Summer is starting even earlier this year. You can’t help feeling that the early release of X2 has got a lot to do with the encroaching silhouette that is the Matrix sequel. You could certainly argue that both films have a similar audience. Still, the original X-men emerged as one of the best comic to film adaptations, and presented a well-rounded and engaging character study. With Bryan Singer still on board all was set for a progressive sequel. Even the lean title suggests that last time it was just for practice, that X2 is the upgraded, fully kitted-out and tooled-up main event. Indeed, such is the ramp up of characters, effects, and sub-plots it is surprising they didn’t call it X. Regrettably, the end result is more like X/2. So, I make that five out of ten then.
Your impression of X2 will depend a great deal on whether you’re a glass half full or half empty kind of person. There’s a lot to enjoy here, but from the man who brought us the intricate and hugely rewarding The Usual Suspects, there’s way too many holes. Not just in plot, but in character development, even production design. With a frighteningly simplistic set design decision, we learn that goodies have clean and tidy laboratories, but baddies have dirty rusty ones. And whilst no one should ever go to a popcorn blockbuster expecting to be blown away by anything other than the explosions, there are inherent dangers in Superhero adaptations, which the best ones (like Spiderman and Superman) manage to avoid, but even the promising ones walk straight into.
It’s quite simple. Every superhero has a weakness, which ultimately defines their experiences, and makes the given story engaging or redundant. The success of a good comic book tale relies on one thing only, which is how well the evil genius can exploit that weakness. For every superhero added to the mix, the difficulty of nullifying them is multiplied exponentially. By the power of x, in fact. The X-men are a collection of characters with disparate powers, and the weakness of one is counterbalanced by the strength of another. Therefore, the only way of having a chance to defeat them is by separating them. X2 (and the resident evil genius) totally fails to appreciate this point.
Logically, the first film in a comic book adaptation should always be the most difficult. You have to introduce the cinematic equivalents of the illustrations and back stories that fans have been slavering over for years, often decades. X-men pulled this task off well, especially considering the sheer number of characters. So surely the sequel just had to continue this healthy balance? Instead, pandering to the audience who haven’t seen the original, the first half hour is rammed full of reminders about the powers and character traits each individual possesses, and their corresponding relationships. In the rush to get on with the sequel, these little details seem too forced, and undermine the care that was taken to get all this right the first time around. For instance, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is reprimanded for smoking in Cerebro (the elaborate telepathy enhancing cctv security office manned by Professor X), and puts the cigar out in his palm, cutting to a close up of the five- second healing process. How many people in the average audience to this film need to see all this? I personally don’t believe it’s enough to waste half an hour on, and you won’t find me in Forbidden Planet in my anorak on a Monday afternoon. I go Tuesdays.
The original was a story of isolation, and although it struggled with subtlety at times, pointing to the lessons of the Holocaust with big CG arrows, it was nevertheless grounded in the experiences of Rogue (Anna Paquin) and Wolverine. X2 decides to bring a whole host of new characters to the fore, and whilst one can appreciate the temptation to do this, we end up without an emotional centre to hang the action on, and the rhythm of the film suffers as a result. All of the new characters are actually great, and Iceman (played by Shawn Ashmore) in particular, but there’s just too many of them. Any one could have been used to give the film a centre, but instead they are swapped back and forth as superpower befits the situation.
Thankfully, one concern I had before seeing the film proved to be unfounded. Since the original, and possibly as a result of it, many of the actors themselves have gone onto greater success, or at the very least, more column inches. Halle Berry and Hugh Jackman of course both starred in Swordfish, and one wonders if this would have happened were it not for the X-men. Jackman has even gone into the heady world of Rom Com in ‘Kate & Leopold’, with none other than the queen of the genre, Meg Ryan. My feeling was that this little superhero adaptation might have become the means and not the end for them. Thankfully, Jackman is again great as the embittered Wolverine and never comes over all fuzzy inside. Equally, there are no Oscar winning performances (and I mean this in a good way) from Halle Berry, who keeps her head as the glacial Storm.
Sir Ian McKellan commands some of the best performances as Magneto, and stands up supremely well against all the blue-screen post-production in a couple of ingenious moments. The downside here is that, due to the path that Professor X (played again with subtlety by Patrick Stewart) is forced to take, we have less head to head acting masterclasses from this pair than last time around.
The highest ‘cool superpower’ quotient is manifested in the blue vapour- trail producing, teleportational dexterity of Nightcrawler (played by Alan Cumming), who makes a magnificent entrance early on. This is the good side, but then equally bad is the fact that his subsequent appearances are, how can I say, a lot less visceral.
By contrast, Mystique (played again by Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), has a lot more to do this time, and is quite pleasant to look at, albeit in a royal blue spiky kind of way. But again there’s an inverse problem that her usage creates. The fact that she can morph into the likeness of anyone she comes into contact with just starts to feel like a lazy plot device. Where the morphing capabilities of the T1000 in ‘Terminator 2’ gave us a focused stalker with tunnel vision, here we have the equivalent of a bored prank caller in the phone booth down the street. Annoying, perhaps, but hardly frightening.
To conclude, the overall pattern is that X2 cancels itself out, scene after scene. All the elements are there, but the equation is wrong. Maybe I’m “defending the fantasy genre with terminal intensity”, as Simon Pegg is warned against by Bill Bailey at his comic shop in the brilliant Spaced, but I refuse to believe that this simply had to be the ‘bigger, faster, louder’ sequel we have come to expect/accept. In fact, I am, er, Adamantium about that. Still, just like your average superhero cartoon television episode we need to end on a lighter, more educational note, and above all X2 teaches us that ‘it’s okay to be different’.
I just can’t help thinking that it’s the team behind X2 who needed to think about what that should have meant most of all.
Dir. Bryan Singer
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Brian Cox, Alan Cumming, Kelly Hu, Anna Paquin
Genre: Action, Sci Fi