My favourite superhero movie is X-MEN 2. It’s a bit of a tired analogy to use concerning a sequel, but it really is the EMPIRE STRIKES BACK of comic book films in that it’s bleaker (though still with welcome light moments) and infinitely more complex than its predecessor. The first X-MEN was perfectly serviceable, a good introduction to the Marvel mutants’ world, but wasn’t remarkable. X2 improves on every level, building on what worked in the previous instalment and it’s a riveting ensemble thriller with something to say to boot.
With metal-manipulating mutant terrorist/freedom fighter Magneto (Ian McKellen) incarcerated, a new threat emerges in the form of Colonel William Stryker (Brian Cox), an anti-mutant fanatic who aims to engineer a war between homo-sapiens and homo-superior. The very real threat of all-out war comes to a head when demonic teleporter Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) infiltrates the White House and apparently attempts to assassinate the American President (Cotter Smith) giving Striker an excuse to lead an assault on Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters and kidnap Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and some of his students. With their mentor and their sanctuary taken from them, the remaining X-Men lead by Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) who is still seeking to unlock his mysterious past, must foil Stryker’s sinister master-plan and band together with an unlikely ally…
If the synopsis makes it sound like there’s a lot going on in this super-sequel, it’s because there is. And miraculously, Bryan Singer manages to juggle a huge ensemble cast, a complex plot and impressive blockbuster spectacle to produce something quite spectacular. It’s why I’m so excited he’s returning to the X-fold in X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST – this is the kind of material he excels at putting on film! I’m sometimes surprised at how little recognition the X-Men series has received in terms of how it has helped shape the modern blockbuster landscape. Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN might have given the big screen superhero craze real traction, but Singer’s first X-MEN, with its lengthy production and scepticism from many at its parent studio Fox, that was the major risk. The risk thankfully paid off, allowing for a far superior sequel to be made.
The film incorporates a plotline that is now quite commonplace, with our heroes hesitantly joining forces with their adversaries to stop a much greater threat. As good a villain as Magneto is, he’s even more entertaining in an uneasy alliance with the X-Men, quipping about Wolverine not being the sharpest tool in the box (adamantium notwithstanding) and loving what Rogue (Anna Paquin) has “done with her hair”.
The colourful new character additions include Brian Cox’s zealous, genocidal human nutjob antagonist, the hot-headed (sorry) Pyro (Aaron Stanford), a silent but lethal henchwoman with the same powers as one of our heroes (Kelly Hu) and my personal favourite, the gentle, devoutly Catholic blue acrobat Nightcrawler.
Speaking of Nightcrawler, he’s the focus of my favourite movie action scene of all time. The film opens on this indigo devil showing the White House security services just how deadly homo superior can be. It’s a beautiful ballet of violence, of teleportation, smoke, slow-motion and Mozart. It’s effects-driven, but grounded in something more tangible, with real performers executing the meticulous choreography with the help of wirework and crisp editing. Other action highlights made possible by huge advances in special effects include Magneto’s ingenious escape from his plastic prison and the X-Jet being pursued by a pair of military jets through a minefield of twisters created by Storm (Halle Berry).
Though it’s undeniably a big-budget blockbuster, Bryan Singer never forgets to move his characters on, to meaningfully develop them and give them room to breathe. The returning characters from the first film all evolve (pardon the pun), with Wolverine delving into his dark, forgotten past, Rogue and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) exploring the unique challenges of a mutant relationship, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) trying to control her rapidly increasing powers, and Magneto and the deadly shapeshifter Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) assisting the X-Men while furthering their own sinister ends behind the scenes. Perhaps Cyclops (James Marsden) is underserved, but in all honesty none of the X-Men movies seemed to get the character, or give him enough to do.
What I also love that Singer brings to the film (despite admitting to not being an avid comic reader) is respect for the source material. He takes it seriously without ever making it a glum viewing experience. He, and co-writers Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris and David Hayter scatter references to the comics throughout, but don’t go overboard. The character and plot shoutouts are there for those looking, but you’re not going to miss out if you don’t spot them.
What every viewer will be able to appreciate is what this collage of mutant characters can symbolically represent. The X-Men, when they first emerged in comics in the 1960s, were there to stand in for the Civil Rights Movement. Today, they can represent anything from homosexuality (Bobby’s mutant “coming out” to his parents) to society’s attitudes to disability or deformity (Stryker’s monstrous treatment of his son). The mutant terrorist storyline might have had a raw impact when the film was released so soon after 9/11, but ten years on, the impression it leaves is no less powerful with what is still going on in the world today.
Days of Future Past is one of my most eagerly anticipated movies of 2014. I dare to hope it’ll be as punchy, well-balanced and thrilling as Bryan Singer’s last visit to the X-Men universe. I pray that the new ensemble cast which has about double the number of characters to dedicate screen-time to won’t be too much. It might very well be an awesome superhero extraveganza, but however good or bad Days of Future Past is, X-Men 2 will remain my favourite superhero movie of all time. What’s your favourite example of celluloid superheroics? SSP