X-Men is largely credited with kicking off the modern superhero movie boom we find ourselves in today. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, which was launched in 2008 with Iron Man, certainly took things to another level, along with movies like The Dark Knight, but the X-Men franchise was one of the first to treat this kind of material with some earnestness and prove that there is an audience for such a thing. As much as X-Men did, the sequel X2: X-Men United, released 15 years ago this week, doubled down and truly showed what comic book movies could potentially be. Even a decade and a half and some crazy amount of comic book adaptations later, X2 remains one of the best superhero movies ever.
X2: X-Men United, as goes the full title, was released in 2003. This was three years after its predecessor and just a year after Sony’s first live-action Spider-Man truly blew the door wide open for modern superhero movies. As good as those movies still are, there was, and still is, something truly special about X2. This is a deeper movie. A bolder movie. A movie that isn’t afraid to be dark, yet can still throw in some necessary humor and compassion in order to avoid being a needlessly bleak affair. This movie shows how to balance a great many characters, yet give them all (or at least most of them) a satisfying arc without a massive amount of dedicated screen time. There is an early template at play here that Marvel Studios and other successful superhero movies would later use and, in the case of the MCU, arguably perfect.
Growing up, it was the X-Men and Spider-Man that I most connected with in the world of Marvel Comics. The fact that they both had great animated shows in the 90s didn’t hurt anything either. So the period between 2000 and 2004 was a pretty unforgettable one for me. But to this day, I’m not sure anything will ever top 14-year-old me sitting in a theater and watching this movie for the first time. It was an eye-opening experience. I was seeing on the big screen what I had always seen in my own mind on the pages of a comic book. This movie translated those ideas to the masses. It gave people an understanding of what I, and many other comic book readers had understood for years. This is what we loved and why we love it.
There are movies from just a handful of years ago with visual sequences that don’t really hold up to scrutiny now. However, X2 has some truly outstanding action sequences. Things get going quickly with the still astonishing cold open where Nightcrawler is ripping through the White House. It still holds up and it’s a truly inventive sequence. At the time, it was mind-blowing. Beyond that, the mansion raid is, I believe, one of the best action sequences ever in a comic book movie. I will never forget how floored I was as a teenager seeing it for the first time. Once that dude gets pinned against the fridge by Wolverine’s claws, it’s about five minutes of pure bliss for me. It’s not shy about being violent and that’s key. Wolverine is an indestructible force of nature that heals and has impossibly sharp claws. Coming up against something like that, especially when the people coming up against him are trying to harm young children, isn’t going to end well.
Like the best X-Men movies, this one plays on the themes of intolerance, difference and a desire for acceptance, as well as how best to obtain that acceptance. The raid on the mansion takes place because one man, William Stryker, has a serious issue with mutant kind. He’s also the man responsible for creating Wolverine. That relationship makes for some great moments and adds depth to both characters. Not to mention Stryker’s brilliant emotional motivation, driven by the super dark backstory for his son Jason. Things get way dark in that respect, but it really works. Stryker is a broken, savage, complicated man. Brian Cox plays the part perfectly and, in my mind, is a terrific villain.
I will never not be amazed that we were gifted with Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier and Ian McKellen as Magneto, who both shine in X2. Part of what this movie, and really the early entries in the series in general understood, is that taking the material seriously and getting actors to portray it as such will elevate these movies. With that said, Hugh Jackman delivers a top-notch performance as Wolverine here. Next to Logan, I count this as Jackman’s finest moment in the franchise. The whole thing at Bobby’s parent’s house, another great action sequence, when the cop says, “Put the knives down” and Wolverine replies, “I can’t,” is a perfect moment.
The legacy of X2 can no longer be discussed without also discussing the elephant in the room, and that elephant is director Bryan Singer. In the years since helming this movie, as well as X-Men: Days of Future Past and X-Men: Apocalypse, the director has been accused of sexual misconduct by several parties. He’s certainly not the only filmmaker in Hollywood to face such accusations over the course of the last year and he won’t be the last. That has prompted discussions of being able to separate the art from the person who made it. For me, it comes down to the idea that one bad egg shouldn’t spoil the batch. It takes an army to make a movie like this. Singer directed it, but the cast, crew and everyone else behind the scenes made a terrific movie that still holds up today. Allowing Singer to make movies and TV shows in the future is one thing and choosing to support those projects or not is another, but I personally can’t distance myself from what this movie means to me. It is important to acknowledge accusations like those that have been placed upon Singer, but I think it would be a disservice to all of the other outstanding work from a great many talented individuals who poured their blood, sweat and tears into this movie to discount it entirely based on the alleged, detestable actions of one man.
If I must gripe about something, some of the CGI doesn’t hold up perfectly, but beyond that, I’m hard-pressed to complain about much when it comes to this movie. Well, save for James Marsden, who really gets the shaft as Cyclops. But that’s not relegated to this installment. He got the short end of the stick throughout the franchise. Sorry, Scott. Having said that, X2 holds up shockingly well all these years later. As a strange side note, for the first time ever when rewatching it I noticed the Dr. Hank McCoy Easter egg on the TV in the bar, which was pretty fun. Beyond those relatively minor complaints, Fox, for all of the mishandling of their Marvel properties in recent years, did something truly remarkable with this movie and I encourage you to revisit it.