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Article – The Subversive Nature of X2: X-Men United


Posted June 29, 2014 by

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The Subversive Nature of X2: X-Men United

It was inevitable that after watching X-Men: Days of Future Past, I would want to revisit the original trilogy and rediscover the origins of this band of merry mutants.

Bryan Singer’s X-Men pretty much changed the landscape of summer blockbuster films. It was an indubitable hit and put Marvel’s comics and films on the roadmap. Singer was unable to replicate the same success with DC however, as his Superman Returns raked in the moolah but was universally panned by all who saw it.

The first X film worked because it brought to life characters that were already a part of the mainstream consciousness (in the US at least; where I grew up we’d never heard of the X-Men). But what worked alongside the pacey action was the human element (oxymoron though it may be). The story of being different and unable to fit into society is universal. It called to mind the race/ gender/ class wars of the past and the present. It remained true to its comic roots.

It must have been a daunting task to up the, at the time, best comic book film. But Singer and the writing team of Zak Penn, David Hayter, Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris and David Hayter managed to do just that in X2:X-Men United by dividing the X-Men and uniting them with unlikely foes.

But what lives long in most people’s memories is that the story is, at its core, a thinly veiled allegory about sexuality. Hence the fabulous, cringeworthy scene between Bobby ‘Iceman’ Drake and his parents, who, in the comics, are actually very supportive of his crazy superheroing career and are well aware of his mutant friends.

But, rewatching the film again (I just had to), I noticed a handful of other, significant inclusions which, in an ideal world shouldn’t matter, but in this world strikes me as important.

The film starts with a bang and introduces a brand new character, the teleporting Nightcrawler. He attempts an assassination, which thankfully fails. This piques the interest of the X-Men. Professor X sends Storm and Jean Grey to apprehend him. The Professor and Cyclops set off for a prison visit which ends badly for both of them.

Of all nights, this is the night the mansion is attacked and Wolverine comes face to face with his past. But he has to leave before he gets any answers to protect his young wards, Bobby, Rogue and John.

That’s just the start of the story. X films are action-packed, but always include character development. In this film, the prominent arcs include Wolverine’s and Jean’s as well as mini-arcs for the three young wards mentioned above.

What struck me was that this film is very subversive. It’s about putting the female characters front and centre. The strong baddie in this film is Lady Deathstryke. Prison-break specialist and fact-finder extraordinaire is Mystique. Storm and Jean are the only ones who are actually on a mission, and of course they succeed.

But that’s the big the picture. We also have a female cop attempting to apprehend Wolverine in Boston. We have female pilots attempting to shoot down the X-Jet when they’re trespassing. They do a heck of a job, because the X-Jet’s only formidable weapons, Storm and Jean, aren’t able to evade their tactics.

When the team finally make it to dry land, it’s Jean who’s fixing the jet (she’s really multi-talented).

There are a number of male/female battles. Storm and Jason (not a physical battle, more of a battle of wits and intelligence), Wolverine and Deathstryke, Jean and Scott (it’s complicated) and Mystique versus the world (one guess who wins).

The climactic end comes to a close with Rogue earning her wings and a female character making a difficult and important choice to save her friends. We focus on her, her thoughts and feelings and make the decision alongside her. The ultimate hero sacrifice in this film is made by a female character.

I always ignored X2 because it cast Cyclops aside (why he is my favourite X-Man would make for an unconvincing read). But having seen it again, I believe it may just be the best of all the X-Men films. Does it trump DOFP? Not in the pulse-racing, charming, favourite-story-adaptation way. But it sits atop the pedestal because it gives agency, autonomy, a voice and realism to the living world we live in.

X2 was made over ten years ago. Does it make sense to harp on about these rather minute details from such a long time ago? We already know female-led films do better at the box office. We know that representation has in fact got better in films. Albeit marginally, and mostly superficially.

But the truth is, across the board there has not been a change. Jean’s decisions in the film aren’t tied to her love for Scott, they are aside from it. Storm doesn’t even have a love interest in the films – she’s dogged and diplomatic. And, at every point when Rogue pushes herself because of her relationship with Bobby (and this happens only on occasion), she is reminded that her decisions should be for and by herself. These are messages that are not reiterated in enough films and television shows  today. The overriding message for women and girls is that their existence is still intertwined with those of the men in their lives. Always.

DOFP partly did justice to the essence of the original storyline, putting Mystique at the centre of the crisis and the solution, but other female heroes didn’t  get a look in. And we don’t get much of a chance to see our everyday female heroes – the cops, the doctors, the fighters, the pilots, the teachers, the mothers and the pen-pushers – making the choices and decisions that will impact their lives and the lives of those they know, for better or for worse. Women aren’t all about weddings and parties and selfies. Dig deeper, and there’s a wealth of battles, sacrifices and triumphs just waiting to make a splash on the big screen.

What makes X2 stand out is that it is unabashedly subversive. One could argue that it was one of the forerunners for recent films starring empowered women characters, such as Frozen, Hunger Games, The Heat and Brave. Now we just have to wait for the day when these said attributes don’t make a film subversive, they just make it a film.


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Lestat de Lioncourt
Random Thoughts – Lestat’s Blog
Freelance Contributor

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