X2 (USA, 2003)
Directed by Bryan Singer
Starring Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry

It's easy to forget that in the so-called dark ages before the Marvel Cinematic Universe existed, comic book film franchises were not always planned out in infinitesimal detail before the first instalment had a chance to break even. The mid- to late-1990s were a dark time for superhero films, with everything from Tank Girl and The Phantom to Batman and Robin and Steel pointing to a tired genre and an increasingly spandex-weary public. In this context the success of X-Men was a pleasant surprise, with a sequel being given the go-ahead shortly after its release.
It's completely logical that Bryan Singer would want to use X2 to expand the X-Men universe on screen; with less time being needed to set up the world from the first film, there is more scope for introducing some of the more complicated elements of the X-Men mythos. But while this film does deepen the existing relationships between the characters established in the first instalment, it ultimately becomes a little too cluttered and lacking in focus to either equal or exceed it.
The big mistake that Singer makes with X2 is trying to introduce too many different characters or aspects of the canon at once. The film's alternative title, X-Men United, should be taken with a hefty slice of irony, since while the characters are uniting against a common goal, our attention is getting endlessly sidetracked by the new characters and sub-plots, some of which aren't given the room they need to grow. While The Two Towers incrementally brought in new characters by working hard to explain the culture in which they found themselves, X2 gives us lots of people we are supposed to care about but not enough individual conflicts to justify our attention.
Sticking with The Lord of the Rings for the moment, there is the issue of the different mutants' powers. One of the great successes of both X-Men and Peter Jackson's trilogy is that it introduced its characters' fantastical capabilities very gradually. Once the opening sequence in The Fellowship of the Ring is out of the way, we have a sufficient understanding of the power and threat of the Ring to see us through, with more information being built upon this firm foundation. In the case of X2, we are effectively told to assume that everyone we meet will be in some way magical, with less effort being expended into not defining them around their powers or abilities. Put simply, there's only so many people with special effects coming out of their hands that we can take before it all feel like sub-par Harry Potter.
Introducing a new band of mutants would be all well and good if we were given sufficient time to understand their motivations and see their flaws, in the way that the first film did with Wolverine and Rogue. The most egregious shortfall in this regard is Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), who gets a couple of good action scenes before his characterisation is boiled down to that of a stereotypical religious fanatic who physically self-flagellates, like Paul Bettany's character in The Da Vinci Code. Notwithstanding the laziness of the writing - most Catholics and Protestants grew out of that sort of thing long ago - his arc is resolved by Storm in a very unsatisfying way.
After a somewhat chaotic start, X2 does eventually settle down into being more of an ensemble piece, with the plot being held together by the MacGuffin of the second Cerebro device and Wolverine's ongoing quest to discover his creator. The film becomes much more comfortable from thereon in, blending elements of Frankenstein in the latter plot strand with the tension generated from the uneasy alliance between Professor Xavier and Magneto - both of which would be subsequently revisited in X-Men: First Class. There are still false steps here and there - such as Wolverine's utterly overhyped showdown with Lady Deathstrike - but it's a more rounded and confident package once its character introductions are out of the way.
Where X-Men saw one group of mutants try to manipulate Rogue's powers to mutate humanity, the central idea of X2 is that of humans going on the offensive and using mutants' powers against them. The first film saw humanity completely on the defensive, faced with the prospect of forced mutation by Magneto and with the talk of mutant registration being a knee-jerk response to something that they didn't fully understand. With Stryker, we have someone obsessed with the science and technology that mutation offers, but with a more overtly malignant message. While Magneto at least believed that he was doing good by making all mutants like him, Stryker is a genocidal maniac who is driven purely by fear and hatred of those different to him.
The film in general, and Stryker's character in particular, reflects Singer's ongoing interest in the dynamics of fascism, and the inherent contradictions present within its adherents. The psychoanalyist Wilhelm Reich, in his seminal 1933 work The Mass Psychology of Fascism, argued that fascism was characterised by sadomasochistic desires. It combined, he reasoned, the sadistic desire to suppress those who were weaker and less desirable with the masochastic need to submit to the control of a greater power - whether that be the leader or the perfect Aryan image they promoted.
Comparing Stryker to Adolf Hitler may seem trite and adolescent, but it's a comparison that holds water because both man are driven by this internal contradiction between hubris and self-weakness. Just as Hitler wanted to create a society of blonde-haired, blue-eyed Aryans while being anything but that himself, so Stryker hates mutants and wants to wipe them out despite the fact that his own son is a mutant. Brian Cox was cast on the basis of his performance in Manhunter, and he does a great job at creating a man who is at turns repulsive and perversely fascinating.
Away from its heady political themes, X2 also does a good job of moving on the love triangle between Jean Grey, Wolverine and Cyclops. The latter still doesn't get as much to do as he may have liked, spending much of his time under the control of Stryker with less resistance than you would expect. But the writing is generally solid, with Hugh Jackman doing particularly well during the tenser moments where he has to suppress his growing desire to work for the team's goal. Famke Janssen again puts in a fine performance, which sets things up very nicely for the character's more dominant role in the third instalment.
X2 also looks pretty decent, though despite scaling up the set-pieces it occasionally lacks the grandeur of its predecessor, which was filmed with anamorphic lenses. Frequent Singer collaborator Newton Thomas Sigel returns following his work on the first film, and offers up an intriguing colour palette with murky shadows and intimidating blues. Singer and Sigel are said to have used Road to Perdition as a reference point, and there is evidence of this in the scenes on the alkali flats, which have a somewhat distant, existential quality to them.
X2 is a solid if somewhat cluttered sequel which carried on a lot of the good work of the first film. It's a great deal baggier than its predecessor, even once it has moved on from its shaky start, and newcomers to superhero films may continue to find it over-stuffed even as things come together. But in other aspects it builds on the characters and strengths of the first film, tackling mature subjects in a thought-provoking way - something you can't say about every comic book film being made in this period.

For more on Patrick Stewart's career, check out my WhatCulture! article from 2014.

NEXT REVIEW: X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)