The next day the president receives a visit from Colonel Stryker (Brian Cox), who uses the attack to receive an authorization for a military strike against a school for other mutants. To be fair, there is a jet under the basketball court, so that should at least warrant a government audit.
The school in question is Professor Charles Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) school for gifted children, which offers refuge for children who have been rejected for being different, i.e. some have them can turn off TVs by blinking. Unfortunately for Striker’s troops, they have decided to attack when Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), the most kick-ass of all mutants, has returned to the school to find some answers concerning his nebulous past. Some mutants can control the weather, some can fly, some can go through walls, and yet Wolverine is just more fun to watch in a fight. He has metal claws that pop out his knuckles, is bulked up like a tank, fights like an animal, and enjoys a diet of beer and cigars. His fight against the soldiers is a highlight in the franchise.
Another of the more interesting characters is Magneto (Ian McKellen), a mutant with the ability to control metal. He is first seen in a prison reminiscent of Hannibal Lecter’s in “The Silence of the Lambs,” only it is built out of plastic. A villain in the first movie, Magneto believes mutants are “gods among insects” and has no problem with killing innocent bystanders if it means victory for mutants. Yet in war, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, so the X-Men and Magneto must put aside their differences if they want so prevent a genocide orchestrated by the colonel.
All of this involves battles amongst mutants with various abilities who most of the time wear black leather outfits, or in Xavier’s case, a blue suit. On paper, the whole X-Men concept might have sounded too comic book to bring to the screen. Yet director Bryan Singer managed to make one of the best films in the genre by playing it straight while working with a strong script. One character decides to come to Magneto’s radical side, while another wants to live in peace with other humans, despite being rejected by his own family.
At 133 minutes, this is a somewhat long movie, but this is one of those cases where the length of the story is justified by all of the events happening. It takes time to get to the big climactic final battle at dam in Canada, but it’s worth the wait. Along the way the characters take time to talk, relationships are explored, and of course there is a great deal of exposition scenes where the villain discusses his evil plan. A story featuring a blue teleport might sound weird to grown-ups, but I think my dad liked the movie for its big ideas, action scenes, and acting by top actors such as Ian McKellen. Then again, maybe he just liked it because of Patrick Stewart who had top billing “Star Trek.”