Mar 20, 2020
X-Men 2 is not as good as you remember
So as I’m sure you’re all aware, there’s a new X-Men movie out this weekend, and with the exception of a few small details, it looks pretty good. It’s adapting Days of Future Past, possibly the best X-Men story ever told, which also means we’ll finally get to see the X-Men fight the Sentinels. The new costumes actually look pretty decent for this franchise (excluding Quicksilver, of course), even if the colors have been toned down a bit since X-Men: First Class. There’s some epic-looking action scenes, most of the best members of the original cast have returned, and there’s some twisty time travel shenanigans going on. Early word of mouth is pretty good too, with the film’s Rotten Tomatoes score holding steady at well above any of its predecessors.
So why am I not more excited?
Four words: Bryan. Singer. Is. Back.
I’ve bagged on Singer in the past, calling him the “Master of Mediocrity” (a title that, in retrospect, is better suited to J.J. Abrams; Singer is more of amateur practitioner of mediocrity), and my opinion on him has not really softened. With the exception of the good parts of Superman Returns, there’s basically nothing he’s done with his career that I still enjoy watching.
But even I have to admit that he was responsible for saving superhero movies as we know them. Sure, it had less to do with his talents as a filmmaker (such as they are), and more with pure dumb luck and good timing. If he hadn’t done it, someone else likely would have, but regardless, it was his X-Men that rescued the superhero film genre from oblivion after it burned out in the ‘90s. It was the first mainstream comic book adaption since Batman to manage a competent, watchable story that took the source material seriously enough to be engaging. It proved to Hollywood that there was still money to be made in the genre, and paved the way for Sam Raimi, Christopher Nolan, and the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Which is why it’s understandable that, at the time, we kind of overlooked the fact that it wasn’t a particularly good movie. It had a decent setup, but the payoff was awful. There wasn’t a lot in the way of good dialogue or characterization, the aesthetics were boring, and Bryan Singer is a chronically uncompelling director of action. But the bar was set so low at the time that X-Men fans were just glad it wasn’t terrible.
In the last decade, we’ve been repeatedly shown what truly great comic book movies look like, and since then, X-Men’s popularity as a movie has been a bit overshadowed. In a world where The Avengers exists, X-Men kind of fails to thrill anymore.
But what about X-Men 2, AKA X2: X-Men United? That one still seems to be in favor. A critical hit at the time, it often pops up on “sequels better than the original” lists alongside such classics as The Godfather Part II, Spider-Man 2, and The Empire Strikes Back. I myself remember it being merely okay at best, but it’s been almost a decade since I last bothered to watch it.
I decided to take another look at what’s supposedly the absolute best of Bryan Singer’s vision of the X-Men, on the off chance it would psych me up a bit more for his new movie. Maybe I hadn’t given Singer enough credit before, and X2 would be a lot better than I remember it being.
It wasn’t. It was worse. Way worse.
Guys, I honestly don’t know how we ever considered X2 a good movie at all. There’s so little that’s right with this thing that I’m not sure I can even call it “meh” anymore. I remembered this as one of those movies that got by, not on the presence of good, but by the absence of suck. As it turns out, suck wasn’t actually all that absent.
For one thing, the characterization is amazingly flat. Out of the entire cast, maybe three have enough personality to even qualify as characters: Professor X, Magneto, and Nightcrawler. Even Wolverine, who’s basically the star of the show, has essentially nothing going on upstairs. Wolverine in the comics isn’t usually overflowing with depth either, but at least he has two things going for him there: his struggle with his animal nature, and his mysterious past.
Movie Wolverine has exactly one of those. I never noticed it until now, but the series barely even pays lip service to Wolverine’s animalistic rage until X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Sure, he yells and runs around stabbing people a lot, but in the entire X-Men trilogy, he loses control a grand total of once, when he accidentally stabs Rogue in his sleep in the first movie. And that scene wasn’t even about that, it was about Rogue’s powers. So instead of being a tortured ex-assassin trying to tame the beast within, Movie Wolverine is just a slightly gruff guy that doesn’t remember much of anything. And amnesia isn’t a particularly compelling backstory. It’s essentially defining a character by his lack of character.
What’s more, Wolverine, despite his prominence, has essentially no complete arc, just the half-baked fragments of one. It didn’t occur to me until now, but of all the X-Men, Wolverine is probably the worst possible candidate for main protagonist of the franchise. He can carry his own personal stories just fine, but revolving the entire X-Men saga around him just doesn’t work, because he’s the member of the team most disconnected from the X-Men’s cause. He has almost nothing to do with the series’ central theme of disenfranchisement of cultural outsiders.
Sure, he’s a mutant like the rest of them, but he’s not hiding who he is from his mutant-hating dad like Angel, and he’s never been chased by a fearful mob like Nightcrawler. The worst thing that ever happens to him because of his mutant gene is being experimented on by Weapon X, and as we’ve seen, Weapon X will experiment on just about anybody.
Wolverine is not ideological; he has essentially no dog in the fight between humans and mutants. He’s usually too wrapped up in his own private shit to worry about the bigger picture. It’s not that he doesn’t care or doesn’t help fight the good fight, it’s just it doesn’t define him the same way it does most of the other X-Men.
So Wolverine having nothing to do with the moral conflict between Professor X and Magneto (and Professor X and Stryker in X2) makes him feel disconnected from the film, despite being its main character. His only motivation is wanting to know about his past, and his only interest in the central conflict is that Stryker has the answers he’s looking for. And at the end of the film, his arc concludes with him deciding that apparently, he doesn’t want to know any more. Why? How did he reach that conclusion?
A closing scene has him deciding he no longer needs to know who he was, because he’s found a new sense of identity, and a new family in the X-Men, but nothing in the film led to that conclusion. It doesn’t flow naturally from the story at all. What happened to Wolverine in between demanding that Professor X read his mind again to unlock his memories at the beginning and throwing away his dog tags at the end that led him to reject his past and embrace the X-Men?
Let’s review everything that happens to Wolverine over the course of the film: He goes to Alkali Lake looking for clues about his past and finds nothing. He saunters back to the X-Men empty-handed, and asks Professor X to read his mind again. The Professor refuses, telling him it wouldn’t do any good, and that the mind has to discover some things for itself. He then gets stuck babysitting the Xavier School, during which he briefly watches a nameless mutant boy change TV channels with his eyes, something he observes with mild bemusement. He then has a really awkward (and thankfully brief) conversation with Iceman, during which nothing of consequence is said or accomplished. Riveting.
The school is then attacked, and Wolverine kills a few soldiers before Stryker shows up to confuse him with a few cryptic hints about his past. But he’s interrupted by Iceman before anything of substance can be said. Wolverine escapes with Iceman, Rogue, and Pyro, and drives them to Boston hoping to meet up with the rest of the X-Men.
Along the way, they hide out in Iceman’s parents’ house to participate in the most obvious scene of the movie, wherein Singer goes out of his way—while almost putting the movie on hold—to hammer home the “mutants == gay” metaphor. I appreciate that Singer is taking this stuff seriously, but directly tying the X-Men to one specific minority’s struggle always struck me as limiting their potential as avatars of all societal outsiders, regardless of race, creed, or purpose.
By having this scene say that the X-Men specifically represent the LGBT community and no one else, you make the story feel less personal and more closed off for other fans, who suddenly can’t relate to it. It’s possible I’m overreacting on this point, but regardless, “Have you tried not being a mutant?” is still a really, really stupid line.
But back to Wolverine, who despite not once expressing any kind of opinion one way or another about human/mutant relations, suddenly gets weirdly defensive around Iceman’s mutant-phobic parents. The heroes are then surrounded by the police, and after shrugging off a bullet to the head, Wolverine and company are picked up by most of the remaining X-Men in the Black Bird jet, only to be immediately knocked out of the sky again during a fight with the Air Force.
On the ground, they encounter Magneto, who drops the exposition bomb to set up the rest of the plot. While the characters stand around in the woods waiting for the third act to happen, Wolverine takes the opportunity to hit on Jean Grey again, and holy shit, I never noticed before how painfully awful this scene is. Even at the best of times in this series, the love triangle between Wolverine, Jean, and Cyclops felt forced, but this scene in particular is painful to watch. The dialogue is Anakin/Padme levels of bad. Thankfully, Hugh Jackman has far more charisma than Hayden Christensen, but even he can’t sell this material.
After Jean makes out with Wolverine and then sends him back to his tent with blue balls (this is why I hate love triangles; they always make whoever’s at the center seem like an awful human being), we have a completely pointless scene where Mystique tries and fails to seduce Wolverine. Afterwards, the movie decides it’s finally time for Act 3, so everyone goes to Fort Bad Guy.
While the rest of the X-Men deal with actual plot shit, Wolverine chews up some more screen time by beating up Kelly Hu for a bit, before finally catching up with Stryker. Stryker drops more cryptic hints, but all we learn is that Wolverine apparently volunteered for whatever the hell they did to him, and also, he was just as much of an animal before as he is now (which is to say, not much of an animal at all).
Wolverine ties Stryker up and leaves to go finish the plot with everyone else. He later returns to Stryker, carrying with him one of the abducted mutant children from the school for some reason (and not even the one he briefly spoke to before; instead, it’s another kid he’s never seen before, as far as we know). Stryker gives him a big “join me” Darth Vader speech, promising less needlessly cryptic answers. Wolverine responds by throwing his dog tags at Stryker’s feet, gesturing to the kid, and saying, “I’ll take my chances with him.”
I repeat: What the hell brought him to that conclusion? What part of the events I just described motivated him to abandon his search for answers about his past and fully embrace his future with the X-Men? The best answer I have is that gruff, cynical, stoic Wolverine was just so shocked and appalled by Iceman’s mildly intolerant parents that he suddenly decided that all he cared about was mutant equality. Either that, or the shot to the head did something to his brain. Wouldn’t be the first time.
So that’s Wolverine, our supposed lead character, and the cast only gets more one-dimensional from there. Rogue continues to be shrill and ineffectual, and is so useless to the plot this time around that she doesn’t even get the honor of being Magneto’s secret MacGuffin anymore. And her one character trait (constantly whining, “ooh, I can’t touch my boyfriend without hurting him, woe is me”) is quite Edward Cullen-esque in retrospect.
Her new, never before mentioned boyfriend Iceman is even more dull, denied even the most basic of personalities. The frickin’ Power Rangers were more layered than this guy.
Pyro, a character I imagine was intended to be a bit morally ambiguous, is nothing of the kind. He’s just an asshole, and Magneto’s mutant supremacy dogma is merely his excuse to continue being an asshole.
The script briefly attempts to flesh out Storm and Mystique, complete blank slates in the first movie, but all we really learn about either of them amounts to one thing: “I really hate mutant-phobes.”
Cyclops is even worse off than he was the first time around, afforded less screen time and agency than Hawkeye in Avengers. The leader of the X-Men is essentially reduced to a glorified cameo in a fucking X-Men movie.
And Jean Grey. Oh, boy. Jean fucking Grey. Jean was never my favorite character in the comics, or the cartoon I grew up with, or the movies, and I don’t know too many people who are big fans of hers either. In every version of her I’ve ever been exposed to, she’s been mind-numbingly dull. The only things she’s known for are being the team’s token chick (before all the interesting X-Ladies like Shadowcat and Storm showed up), engaging in a love triangle with Cyclops and Wolverine, and repeatedly dying. This makes her more than a little… problematic, for lack of a better word. It says a lot that the X-Men are almost always more interesting when she’s dead. She’s basically their Gwen Stacy.
And speaking of horribly misogynistic deaths of female characters, how did no one notice 11 years ago how hopelessly they botched Jean Grey’s death in this movie?
The problems with Jean’s death are twofold. First, Jean is the second dullest, least-developed character in the movie (Iceman is the first). Seriously, all we learn about her as a character in the first two movies* is that she wants to boink Wolverine and Cyclops, but prefers Cyclops. That’s what defines Jean Grey as a character: which way her vagina is pointed. So like so many other women in refrigerators, her death has jack shit to do with her. It’s merely an excuse to see Hugh Jackman and James Marsden engage in one of the most embarrassing scenes of either of their careers. Seriously, they’re depressingly bad when it comes to trying to show grief over Jean’s death. In Marsden’s defense though, it’s really hard to act properly when you’re forced to keep your eyes covered the whole time.
[*It’s actually amazing when you realize that of the entire original X-Men trilogy, X-Men 3 is the one that did the most to flesh out a lot of these characters.]
Secondly, Jean’s death isn’t built up to at all. The only inkling we get that something’s going to go down is the brief mention at the beginning that her powers are getting stronger. And when the moment finally arrives, the staging of it makes no sense.
As a reminder: The Black Bird is failing to take off, and a dam is about to burst and drown them all. So Jean leaves the jet and stands outside, using her telekinesis to hold the flood back while she lifts the Black Bird into the air, which conveniently starts back up once she does this.
This film does worse than just ignore the gaping plot holes in this setup: it actively points them out. Why not just have Nightcrawler teleport everyone to higher ground in the several minutes they have to act? We’ll never know, because Jean actually prevents him from doing so. The characters even ask why she left the jet instead of just doing the same exact thing safely from the inside, and the only answer we’re given is “she made a choice”. Well, then she made a really stupid choice!
The whole scene is eerily similar to the ending of this year’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2, in that they both lift a famous scene from the comics with no regard for context, and for no other reason than to set up the sequel.
Beyond that, the film is just plain boring to watch. It’s a Bryan Singer movie, so almost none of the action scenes are interestingly staged. The film is way too long, with not nearly enough story or character to justify its running time. The third act is a complete clusterfuck, with some scenes appearing to take place in the wrong order. For example, Stryker notices the dam is about to burst and runs off panicking, and then the next time we see him he’s calmly delivering a villain speech to Wolverine before sicking Lady Deathstrike on him. And speaking of the dam bursting, I still can’t tell you how that happened.
There are, of course, other things to nitpick: Why can Mystique not get in to see Magneto in prison while disguised as a senator, when Professor X, a civilian, can apparently pop in whenever he wants? Why didn’t Stryker or his people notice Wolverine poking around Alkali Lake at the beginning of the movie? Why did everyone just stand around while Iceman slowly erected that ice wall? What the hell was the point of Magneto moving all those seemingly functionless panels around? Why does the editing suggest that it took Jason Stryker and his little girl illusion several days just to walk Professor X into the faux Cerebro?
So yeah, going back to rewatch X2 did not help deter any reservations I have about X-Men: Days of Future Past. I’m more worried than ever now. Even at their best, Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies have been dull and uninteresting, and had these movies come out in today’s environment where we’ve come to expect far better from our superhero films, they likely would have been seen as failures. I sincerely hope Singer has learned a few things in the last decade, because I really don’t want to see this franchise go back to sucking.