X-Men United


Gen X review X-menI know what you’re thinking, but forget it.

Yes, I agree. The first X-Men movie was a big old dog, a real ugly mutt of a film that didn’t do anything right beyond casting Halle Berry as a sexy mutant goddess. Comic book nerds like us decried that the guy they had play Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) was about six feet too tall. It was great to see Patrick Stewart as Professor X (though it was a bit of a no-brainer, since he’s the only bald actor in Hollywood other than the guy from Seinfeld), but where was Nightcrawler, the Beast and Colossus?

I mean, really.

Surprise! X2: X-Men United is a neat little film. It’s so much better than the first movie, in fact, that I suggest you forget you ever saw the earlier effort all together.

It’s easy to be deceived by comic book heroes. It appears that their powers tell you everything you might need to know about their personalities and their names are often just an explanation of their unique abilities. We enter the bodies of these heroes in an effort to simplify personality, and reassert that the basic unit of a self is still a body. Our genes speak us, define our limits, code our very existence, but in our world these boundaries are fairly universal.

The mutant body is unpredictable and dangerous. It explodes, changes color and shape, and bursts into flame. X2 opens with a scene showing a blue demon (Nightcrawler, played by Alan Cumming) invading the White House. The mutant dodges bullets, phases through walls and summersaults over Secret Service men, proving his physical superiority to even the best and the brightest.

Tolerance is a wonderful concept for ordinary humans, who have easily understood limits, but how PC would we be in a world where individual may be born with the power of a nuclear warhead? What right do individuals have to their own bodies in the face of such a threat?

After Nightcrawler’s attack on the president, military scientist William Stryker (Brian Cox) tries to hurry legislation that would force all mutants to register. Stryker is incapable of seeing those with super powers as anything more than a threat, and he tries to reduce them to the level of an object or weapon. The very aspect of their bodies that makes them special are used against them as proof that they’re not really humans at all, but unregulated energy, weapons of mass destruction.

“I like mutants as long as they can be controlled,” he says, meaning his likes mutants who have lost whatever claim they have to human dignity.

Professor Xavier (a telepath) tries to protect his mutant charges, but also unconsciously advocates their sublimation to the society. He runs a private school for “gifted youngsters” in New York where he teaches his young pupils how to read, write and tame their mutant powers. But he also discourages them from being who they really are, keeps them stay closeted up and scolds them when they use their powers in public. They are taught to pretend normality, and often even the parents who send their children to Xavier are unaware that they have super powers.

The mutant arch villain and master of magnetism Magneto (Ian McKellen), Xavier’s counter opposite, believes he and his kind are the next evolutionary step forward. They shouldn’t hide among the common masses or be reduced to biological weapons; they should conquer. He doesn’t make apologies for the gifts he’s been given, and believes those who do are fools. “We are gods among insects,” he says. And he’s probably right, but a god is a demon to those lacking the right sort of eyes, and power is as much a liability as a gift when it alienates, segregates and isolates individuals from their society.

The central figure of X2 is not Stryker, Magneto or even Professor X. It’s Wolverine, who searches for his past not just in the meaning of his DNA (which imbues him with keen senses and regenerative powers) or the scientific wonders of his unbreakable bones and claws, but more importantly in his bonds with other people. Wolverine is the quesistntial Generation X superhero. Having been abandoned to the powers that be and reduced to a kind of war machine, Wolverine is also a natural survivor, but the question of his being is still very much up for grabs.

Mutants are adaptive. They are signs that the culture has produced a need for stronger safeguards. We evolve because our flesh and bones are not tough enough to protect us from the hostile elements. The science that has mated metal bones and claws to Wolverine has also created the conditions where such a person would need to exist.

The challenge is for Wolverine to defy his name, his past, the very nature of his blood, and chose not simply to survive, but to love. Born an orphan – because what single mother or father produces the evolutionary “next step”? – the mutant superhero’s purpose is actually to overcome the limits imposed on him by his power, to prove that beneath and behind the gifts that sets him apart lies all the ordinary feelings and capacities that each of us have.

For Wolverine this means turning his back on a past that will never help him understand himself and accepting the unique role he has in the world, not as just a creature with superhuman powers, but as a mentor and leader. He becomes a hero when he accepts these responsibilities as part of himself, as much or more so than the deadly weapons that has been fused to his body.

The new generation of mutants needs Wolverine. Their own parents have deserted them to Xavier’s tender care, effectively condemning them to a life in the shadows. Magneto has been seduced by the promise embedded in his genes, misreading the meaning of his superpowers. He should be using his power to protect and guide not control and conquer. By playing into the worst seduction of men like Stryker, Magneto shows that his powers mean nothing, that he is beneath it all just a petty, little demagogue.

“Most people will not believe anything beyond what they see with their own eyes,” Nightcrawler says, meaning most are condemned to see gods, demons, weapons or monsters. They will not see the man beneath the mask, struggling with fear, anger and resentment. They will not see the hero in themselves; the hero in each of us.

X2 is very nearly my favorite comic book inspired movie so far. All they need to do is cut Hugh Jackman off at his kneecaps.


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