X2 is the only X-Men movie that ever nailed the X-formula

For nearly two decades, 20th Century Fox produced X-Men movies with a fairly simple formula. Each movie had a dual storyline: a grander, blockbuster-friendly event (and often a comic book adaptation), and one that provided a more personal emotional arc for a character. Sometimes they crossed paths in useful ways: the personal arc of the first film is of runaway Rogue (Anna Paquin), who is horrified by her mutant powers, while Magneto (Ian McKellen), who represents the other end of the spectrum, is the trying to change the world. leaders in mutants.

But often the paired storylines never gel: with X-Men: The Last Battle, director Brett Ratner and writers Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn couldn’t seem to decide whether to focus on Magneto, Jean Grey, Rogue or Wolverine. The movie is so bloated that the mega arc about a bittersweet “mutant cure” falls flat and none of the cast members get room to breathe.

It doesn’t help that from 2000 Wolverine has evolved from a major mutant player to the central mascot of the X brand X-Menso even movies where he’s not the central character like Days of the future past, are forced to operate in his shadow. But one movie makes the standard X formula work, not only mixing the emotional arc with the event arc, but making appropriate use of Wolverine’s leading man status. years 2003 X2 weaves together several comic book storylines as a springboard to explore the mutant struggle, and it delivers on promises that the previous film only hinted at, and which many of the later films completely missed.

The original 2000 X-Men comes along on the strength of his casting. Everyone is sympathetic, especially Hugh Jackman, but Ian McKellan’s haunted look really seals the deal. The direction, on the other hand, is fairly milquetoast. It’s one of the reasons why, two years later, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man crushed X-Men at the box office, and remains the nostalgic favourite: it actually seems curious about the possibilities of its hero and its world. years 2003 X2 is a much stronger installment, mainly because of the comic book storylines chosen to make up the double backbone: the gruesome God loves, man kills arc and Wolverine’s traumatic history with the Weapon X program.

Written by Chris Claremont, arguably the greatest author to ever work on the series, God loves, man kills is about a fire-and-brimstone minister who achieves disturbing celebrity status by enabling the public’s rampant anti-mutant hysteria, with the tacit blessing of the US government. The minister, William Stryker, who has also been involved in the murder of other young mutants and even his own mutant child, wants all mutants to die. It’s up to the X-Men and Magneto, teaming up as they so often do, to reveal Stryker’s genocide plan before he can embark on it.

The personal story inside X2 involves the machinations of Weapon X, a secret government program that created would-be assassins such as Wolverine, Sabretooth, Deadpool, and others. The project’s experiments famously added the adamantium to Wolverine’s skeleton and replaced his rad bone claws with rad metal claws. There isn’t a single Weapon X storyline in the comics as it’s been constantly evolving over the last 50 years, but the X2 movie version lends Wolverine an efficient superhero origin story and gives him the sympathy he needs to survive as both the X-Men’s most notable character and his most notable goon.

Director Bryan Singer (who later virtually disappeared from Hollywood after a series of allegations of sexual misconduct and assault) and his writing team adapted those stories when they squeezed them together: William Stryker is no longer a preacher, but instead Weapon X’s lead scientist. Brian Cox plays him with brutal sovereignty. Jean Gray (Famke Janssen) is mainly around to set up The last resistance‘s final lackluster ‘Dark Phoenix’ adaptation, but this nascent plot point doesn’t mess it up. And instead of having committed infanticide, Stryker’s mutant son is left alive as a lobotomic tool that Stryker uses to control mutants.

Photo: 20th Century Fox

The Stryker plot and the Wolverine plot mainly work together because they’re both pretty much the same thing: villains who see mutants as less than human. The changing way humanity views mutants lingers in nearly every piece of X-Men media, allowing X-stories to consider how humanity treats someone perceived as an outsider or minority. The movies are no different. That theme – which shifts from era to era, with mutants voicing everything from people with AIDS to LBGTQ people to immigrants – has kept the X-Men relevant since their inception in the 1960s.

But X-Men movies, even at their best, often fail to grasp that idea at its most powerful. It’s the curse of having a blockbuster over a large number of people with cool nicknames and flashy powers. Inevitably, the scale will tip in favor of spectacle, leaving the characters’ undetermined struggle for recognition and equality as a kind of “Oh yeah, I guess that’s still going on, huh?” as the battle royale continues. The fight for civil rights is the X-Men’s most human story, but it mostly leads to the same action sequences in The last resistance, Days of the future pastAnd Dark Phoenix – cold sequences of military dudes shouting ‘Go! To go! Go!” attacking mutants while making political leaders look uncomfortable.

X2however translates the struggle for equality in a surprisingly painful way. Stryker’s first assault on the X-Men’s mansion is a tyrannical display of violence, and the way he rises above his tragic son and mocks Wolverine while embracing his beliefs easily makes him the most hateful villain in the X-Men world. franchise. Filtering the theme of humanity’s distrust of mutants through this particular dynamic character, X2 dodges the imbalance many X-Men movies face when they also have to meet superhero movie requirements.

Magneto (Ian McKellan), all in white, stands in his glass prison in X2: X-Men United and raises his hand, palm up, as he begins his escape

Photo: 20th Century Fox

Focusing on Stryker also makes the movie feel surprisingly small, because giving the mutants a human opponent allows them to react in human ways. Even Magneto, who spends most of the first movie as something of an X-Men boss, takes on a seething personality in the face of someone (and something) that threatens them all. And Nightcrawler, introduced in X2‘s opening sequence featuring an impressive battle with lots of special effects, but revealed as a quiet, religiously devout character, seems to symbolize this change from finding a recognizable heart in the blockbuster extravaganza.

Having Wolverine — the easiest character for the X-Men movies to use, but the hardest to master — as the physical conduit for painful mutant exploitation gives the movie much of its ultimate singularity among the long-running series. Wolverine’s trajectory in the X movies is typical of him being a jerk who doesn’t really want to help anyone else until he does. That dynamic is repeated throughout the franchise (it’s basically its entire arc in the first movie) and even from scene to scene in some movies, and it’s often a way to insert some levity through grumbling remarks.

Here, however, Wolverine may not only have a tormented past, but actually get hurt. He varies between a screaming, animalistic force of nature and being the perpetual little prodigal boy, with his extended life acting as a curse meaning he’ll carry the burden of his nightmarish formation for much longer.

Wolverine’s utter desperation in the face of his tormentors makes his very personal battle feel universally deadly, as pain is the intended goal of all the bigots who want to see mutants gone. And the application of Stryker as both the face of that ideology and the executor of the central outrage does the same, refining the overarching storyline into one bitter, horrible man. “One day someone will finish what I started!” Stryker threatens Wolverine in the finale, a promise that allows the film to end without an impossibly clean solution to the war against mutants.

Jean Gray (Famke Janssen) sits in the X-Men's plane, surrounded by shiny blue seats and silver walls, in X2: X-Men United

Photo: 20th Century Fox

In the 20 years since, a few X movies have surpassed it X2 in terms of some carrying strand. Assembled with stylish aplomb by Matthew Vaughn, X-Men: First ClassThe X-Men’s story of the formation of the X-Men works well, especially since the director actually seems interested in them as a cast of characters rather than a bunch of people to bounce off of Wolverine. And Logan delivers his titular character’s emotional arc with compelling poignancy because there really is no other choice – every aspect of the movie revolves around him in some way.

But no film has managed to capture both the larger mutant conflict and its effects on one character at the same time X2 did. It’s not a perfect movie; director Bryan Singer relies mainly on the strength of the casting and the material. His standard directing style doesn’t do the story any favors, save for a few inspired sequences. By the time he reached his last franchise installment, X-Men: Apocalypseall aspirations for a personal story were crushed under the weight of the clumsily executed comic book distractions. X2 is an outlier in its franchise and in Singer’s filmography – a rare example of two sides of a story finding peaceful coexistence rather than a strangled partnership.

X2 is the only X-Men movie that ever nailed the X-formula

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