X-Education With Professor K: X2: X-Men United (2003)

With the release of the first X-Men film in 2000, audiences not only witnessed the dawn of the modern day superhero film boom, but also the beginning of a complicated franchise that would span sixteen years and nine films. With X-Men: Apocalypse on the horizon, Kayleigh Hearn and a rotating cast of merry mutants are revisiting the X-Men films from the very beginning, and examining the comic book storylines that inspired them. What would you prefer, yellow spandex?

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X2: X-Men United (2003)

Directed by Bryan Singer

Synopsis: After a teleporting mutant named Nightcrawler attacks the President of the United States, anti-mutant prejudice is fanned throughout the country. The X-Men discover the mastermind behind the attack is Col. William Stryker, who also holds the key to Wolverine’s past. With Professor X captured, the X-Men must fight beside the escaped Magneto to stop Stryker from exterminating mutantkind.

Kayleigh: X2 was the first superhero movie I was really excited for. I was in high school in 2003, and between films I had caught up with X-Men: Evolution and a stack of phone book-sized Essential X-Men trades, so I was ready. I remember nervously waiting for my parents’ AOL account to load so I could watch the trailer online, and then watch it over and over again.

Max: X2! The first comic book sequel that felt like a big deal! My major teen memory of this movie is seeing the big cardboard ad at a movie theater and marveling at the like 15 different characters it promised. X2 is, by design, Bryan Singer going full Wrath of Khan with the X-Men franchise, and, man, it holds up pretty well.

Kayleigh: X-Men feels like an appetizer, and X2 is the main course.The opening scene is a stunner, introducing Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), one of the most beloved X-Men ever, trying to assassinate the President of the United States. It’s a shocking scene that makes his teleportation powers appear awesome and terrifying–Bryan Singer has always had a strong eye for action sequences that show off mutant powers.

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Max: Singer is about as subtle as a brick with the imagery in this flick, but it’s pretty interesting how the first things we see before Brainwashed Nightcrawler does a million kick flips is images of Lincoln and Kennedy in the White House. X2’s (unnamed?) president is similarly faced with heavy questions about what to do about the mutant population. This entire movie is basically this old sad sack getting bullied into depriving mutant rights, then counter-bullied into doing the right thing. X2 also starts the X-Men movie trend of mashing up two huge X-Men comic stories (in this case, God Loves, Man Kills and Barry Windsor-Smith’s Weapon X) for maximum mutant pathos.

Kayleigh: Speaking of unsubtle, this movie is so on the nose that when we catch up with the X-Men, they’re at a museum exhibit on evolution.

Max: Yo, why is Storm just giving a guided tour of a museum she doesn’t even work at? All the classes in these X-Men movies make zero sense, as much as I dig how much they lean into the school angle.

Kayleigh: The school is actually one of my favorite things about these movies! The Xavier Institute for Gifted Youngsters was my Hogwarts, and if these movies had any lasting impact on the comics, I’m glad the Institute has been consistently a school since like 2001. The school stuff also gave us Jerkass Teen Pyro, who is a Livejournal fanfic in human form.

Max: After the X-Teens return from the creationism museum and Wolverine’s done Rowsdowering around the Canadian wilderness looking for answers about his past, Col. Stryker (Brian Cox, clearly having a blast) successfully reached full funding on his Kickstarter to send Seal Team 6 to take down Xavier Mansion. What follows is easily one of my favorite comic book movie action sequences (with promotional consideration by Dr. Pepper).

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Kayleigh: The attack on the Institute works on a lot of levels—it’s Magneto’s grim prediction at the end of X-Men coming to life, so it’s scary when these Black Ops guys burst in and start kidnapping children. It’s also surprisingly funny, like Iceman’s little nod when Wolverine asks if he’s okay (after killing a dude right in front of him), and Colossus knocking some asshole through the wall. It’s also pretty much the last time the gratuitous mutant cameos (Kitty Pryde! Siryn! Kid Who Blinks at the TV!) weren’t obnoxious.

Max: Colossus showing up to briefly kick a little paramilitary ass was such a crazy cool thing in 2003; today that would’ve been spoiled months in advance. The major draw here is Jackman’s Wolverine, and watching him finally go berserk on screen is a blast. He’s basically just a sweaty undershirt murder-machine until Col. Stryker shows up to Cesar Millan him. Speaking of Stryker, there are some great details in terms of interactions with mutants and how he constantly dehumanizes them: He insists on calling Magneto “Magneto,” and not Erik as “Senator Kelly” does, he outright refers to Logan as an animal, and he treats Lady Deathstrike like an attack dog rather than a person.

Kayleigh: Then there’s Stryker’s relationship with his son, Jason. Stryker is the bigoted parent who destroys his family because he wants his son to be “cured” of what makes him different, and this makes him feel very real and very terrifying as a villain. Stryker being the main antagonist this time around leaves room for Magneto to become a much more nuanced and interesting character. There’s his fantastic, completely baller escape from prison—killing a man via the iron in his blood is another example of Singer being very smart in utilizing these characters’ powers—and for a while he becomes a kind of catty great uncle to the X-Men. (“We love what you’ve done to your hair.”)

Max: Ian McKellen in the first X-Men is totally classic, very dour Magneto. X2 Magneto is Anti-Human Weekend Dad just riffing constantly to a mostly silent Mystique. “What are you going to do, scratch it with your claws? *eyeroll*.” I think my favorite scene is Magneto’s callous mask slipping in the plastic prison when Charles figures out Stryker knows about his school. McKellen’s such a top caliber actor, and his shift from smugness into haunted remorse into RAGE is so powerful.

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Kayleigh: Mystique may be the secret MVP of X2. While the previous film did not ask anything more of her than being blue and naked, she has a lot of fun moments here, like flipping off the guards as she slides away, or the transformation from “Grace” to “Mystique” that lets Rebecca Romijn play with body language and a cheesy Southern gal accent. Plus she gets the fucking mic drop of a line, “Because we shouldn’t have to.”

Max: She and Magneto are mean high schoolers smoking cigarettes while the X-Men try to save the day. Rewatching this movie, the Jean/Cyclops/Logan plotline here is very weird. The X-Men movies’ treatment of Scott Summers as a bungling idiot is so egregious it loops back into being really funny? Here’s what Cyclops does in this movie: fights with Wolverine, pushes Professor X’s wheelchair, loses a fight, gets brainwashed, loses another fight, accidentally destroys a dam and dooms his girlfriend to a lake death.

Kayleigh: Poor James Marsden and his ugly crying. X2’s biggest problem is that it’s way overstuffed with new characters and subplots, leaving several characters from the first movie with nothing to do. (Notice how we haven’t talked at all about Rogue or Storm yet? Yeah.) Sweeping Cyclops aside for most of the movie really defangs the love triangle. The movie asks us to believe in Jean and Scott’s all-encompassing love, but does nothing to work for it. Jean rescuing her brainwashed, damsel-fied love interest is a nice gender reversal of how these plotlines usually go, though.

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Max: The non-Wolverine X-Men really take a back seat to Rogue, Iceman and Pyro, who are like a youthful mirror to the Xavier/Magneto ideological debate. Shawn Ashmore is mostly here to look soulful and vaguely Canadian, but the scene in which he returns home and “comes out” as a mutant is definitely a much better version of the worst scene of Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Kayleigh: Iceman’s coming out scene is fascinating to watch now that comic Iceman has come out as gay. There’s been some genuine criticism made at how these movies handle the “mutant metaphor” for diversity, yes. But a gay director putting an explicit “coming out” scene in his superhero movie (it even made it into the trailer!) and presenting Iceman’s relationship with his family as a complicated, painful thing with no clear resolution feels very real and powerful—especially for a superhero movie made in 2003, and especially since even the MCU hasn’t included a major queer character in any of its films yet.

Max: Singer’s really the first person to push mutant as gay metaphor and it works so well here, at least in part because uhhhh there’s only one black person in this entire movie and she barely does anything. Beyond the really obvious stuff like Bobby’s scene with his parents, there’s other cool gay iconography like in how Alan Cumming’s outfit as Nightcrawler is basically “superhero Jobriath.”

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Kayleigh: Let’s talk about Deathstrike, who is kind of the ur example of the X-Men movies stripping female characters of their backstories and agencies, as well as the movies just not being very good at handling characters of color. In the comics, Yuriko (Kelly Hu) has her own personal connections to the Weapon X program and her own reasons for wanting revenge on Wolverine, but here she’s a badass-looking but ultimately silent henchman. Wolverine killing Deathstrike when she’s just another one of Stryker’s innocent victims is harsh. I like to imagine that her healing factor kicked in and she eventually swam out of Alkali Lake okay.

Max: Yeah it’s a bummer that Deathstrike doesn’t ever get any kind of real character, she’s just a robot that Wolverine fights. On the other hand, Jackman’s “… holy shit” when she unveils her finger claws is such a killer laugh line. BUT DEATHSTRIKE ISN’T THE ONLY WOMAN TO DIE IN THIS FILM, as poor Jean Grey sacrifices herself to save the team in a scene that is in no way reminiscent of Spock’s death in TWOK.

Kayleigh: Again, there’s so much going on in this movie that Jean’s sudden power surges aren’t given the focus they deserve, so her seemingly fatalistic decision to die comes out of nowhere. Famke Janssen gives the limited material all that she has, and at least the film understands that the Phoenix needs to be born out of Jean’s love for her friends and her willingness to sacrifice herself for them. But the film ends on an optimistic note, with that final shot of a Phoenix raptor under Alkali Lake. I howled in the theater when I saw this—Phoenix! The Phoenix Saga was happening!! But little did I know…

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Max: If you didn’t know about Jean being Phoenix in the comics, I feel like you’d just assume Jean was rescued by a pod of psychic dolphins or the Batman logo. It’s still pretty great though.

Kayleigh: And so ends the last Bryan Singer X-Men movie for 11 years. I wonder how that bright young fellow Brett Ratner will do. But before we (sigh) make our Last Stand with the X-Men, look for part 2 of our X2 coverage, where Max and I will talk about the classic graphic novel X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills.

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