Movies: X2: X-Men United

(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.
Wolverine: *Snikt!!*

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!

* * *

21 comments.

  1. let me guess, this is something you feel strongly about.

  2. It hurts me to “hear” you say that Mystique is hot without even a mention in the entire review of Rogue. Anna Paquin is my dream girl!

  3. We knew we’d get you to come to the dark side eventually…

    I mean, come on, if you were a mutant with adamantiam claws, a personality disorder and a bad case of five o’clock shadow, you’d be forgiven a bit of angst now and again.

  4. Heathen! You think you can just walk away from DC! Get back over here, or no “Formerly Known as the Justice League” for you!

    ….except, um, I do have to admit that Marvel has shown they have their heads on straight when it comes to movies. They please the fans, but they also please the mainstream and make millions of dollars–which pleases the studios, which means they get to make more sequels to please the fans.

    I’d still take a Blue Beetle and Booster Gold movie over “Spider-Man 2″ any day. But I think I’ll let you off this time, while I go scrape that old Calvin sticker off my car…

  5. I read recently that studies demonstrate that, worldwide, more people recognize DC characters than Marvel characters. The reason for this is that the simpler personalities and plots of the DC comics allow for greater iconic representation, thus simpler identification on the part of the readers. So that’s one strike against Marvel.

    Secondly, your mention of the wondrous comic Blue Devil (or its near-sibling The Heckler) brings up the second thing that DC does better than Marvel–comedy.

    Seriously, what does Marvel have in the way of a humorous comic? Forbush Man? X-Babies? Sorry, Charlie, DC wins hands-down in that arena–Ambush Bug. Blue Devil. Heckler. The Batman television series (could you see Stan Lee letting that happen to any of “his” characters?). The list goes on and on.

    Finally, there’s Stan Lee. The man claims in the Kevin Smith interview that they *invented* Mjolnir when creating the Thor character. Puh-leez.

  6. Allow me a moment of ‘whoa’ at “913 subplots”, as 913 happens to be my area code.

    Whoa.

    Okay, carry on.

  7. Ambush bug!

    You just reminded me of him – brilliant! And when he met the Blue Devil, WOO-HOO!!

    I’ll stop now as I’ve run out of exclamation marks…

  8. You were a DC nerd? That explains *everything*

    Make Mine Marvel!

  9. Look how my leg can go! Advantageous!

  10. OK, from the perspective of a late twenties to early thirties male, you may be right, Marvel is more intersting. But when I was 10 years old, nothing could beat the Justice League. The question, then, is who is the audience? You can’t make a blanket statement that one is better, unless, of course, you are saying that DC is better. Then that would be OK.

  11. The problem with DC, however, is that because the characters are all so simple (and therefore more recognizable and easier to understand) they have trouble coming up with new stories. I distinctly remember several instances where DC starting having trouble finding an original thought, and so they said things like “of course, everything that we’ve told you for the last 20 years happened in another dimension. Now let’s see how things panned out in our world” and you suddenly have the same story retold with a few minor details changed. DC also suffered from the “We can’t think of anything new, so let’s introduce a new character. How about Explosive Lad or Contagious Boy! Now let’s kill them off and have all the other heros go revenge them because they’ve been friends for years. Why haven’t you seen them until now? You’ll have to read the new limited series to find out, but trust us, they’re really good friends.”

    At least Marvel characters are complex enough that you can always come up with a new way for Wolvie to say “I’m the best there is at what I do, Bub. *SNIKT*”

    I think I just shot down my own point.

  12. great post. i am in complete agreement — X2 approximately 1,000 times better movie than X1. Unlike Matrix2 unfortunately.

  13. NERDS!

  14. MMMMMMMmmmmm Deviled ham

  15. Marvel can’t do comedy?!?!

    Exhibit A:

    Peter Porker: the Spectacular Spider-Ham

    Ha!

  16. The DC universe would have been a lot, lot more interesting if they followed Alan (Watchmen, From Hell, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, etc) Moore’s proposal back in the mid-80s (warning, it’s a biggie):

    Twilight of the Superheroes

  17. “…it creates a four-color, comic book universe that doesn’t paint the world as black and white”
    That is either seriously profound or I’ve had too many scotches.

  18. Blue devil comics!!! I thought I was the only one who collected those.

    And they’ll be worth something someday too!

    JDT

  19. For the record… it’s “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Or… “The friend of my enemy is also my enemy.”

  20. Wow! People are still saying nice things about Blue Devil after all these years! Thanks!
    FYI: DC published Blue Devil…grudgingly. Dan Mishkin, Paris Cullins and I created him. Dick Giordano was our patron, and he loved the concept, but others in management were less enthusiastic, even when it started to be a hit. Three successive editors made BIG creative contributions–Dave Manak, Len Wein and Alan Gold. But getting the right balance of excitement and humor was a delicate line to walk, needing the dynamism of Paris Cullins’ action to make the comedy really antic. Our goal was always to be funny, but to have big action, accelerating momentum and high stakes for the characters, ala Raiders of the Lost Ark…When Paris faltered, a series of artists foundered, and so did the book. Still breaks my heart…as does every ridiculous thing that’s been done to BD since. Of course I could say the same about the treatment of Amethyst…anyone remember her? Thanks for a space to rant a bit. -Gary Cohn

  21. I always thought of Amethyst as a “girl’s comic”, and so I only read it when there was nothing else to read.

    I was alwaya a Marvel guy, myself, though as a kid I loved the Flash and Green Lantern, in that order. And I did collect some Superman comics while John Byrne was doing the story, because I love that guy’s work. He’s a genius.

    Now, Blue Devil was a character that appealed to me immediately, but it seemed to me the series was extremely short-lived. Which was a bummer, because it was smart and funny and a great read. Better than Grue, even, and that’s saying something. And it’s a real disappointment to me, because somehow very few of my precioussssss comics made it through the bi-weekly moves my mom and I made while I was growing up.

    I’ve always kind of thought of Blue Devil as the inspiration for the Blue Man Group.