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X2: X-Men United

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
X2: X-Men United

from Film Forum, 05/08/03

The first blockbuster action movie of the year, X2: X-Men United, opened this weekend, bringing with it cheers, millions of dollars at the box office, and an unexpected controversy.

Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Rogue (Anna Paquin), Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) , and the meddlesome bad guy Magneto (Ian McKellen) are back on the big screen, continuing the saga of supernaturally talented mutants who are persecuted by a society they're trying to protect. This time, the kind-hearted heroes find themselves in trouble when the elusive Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) attacks the President of the United States. A brilliant bigot named William Stryker (Bryan Cox) takes advantage of the incident, convincing the President to support military action against the mutants. But even the President does not suspect Stryker's genocidal intentions.

Stryker is causing trouble for more than mutants. He has offended a portion of X2's audience as well. A U.K. news site reports that the Muslim civil rights group Project Islamic H.O.P.E. "and a coalition of Islamic organizations are demanding an apology from X2 director Bryan Singer and are also demanding that anti-Islamic propaganda be deleted from the future release of the DVD version of the film."

Anti-Islamic content? When Stryker is shown signing a document that will further his wicked agenda, the camera catches a glimpse of his ring, which bears the Arabic symbol for "Allah."

The fuss over this inflammatory detail is not hindering the film's success with audiences or critics. According to, X2 earned an estimated $85.6 million in its first weekend, an opening just shy of the totals achieved by recent hits Spider-Man and the Harry Potter movies. Critics compare it to some of the most successful and admired sequels ever made, and many say this installment is a significant improvement on the first.

Singer clearly had successful sequels on his mind as he structured his follow-up to 2000's X-Men. Echoes of Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, The Empire Strikes Back, and Terminator 2 resound throughout this exhilarating, exhausting action marathon. A top-secret rebel base is discovered and invaded by stormtrooper-militia. A highlighted kiss mimics the most memorable sequel kiss of all time. One metal-framed hero duels another in a brutal smackdown. Instead of an airborne chase through an asteroid field, X2 gives us airborne pursuit through something just as destructive and dazzling. The heroes' jet even acts like Empire's Millennium Falcon. A troubled hero uncovers startling secrets about his origins. And let's face it: Hugh Jackman is Han Solo with claws and a cigar. These are fleeting but reverent references; X2 has plenty of original ideas in its thrill-filled span.

One thing that sets this franchise apart is the way it lends itself to varying interpretations, all relevant and timely. The story focuses intently on the plight of minorities. The mutants can represent persecuted Jews, alienated teens, sexual minorities, or Christians.

(One Christian movie critic interrupts his X2 review to make sure readers are aware that one of the actors is a homosexual. Film Forum would like to point out that, in truth, all of the actors have sinned and fall short of the glory of God … as have all of its critics.)

Singer works his concerns about intolerance, violent revolt, and peace-seeking diplomacy cleverly into the film's almost nonstop action. He grounds familiar social dilemmas in strong characters and snappy dialogue, so that focus remains where it should be: on plot rather than preaching.

Numerous plot threads, more than a dozen central heroes and villains, and the high-speed storytelling prove dizzying and, for some, confusing. Still, it is remarkable how well Singer acquaints us with his large cast of unusual characters. They are quirky, endearing, and interesting. Each mutant's talents and troubles becomes a different metaphor.

Many critics claim the movie will please only comic book fans. I disagree. I have never read a single issue of X-Men, and I'm enjoying the series immensely. It comes closer to the engaging mix of humor, adventure, surprises, and scares found in the original Star Wars saga than any films since—including the new Star Wars films. (Parents should be warned that this is a PG-13 film with particularly intense violence and some strong sexual references.) Revisit the first film before you see the sequel, and you should have no trouble; this one picks up the plot right where X-Men left off. Its complexity will reward repeated viewings. Its solid performances—generally better than the standard action-genre fare—and its relentlessly clever script makes it the funniest action-adventure film yet.

Not every religious press critic agrees. (My full review is at Looking Closer.)

J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) says the movie "doesn't have time to do more than hint at character development. I found this rushing between characters, with little serious storytelling for any of them, frustrating." He adds, "My Christian friends were thrilled that we see a genuinely religious character join the band … but here there wasn't enough time to have him do more than say the Lord's Prayer."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) agrees: "There simply isn't enough time to explore any character or situation fully. The film is a loud, explosive, eye-catching sensory overload that immerses us into its world for over two hours but leaves us relatively unchanged by the experience."

But Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) writes, "Larger in scope and darker in tone than its predecessor, as rich in invention but expanding on it, X2 is the most ambitious, sprawling superhero saga to date. This is now one of Hollywood's best and most promising franchises."

He too finds something lacking (and I agree on this point): "The main thing that keeps X2 from being an achievement on the scale of The Empire Strikes Back or The Wrath of Khan is a crucial misstep at a point where both of those earlier movies decisively succeed. A good bit of the film's aspirations hang on a crucial plot point that, when it comes, lacks the emotional impact, or even narrative clarity, that it needed to work."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) finds moral significance in the storytelling: "The X-Men's commitment to protecting others—even those who consider them deviants and actively seek their destruction—echoes Christ's mandate to 'love your enemies, and do good to those who persecute you.' One of the heroes even pays the ultimate price, illustrating the Christian ideal of laying down one's life for one's friends. The film is replete with religious imagery and allusions. [Nightcrawler's] faith comes across as genuine and is treated with a reverence rare in Hollywood fare."

"I enjoyed this movie," says Holly McClure (Crosswalk), "and can safely say it won't disappoint the fans who like plenty of action, special effects, interesting characters and unbelievable stunts."

Bob Waliszewski (Focus on the Family) disagrees: "The director describes X2 as 'edgier, darker, funnier and more romantic than its predecessor.' I'm not so sure about the funny part or the romantic part, but he's dead right about the 'edgier, darker' part. Interwoven Scripture recitation, prayer, and positive themes about prejudice don't override these mutants' negativity."

Deanna Marquart (Christian Spotlight) argues, "The inclusion of Nightcrawler's faith was a wonderful surprise and hopefully it will serve as a light in the darkness to viewers who need the Savior. On the other hand, those with reservations about violence and other worldly displays and themes can expect to see their fears realized on the screen. Parents should certainly exercise their best discretion."

By "worldly displays," Marquart is referring to the film's emphasis on evolution. The characters talk about mutation as a form of evolution, but how strong an evolutionary message is a film sending when its boldest act of "evolution" is an act of Christlike sacrifice rather than "survival of the fittest"?

Most mainstream critics express admiration and praise for X2. Lawrence Toppman (Charlotte Observer) calls it "rarity among sequels, a follow-up with as much artistic integrity, complexity, humor and well-designed action as the original." And Mary Ann Johanson (Flick Filosopher) says that those viewers who write this movie off as geek fare are missing "one of the more germane metaphoric portrayals of the terrifying political and social landscape we're living in today in the United States."