X2: X-Men United (review)

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The X-Men Strike Back

Too bad for everyone who’s not a geek, who’ll dismiss X2: X-Men United as nonsense without even checking it out because it’s comic-booky or “just” a summer blockbuster or aimed at The Kids. Too bad for them, because they’ll miss out on one of the more germane metaphoric portrayals of the terrifying political and social landscape we’re living in today in the United States.

Not to scare away The Kids, because X2 totally, you know, rocks and stuff, but this ain’t no Vin Diesel movie about kicking the crap out of people who disagree with you, just for fun. Jeez, Vin Diesel wishes he was as cool as Wolverine.

It’s like this. We geeks hoped that The Fellowship of the Ring would be beautiful and awesome, and we were delighted when it was, but I don’t think any of us weren’t stunned to see how powerful and relevant it suddenly was in the immediate wake of 9/11, when the dust literally had not yet settled and we were still walking around in a kind of shock like Frodo after the Black Riders’ attack and desperately needed wise words like Gandalf’s to put things in perspective. And it’s kinda the same with X2, too — we’re hoping and praying to whatever great geek gods there are that X2 would be more Empire Strikes Back than [insert almost any other sequel ever made], cuz how could it not be? And it is — oh boy howdy, it is. Hollywood did not take our money and crush our crushable little geek hearts — X2 is bigger and funnier and darker and sexier and romanticer and pretty much everything-er than the first one.

But now the smart popcorn philosophy that always infused the Marvel comic has a lot more bite, living, as we are, in a world full of PATRIOT acts and Orange Alerts and attempts to quarantine entire cities. If there’s anything that rings false about X2, it’s that it doesn’t go far enough in depicting the hysterical reactions of the great unwashed and terror-fied public officials. “Mutant Registration Act”? Too bald — way too bald and obvious. Surely it’d have some ironically hypocritical name like the “Genetic Purity Act” or the “God Bless America Act,” right?

Without the veneer of sanctimonious pretense to the discrimination they face, the mutants gotta be pissed. This time, it’s John Ashcroft– I mean, it’s Gen. William Stryker (Brian Cox: 25th Hour, Adaptation) who has it in for them. Stryker, a scientist as well as a solider, enjoys megalomania and Olympic-level bigotry, and his goal is to exterminate all genetic weirdoes. This doesn’t sit too well with all our beloved genetic weirdoes, and with all the introductions to them and their situations dealt with in the first film, director Bryan Singer (Apt Pupil) and screenwriters Daniel P. Harris, David Hayter (The Scorpion King), and Zak Penn (Behind Enemy Lines) can jump right into the fray.

And what a fray. The action is rousing; the special effects are gorgeous even when they’re depicting the dangerous and the deadly; the dialogue is sharp and crisp and perfectly tuned, with just the right mix, often in the same line, of the sad and the tender and the comic and the bitter.

But in the midst of all the hand-to-hand combat and the cool jet plane and mutant powers getting thrown around and the funny throwaway lines, there’s a hard, dark, angry core to the film, so that even while you’re cheering, you’re getting mad at the idiocies of the human species, too. And you’re left with a far more moving experience than you’d ever expect from a comic-book movie (and I don’t mean to impugn comic books, which can be very profound, unlike the often clueless movie adaptations of them). You’re left with a genuine righteous anger over the mistreatment of the mutants — if we can so clearly see their humanity, why can’t everyone else? From the bemused parents first learning their teenage son is a mutant, who wonder if he’s tried not to be a mutant, to Stryker’s desire for genocide… what the hell is wrong with them?

Of course, the audience gets a lot more intimate with the mutants than the “normal” people in their world do. We’re privy to the hushed conversations in which the romantic triangle between Logan (Hugh Jackman: Kate & Leopold, Someone Like You), Jean Grey (Famke Janssen: I Spy, Made), and Scott Summers (James Marsden) plays out, just hinting at the deep emotions and impossible interpersonal dilemmas of the situation; the film doesn’t linger there or turn itself into a romantic drama, but it serves to make the characters complicated and unpredictable — in short, human. We get to eavesdrop on Rogue (Anna Paquin: Finding Forrester, Almost Famous) and Bobby (Shawn Ashmore: All I Wanna Do) who, with all the usual attending awkwardness of teenage romance, have to figure out what intimacy means when she can’t actually touch him — they epitomize the need for simple human contact that fuels everything humans of all stripes do. We’re witness to the surprising gentleness and humor of Kurt Wagner (Alan Cumming: Nicholas Nickleby, Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams), who sings hymns to comfort himself but is judged merely on his appearance: he looks like a demon. We get to see, unlike those who are simply afraid of their often frightening strengths and capabilities, that the mutants really are human, no matter how different they look. Why should they be expected to react well to abuse and persecution?

Not everyone is mutant leader Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart: Star Trek: Nemesis, King of Texas), far more levelheaded than those who would oppress him — expecting mass equanimity in the face of discrimination and neglect and hatred is unrealistic. Which is where Erik Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Gods and Monsters) comes in. The flip side of Xavier, advocating violence against the normals, he’s a mutant terrorist, and yet we can’t feel completely unsympathetic to him — his rage in perfectly understandable, and Xavier’s diplomacy doesn’t seem to be helping the mutant cause much. The excellent warning behind Lehnsherr’s less than noble tactics is that a nation — or a species — disenfranchises some of its own at the peril of everyone.

These two competing philosophies join forces here, not reconcilable and yet forced to work together for survival. And if there’s one grain of hope to cling to in this dark film — and one applicable to us in our scary real world — it’s that there’s a middle ground between Lehnsherr’s cynicism and Xavier’s idealism that can be worked toward, a middle ground where a solution can be found.

That solution does not come here, oh no, but already I’m learning how to apply the lesson. See, it would be really kinda cynical of me to think, Hey, that blue chick is like totally naked except for some sequins, and I, as a woman, should be angry about that. That would be cynical because Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (Rollerball) is completely lovely almost naked and there’s nothing at all obscene or objectionable about her body-paint costume. And then the idealistic side of me would think, Hey, why can’t Hugh Jackman be like totally naked? He doesn’t even need the sequins if they’re uncomfortable, and his comfort is my primary concern. And I guess the middle ground would have to be, Well, he’s gorgeous in his clothes, too.

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