X-Men 2

USA 2003

Film still for X-Men 2

Reviewed by Kim Newman


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

The near future. Kurt Wagner (Nightcrawler), a mutant who can teleport short distances, infiltrates the White House and nearly assassinates the President. Colonel William Stryker, an anti-mutant fanatic, uses this incident to gain government approval for an operation targeting all mutantkind. Using a drug that can temporarily brainwash mutants (derived from the body of his mutant son Jason), Stryker forces the imprisoned Erik Lensherr (Magneto) to reveal the location of Charles Xavier's school for mutants. Magneto also discloses that this school contains Cerebro, a device through which Xavier can locate any mutant in the world. Logan (Wolverine) returns to the school, having been to the deserted Alkali Lake facility where he dimly remembers being infused with an adamantine skeleton and retractable claws. Xavier and Scott Summers (Cyclops) visit Magneto and are captured by Stryker; Jean Grey and Ororo Munroe (Storm) locate Nightcrawler, who turns out to be a gentle creature who was manipulated by Stryker.

Stryker's task force assaults the school, capturing many mutants and stealing Cerebro's secrets. Logan escapes with Marie (Rogue), Bobby (Ice Man) and John (Pyro). Mystique, a shapeshifting mutant, enables Magneto's escape and the X-Men are forced into an uneasy alliance with their former enemies to mount a raid on Alkali Lake. There Stryker is using Jason to brainwash Xavier into working Cerebro to target and kill every mutant on Earth. Infiltrating the base, Logan duels with Yuriko (who has powers similar to his own) as Magneto interferes with Cerebro so that Xavier will wipe out all normal humans. Nightcrawler teleports Storm into Cerebro, and she frees him of Jason's influence before any humans are killed. Pyro defects to join Magneto, Stryker is killed when a dam bursts and Jean sacrifices herself to save the others. The X-Men visit the President, and make a plea for mutant tolerance.


Pulling back to reveal a world (and a narrative) larger and more detailed than was shown in Bryan Singer's busy-enough X-Men, X2 is an exemplary case of a sequel that builds on the first instalment. The Marvel X-Men franchise is a rare comic-book success built around a changing cast of super-powered characters, mixing self-contained villain-of-the-issue plots with on-going soap-opera-style arcs. The approach was laid down in early issues by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (perhaps my favourite ever title of anything is Lee's 'Among Us Stalk... the Sentinels' in X-Men no. 14, which kicked off the mutant menace theme) and taken to a new level by Chris Claremont and John Byrne on a 1970s run.

In the new film, we pick up on some strands (Logan/Wolverine's struggle to remember his origins; a love triangle between him, Scott/Cyclops and Dr Jean Grey; Xavier's debate with Magneto about mutant-human relations) that were laid down in X-Men, but here Singer advances each of these themes rather than simply revisiting them (Wolverine meets his 'maker', he and Scott have an emotional clinch after Jean's 'death', Magneto steps up his strategy from conversion to genocide). Some tiny elements of the first film are given more space: Bobby Drake (Ice Man) here shoulders more plot, including the welcome scene in which he 'comes out' to his human parents ("Have you tried not being a mutant?" asks his Mom) while his (genetically similar, hence a self-hating closet mutant?) younger brother freaks and calls the cops. New characters (Nightcrawler, Pyro, Yuriko) get screen time while some returnees (especially the women: Mystique, Storm and Jean) are given more opportunities to shine. Meanwhile, the eagle-eyed will note moments afforded background characters such as Peter Rasputin (the Russian muscle-man who can transform into a literal Man of Steel), setting them up as possible X3 stars. Another foreshadowing is the bird shape glimpsed over Jean's watery grave, perhaps intended to prefigure a resurrection (in print, she's had several) as the dangerously omnipotent Phoenix.

Singer is confident enough with the fan reception of his X-Men to combine or alter characters if it suits the plot. Brian Cox's marvellously fiendish Stryker fulfils the functions of the like-named mutant-hating evangelist of Chris Claremont's God Loves, Man Kills graphic novel and the never-named Professor in Barry Winsor-Smith's origin-of-Logan series Weapon X, while his son Jason blends aspects of longtime X-villain Mastermind with Stryker's stillborn mutant son (a throwaway line rams home the point that the mutant gene is passed down from the father, so we know he has at least a dormant mutation himself) and Xavier's own bad-seed offspring. In many cases, Singer shows his own uncanny mutant ability in making work second-string Marvel characters who've been flat on the page for years: Anna Paquin's hesitant yet yearning Rogue makes far more sense given her specific abilities and handicaps than the trampy ex-villain rarely handled well in the comics, while Nightcrawler's trick of teleporting brief distances hard to represent in still pictures makes for a terrific opening attack-on-the-White-House scene that anchors colourful fantasy in grim reality as surely as the concentration camp opening of X-Men.

Longer, more populous and with bigger set pieces than X-Men, X2 does come up with a typical hard-to-get-your-head-around comic-book climax in which overambitious mad science puts the lives of every person on Earth into play. This approach has its problems, in that escalation leads to a need to imperil the whole universe (as the Phoenix does) and it's much easier to relate to tiny moments like Magneto's sly seduction of Pyro (an echo of Singer's Apt Pupil) than to Xavier's murderous mind-locking with everyone on the planet. The real distinction of Singer's X-films is that he understands the comic-book dictate that something cool or affecting has to happen on every page. No other film-maker has better dramatised superpowers in action and yet remembered the human cost of all the trickery. X2 is full of double-edged power fantasies that manage a frisson of awe amid the excitement including a little girl waking from a nightmare who gives out a supersonic yell that immobilises a paramilitary team invading the school, or Magneto extracting iron supplements from his jailer's blood and using three blobs of metal to effect escape from his prison.

Despite all the sci-fi stuff, the real punches come from the characters. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos' shapeshifter Mystique especially comes into her own: at one point, she tries to seduce Logan by impersonating his impossible love Jean, then comes on to him as a blonde supermodel, surrogate daughter Rogue and surrogate father Stryker, leaving the hero troubled by desires (not all sexual) he doesn't even want to think about. In perhaps the film's signature moment, Mystique compares blue, ridged skins and scary yellow eyes with Alan Cumming's meek, religious, demon acrobat; his character Nightcrawler asks why someone who can look like anyone she wants to shouldn't be in disguise all the time, which prompts the response: "because I shouldn't have to". Obviously, any subtext about sexual and/or racial identity, not to mention the respective methodologies of humanist reform within the system and outright terrorism, lies close to the surface. The finale deftly cuts away before the President reacts to Xavier's plea for tolerance, but it's hard not to imagine how the current or indeed any holder of his office would react to a cause espoused by a man who has only just been prevented from exterminating humanity. What distinguishes X2 as a great comic-book movie is that it can carry all that baggage and yet still get excited by Logan in a berserker rage.


Bryan Singer
Lauren Shuler Donner
Ralph Winter
Michael Dougherty
Dan Harris
David Hayter
Zak Penn
David Hayter
Bryan Singer
Director of Photography
Newton Thomas Sigel
John Ottman
Production Designer
Guy Hendrix Dyas
John Ottman
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011