(For real this time.)
To any of the many kids I argued with in eight grade that are reading this blog: I guess you were right after all.
You know those lunkheads who get all worked up about the whole Ford / Chevy thing? When I was in middle school, the crowd I ran around with was kind of like that. But instead of arguing about auto makers, our big schism centered around a debate that rages in schoolyards around the nation to this very day: which is better, DC Comics or Marvel?
Me, I was a DC man myself. If the “Calvin Peeing On The Marvel Logo” sticker had been around in 1984, I probably would have owned one. The Flash was my favorite superhero, followed by Batman, Superman, Green Lantern — pretty much the entire Justice League was on my reading list. (Red Tornado four-part mini-series? Bought it!) Sure, I read a few Marvel titles, but they were just filler, something to tide me over until the next issue of “Blue Devil” arrived.
What I wanted in my comic books was simple: wisecracking guys in costumes beating the crap out ridiculous supervillians. And that’s pretty much all the DC Universe provided (at least until Alan Moore and Frank Miller and Neil Gaimen showed up and, like, made everything sophisticated and stuff). A typical Flash comic book would go like this: Captain Boomerang (no, seriously) would escape from the Central City Penitentiary in a giant flying boomerang and then he would rob a boomerang factory and throw boomerangs at a bunch of people and then The Flash would show up and they would fight and Captain Boomerang would unveil his new Super-Speed Homing Boomerang that he carved out of soap or something while in the pokey but then The Flash would vibrate his molecules at a special boomerang frequency or some shit and win, the end, woo!
Marvelites regarded these kind of comics the way Roman Polanski regards “Becker”. They were forever going on and on about how much better the Marvel Universe was, because it grappled with “real issues”. Peter Parker was a introverted dweeb. The Hulk had rage issues. Iron Man was an alcoholic. Daredevil had a disability (the kind that allows you to jump off buildings and make-out with Black Widow, apparently).
And the X-men — oh brother. Why not just call them “The Angst-vengers” or something? Every time I accidentally read an X-Men comic book it was all like:
Wolverine: Magneto is going to blow up Switzerland, bub! Let’s go!
Kitty Pryde: I can’t! Because I’m an outcast! With menstrual cramps!
Storm: Wolverine, let’s slow down and talk about this for a really long time. I mean, saving the world is important, sure. But it’s equally important that I spend the next 47 panels pontificating about diversity.
Holy crap, who would want to read this stuff?! Why not just wear a sign that says “I’m a girl who likes to read soap operas written for girls??!!!!”
Anyway. Seventeen years went by…
I finally got around to seeing X2: X-Men United last night. Catching this particular flick wasn’t exactly my top priority for a couple of reasons, even in addition to those mentioned above. First, while I enjoyed the original X-Men movie just fine, it didn’t leave me burning up for a sequel. Second, have you seen the X2 poster? It has, like, 49 faces on it. It looks like one of those wedding-photos-gone-awry, where the photograph says “okay, now let’s just have the bride and the groom and their cousins” and then someone asks “what about the spouses and children of the cousins?” and the photographer says, okay, cousins and their spouses and children, and then someone else says “what about the spouses of the children of the cousins?,” and then, 18 months later, you’re looking at that picture and wondering why the caterers are in it. That’s what the X2 poster looks like. And the reason the whole Batman movie series imploded, aside from the fact that Batman Forever was apparently “written” by sea cucumbers, was because they were introducing four new characters per film, complete with back stories and alter egos and side romances and blah blah blah. And it looked to me like that’s all X2 was going to be: 120 minutes of new character exposition and back story, with maybe a seven minute fist-fight wedged in the middle somewhere.
Not so! X2 hits the ground running and never lets up. For example, a brand new character, Nightcrawler, is introduced in the very first scene of the film — except that he’s not really “introduced” at all, he just shows up and, without further ado, starts kicking every ass in his path. Who is he? What is his power? Why is he blue? They don’t tell you — not for a while, anyhow. Instead they just hand you a spectacular opening sequence and move on. Now we’re with Wolverine, out in the middle of nowhere, looking for some military compound. Hey wait, military compound — didn’t they talk about this in last movie? Who knows? They never bother with a recap. If you remember X-Men, great; if you don’t, well, so what? Rent the DVD next weekend, we don’t care.
Some of the reviews I’ve read since seeing the film lament this very aspect of X2. “Literally, for the first hour of this movie, you have no idea what it’s about or what’s at stake,” writes Stephen Hunter from the Washington Post. “This is what happens: First they run over there, then they run over here.” Memo to Mr. Hunter: duh! It’s a superhero movie, dude — what we’re you expecting X2: My Dinner With Andre? Two of the things that make comic books so appealing is that (a) they generally have, at any given moment, 913 subplots for diehard fans to keep track of, and (b) if you’re not a diehard fan and don’t give a rat’s ass about the subplots, that’s perfectly okay because there will also be lots of punching.
Instead of squandering our time with recaps and backstory, X2 plunges right into a sinister and eerily contemporary conspiracy story. As in the first movie, a number of Inter- and Intra-governmental forces want all mutants registered or incarcerated. (Hello John Ashcroft!) Professor X, as usual, seeks a peaceful solution to the crisis, while Magneto instead advocates his pet solution to every social ill (i.e., “kill everyone!”).
What makes the X-men so interesting is that there is no sharp division between Good Guys and Bad Guys — although Magneto plays Malcolm X to Dr. Xavier’s Martin Luther King, the two are pretty much on the same team when it comes to “The Mutant Problem.” This paradox — the enemy of my enemy is also my enemy — is a hell of a lot more interesting than your standard “Flash vs. Captain Boomerang” comic book balderdash.
Which is a long way of saying, okay, you win. I finally get it. The Marvel Universe and its whole talking-about-contemporary-social-problems-through-allegory methodology really does make for a better story. And working with this model, X2 provides the best of both worlds: non-stop action and something to think about afterwards. The film isn’t afraid to ask some hard question, and doesn’t cop-out by coughing up a bunch of facile answers. In fact, it respects the audience enough to suggest that there simple remedies may not exist for fear and intolerance. And in that, X2 pull off a pretty neat trick: it creates a four-color, comic book universe that doesn’t paint the world as black and white.
Also: Mystique is hot and Wolverine turns a bunch of people into deviled ham. Recommended!