With X2: X-Men United I’m faced with a potentially thorny problem, causing me to offer what amounts to two reviews in one. The first and by far easier review concerns the movie on wholly a surface level, as a rousing action-adventure comic-book blockbuster. On that score, X2 is that rarest of rarities: the sequel that is better than the original. As such, it restores my faith in comic books brought to the screen (no easy feat after the stunningly mediocre Daredevil).
The film is big and constantly clever, with a seemingly effortless mythic quality about it. Characters are generally well-defined and the performances are hard to fault. There’s no denying that Ian McKellen’s Magneto steals the show every time he’s onscreen, with Patrick Stewart’s Dr. Xavier seeming a bit colorless by comparison, but then Magneto is the far more interesting character (still, it’s McKellen and not the character who creates what can only be described as the truly majestic feeling in the sequence where he breaks out of his “plastic prison”). The effects are excellent, a few of them even breathtaking.
As pure entertainment, X2 is far and away the best film yet released in 2003. It’s something you don’t often encounter — a heavily hyped movie that actually lives up to the ballyhoo. Now, that’s the simple reading of the movie, and if that’s all you want to think about, stop right here and just go see it for its own sake.
I’ve been involved in the world of horror/sci-fi/fantasy fandom far too many years not to know that any suggestion that a genre film has a political or social subtext is enough to cause some fans to get very worked up and even resentful. However, X2 is considerably deeper than its surface — and eerily relevant at this moment — and part of that depth carries a gay subtext. This should surprise no one, since both director Bryan Singer and McKellen are themselves gay. McKellen has, in fact, publicly stated that the film is about being homosexual.
Horror, science-fiction and fantasy have long been the special provinces of people who are in some way “different” — that’s a given. The appeal of this archetype is immediate and obvious, and such characters can be found in just about every genre film from the horror classics of James Whale to 1940s pop-culture artifacts like The Wolf Man (if ever a character was meant to appeal to an awkward adolescent, it’s Lon Chaney’s Wolf Man) to modern films like those of Tim Burton, who virtually turned the idea into a cottage industry.
The notion of those who are outside mainstream society in some manner, and are almost invariably misunderstood, has always been inherent in Marvel Comics (something probably exacerbated by their position as the underdog to DC Comics). Consider their biggest action hero, Spider-Man, who is, until his transformation, the much put-upon ueber-geek. However, X-Men is probably the comics’ strongest statement on the persecution of those who are “different.”
The original X-Men contained the seeds that blossom here into a much larger work — in both a figurative and literal sense (X2 is 40 minutes longer than the first film). The theme of the film is self-evident from its own advertising: “The time has come for those who are different to stand united.” This certainly has a straightforward, broad appeal to anyone who feels outside the accepted norm (are you listening, Sen. Santorum?), but the film itself creates something more specific from the idea. The very fact that the mutants’ powers usually evidence themselves at puberty is suggestive.
The first film also presented the idea of mutants being persecuted by a world that feared them simply because they were different, and it included the concept of a “Mutant Registration Act” (a governmental program to keep track of them). X2, however, presents us with a slight variation: This plan is being pushed forward by the character Gen. Stryker (Brian Cox), who it into a seeming necessity by staging mutant terrorist activities. Stryker has personal reasons for wanting to do this — namely, that his own son is a mutant whom the general had hoped Xavier (Stewart) could somehow turn normal, instead of accepting and nurturing the young man. Stryker wants to demonize the “X gene” that causes these variants — simply because it’s “abnormal.”
The film also includes a key scene in which a mutant teenager in effect “comes out” to his parents. The responses are clearly patterned on a gay “coming out,” complete with shocked and disturbed parents (“Have you ever tried not being a mutant?”) and a transparently disgusted brother. It could be argued, I suppose, that this could be applied to any announced difference (but somehow I don’t see it working with anything like, “Mom, Dad, I have to tell you … I’m a philatelist”). The scene leaves little room for doubt about subtext.
A later scene has the demonic-looking (but ironically pious) Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) marveling at the ability of Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) to appear any way she chooses, and he asks her, “If you can appear like everyone else, why don’t you?” To this, the normally blue-skinned Mystique responds, “Why should I have to?” This may not only be a strong refutation of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” idea, but it too fits neatly with the idea that gays are fine so long as they don’t say anything about it. Too, McKellen can hardly be accused of playing Magneto as anything other than elegantly campy (his line to Rogue, “We just love what you’ve done with your hair,” seems too close for coincidence to dialogue concerning Elsa Lanchester’s coif for Bride of Frankenstein from McKellen’s performance as James Whale in Gods and Monsters).
Make of this what you will — or what you won’t. Yet it seems undeniable to me that the subtext is there, though housed in a rousing adventure fantasy and finally emerging as a broad-based plea for tolerance for anyone and everyone who is in any way different from the norm. Not a bad accomplishment for a movie that could have easily been nothing more than a mindless blockbuster.