(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2003)
I wish I’d liked the X-Men sequel, X2, more than I did, because people make it sound both cool and smart. Here’s A. O. Scott in The New York Times: “One of the best things about the great old Marvel comic books – aside from their graphic flair and their strenuously exaggerated ideas of human anatomy – was the way they dramatized adolescent disaffection on an apocalyptic scale, connecting the private alienation of their heroes (and readers) with the primal struggle between good and evil. More than most film adaptations of comics, Bryan Singer’s film X-Men and its new episode, X2, try to honor both the allegorical grandiosity of their source and the moods and anxieties of the superpower-endowed individuals who inhabit its universe. The mutants from whose ranks the X-Men emerge are both a persecuted minority and a tribe of lonely children, shunned and feared by the ordinary humans who surround them.
I keep thinking I should give up on writing about this kind of movie altogether, because I worry I’m not in tune enough with their ambitions, their nuances, their audiences, with anything about them. But I keep coming back, maybe out of unshakeable faith that I can forge my own psychic connection with the genre, maybe out of stubbornness and a kind of vanity. I’m 37, and I guess I think of myself as a youngish 37 (who doesn’t?), but there’s no question that I’m not a kid. At 37, you should be past the point of being impressed by sheer spectacle and concept – shouldn’t you? That seems true to me when I write it, but I guess I don’t know why. What does it matter – who’s keeping score?
My problem is exactly that – I live as though someone is keeping score. I’ve written before about how my propensity for cramming in movies blunts the ability to savour any particular one. And I guess I tend to think of myself (to adapt Orson Welles’ metaphor) as a big Christmas tree, where every day has to constitute an additional decoration of some kind. For the time I spend watching a movie, “entertainment value” doesn’t tend to justify the investment (the precious commodity here being the time more than the money). So I’m usually ambivalent about big mainstream movies, but I end up going anyway, because the reviews usually sway me and, hell, because I enjoy the damn things once I stop agonizing about them.
That’s me at 37. But it’s not as if I’ve never been grabbed by comic book culture. I remember, back in Wales, buying my first American comic books. They were usually crammed any which way into an inconspicuous corner of the store, afterthoughts to the homegrown product. I have no idea what the distribution setup was, but I could never find two issues in sequence. This hampered much engagement with their plotlines, but actually enhanced their status as sheer artifact. And I remember being especially fascinated by the reader mail – by its sheer depth of engagement. British comics, obviously, had nothing like this.
The novelty died off pretty quickly though. As a young adult I sometimes went into comic book stores, intrigued by the idea of them and perhaps a little jealous of the people who really got the subculture (Kevin Smith’s movies make them look like the best damn place anyone could be), but the reality merely bored me. I loved the idea of the Batman franchise – to reconnect with the darkness of the character, to reclaim his popular image from the camp TV show – but the movies were generally a bit of an ordeal, except maybe the Pfeiffer/DeVito second installment.
X2 might have seemed like one of the dumber franchises, just on the empirical basis that believing in ten or twelve superheroes, all with different superpowers, requires approximately ten times the suspension of disbelief required to believe in one of them. Maybe it doesn’t work that way. Anyway, the movie doesn’t feel too dumb. The director, Bryan Singer, made The Usual Suspects and Public Access, and he approaches the movie with a persuasive feel for character and overall coherence. The film never seems camped up, or preoccupied by special effects. The cast includes Shakespeareans Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen and Brian Cox – the three of whom seem to me to influence the overall tone more than the younger cast members – and Oscar-winners Halle Berry and Anna Paquin.
There’s that metaphor
And then there’s that allegorical grandiosity Scott talked about. Sometimes this is intriguing, even touching. Take the scene when Iceman comes out to his parents about his superpowers, and the family talk that follows sounds like a conversation about being gay, or taking drugs, or any other occasion when elders try, not too successfully, to say the right thing while covering up intuitive revulsion. Iceman has a tentative romance with Paquin’s Rouge, but her kiss and touch are deadly, entailing a sweet but embarrassed chastity. Actually, the movie barely has anything “heroic” for Paquin to do, and she thus best embodies the film’s potential for placing character over narrative.
But on the whole, I can’t see that the film’s deeper ambitions are realized. A metaphor isn’t inherently revealing – sometimes you just register the point and move on, none the wiser for it. X2 is full of points that you register as potentially, but not actually, illuminating. And by this point, the reader may be jumping up and down, declaring: fine, but is it entertaining? Well, there’s too much going on for the movie ever to be dull. But Singer’s seriousness of purpose comes at the expense of the zip and panache that Sam Raimi brought to Spider-Man (as for the other key contemporary reference point, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, X2 doesn’t aim for that kind of pictorial impact.
I must admit too that I found the number of characters rather overwhelming. There’s not an actor in the film who doesn’t feel like a guest star (I wasn’t doing a count of course, but it sure felt to me as if Cox, as one of the bad guys, had more dialogue than any of the heroes). And the final set piece in Cox’s underground headquarters seemed to go on and on. Maybe I registered such disappointments a little more keenly than I would have with a movie that aimed for less in the first place. But I guess that if I really “got” the X-Men, then I’d be writing a completely different review. Funny I should feel guilty about not succumbing more readily to a piece of popular culture – that’s the power of the mainstream machine for you. But I’ll get past it; I’ll cut out this kind of movie pretty soon now. But not yet, because The Matrix Reloaded is already out, and then comes Ang Lee’s The Hulk…