Continuing my voyage through the X-Men franchise, we now come to what many consider to be the best one, X2.
So, X-Men came out in the summer of 2000, and only managed to pull in $160 million at the domestic box office...a pittance by today's superhero movie standards, but enough for a sequel to be greenlit. Bryan Singer came back on board as director, and now that the first one proved to be such a hit, he was granted a bigger budget and more creative control. People were incredibly curious...what classic X-Men story would he bring to the big screen? The Phoenix Saga? Days of Future Past? None of those...instead he chose a somewhat obscure story called God Loves, Man Kills.
I did have to ask my best friend, one of the biggest X-Men fans ever, if it was right to call God Loves, Man Kills obscure. He told me that it was actually well-known in X-Men circles, and it was one of the first graphic novels that Marvel published, back when graphic novels were becoming a thing. So it wasn't obscure...but it wasn't everyone's first choice.
The plot, however, had potential. In the graphic novel, the Reverend William Stryker is a preacher who's become convinced that mutants are a sin against God, and begins plotting their extermination. So, he kidnaps Professor Xavier in the hopes of brainwashing the professor to use his power to kill all mutants in the world. The X-Men are then forced to team up with their old foe Magneto in order to save the Professor, and all of mutantkind. However, because the mystery of Wolverine and his origins had become a big part of the comics, and thus the film, William Stryker was changed to a military officer with an anti-mutant agenda, and ties to Wolverine's origin.
Watching this film again, and with the first X-Men still fresh in my mind, the best way to describe this one is bigger. I lamented that the first one seemed to have a dearth of fight scenes and comic book action...not so here. We've got some great fight scenes, great special effects sequences...this finally feels like one of the superhero movies that now dominated our cineplexes, compared to the first one, which was almost a moody, character piece.
But that's not to say the characters get short shrift. Quite the contrary. When I talked about Star Trek IV, I mentioned that one of the things I loved was the everyone had someone to do. Same thing here. Every character serves a purpose to the story. No one seems superfluous. Wolverine has his continued quest to learn of his past. Jean Grey is struggling with her growing power. Storm and the newly-introduced Nightcrawler share most of their time together, as they talk about their different philosophies in life. Every character has their own arc and their own struggles.
Well, except for Cyclops. Man o man, he just can't catch a break in these movies, can he. Captured by the bad guys very early on, only to show up at the climax as a brainwashed henchman.
But the new additions are good. Alan Cummings as Nightcrawler was great. A tormented man, struggling with guilt over what he was made to do, but his faith manages to see him through.
And Pyro. Watching his descent to the dark side, and joining with Magneto at the end was also great. Another nice little subplot. I remember one review at the time saying that's how Anakin in Episode II should have been portrayed. You can see he's already quite consumed with anger, and Magneto's...words of encouragement wind up becoming much appreciated.
And of course, Bryan Cox, as our villainous Col. William Stryker. Such a great villain. There's always talk of a coming war between humanity and mutants, and Stryker, true to his name, wants to make the first strike. He's got a personal stake, and a personal vendetta, as he blames his mutant son for killing his wife, and blames Charles Xavier for looking for peace between the two instead of trying to "cure" them. He's not a misunderstood villain, which is popular these days. He feels he's been wronged by mutants, and he's out for blood.
And despite how lame X-Men Origins: Wolverine turned out, that fact that we've now seen Wolverine's origin does add an interesting layer to Stryker's taunts to Wolverine about Wolverine's missing memories.
The ending. You can tell Bryan Singer is a Trekkie, because Jean Grey's death and that ending is such a clear homage to Spock's death and the ending of Star Trek II. The slow pan over the dead teammate's final resting place, the recently deceased giving a narration that's become associated with the franchise, and the faintest hint that the teammate survived. I see what you did there, Mr. Singer.
Speaking of Star Trek II, let's talk about the music. John Ottman's score is highly reminiscent of James Horner's work on the Star Trek films in many places. As my X-Men fan friend said after coming out of Days of Future Past, this franchise seems to be cursed with bland music scores. That being said, I love Ottman's work on X2, as he does give the X-Men a proper superhero theme.
Not gonna lie...when I heard the band strike up that theme once again for the opening titles of Days of Future Past, I geeked out a little.
Let's see...this was officially the second-last film I saw in Japan. Due to the quirks of my contract, I had a week off, and then I was back at work for about a month before it was time to head home to Canada. I had returned to Kumagaya a few days before my week off officially ended. Checking the local movie listings, I saw it was the opening weekend for X2. So I decided to go see it, and it was the last movie I saw at the cineplex in Kumagaya that was my regular haunt. I was such a regular I swear they put that one English-speaking clerk on every Sunday night just so someone would understand my ticket purchases.
(I'd always see movies on Sunday nights because my weekend was Sunday and Monday and, instead of the weekday matinee like in Canada, the cheap shows at Japanese movie theatres are the late shows.)
When all's said and done, I think X2 can still proudly retain its title as the best in the franchise. It's just a good movie.