Jasmine wanted to catch up on the X-Men movies before seeing X-Men: Days of Future Past this summer. And since I quite enjoyed the three I’ve seen, I was game to grab the lot at Exchange, even the ones that are alleged to be terrible.

Thus far, we’ve watched the first two: X-Men and X2: X-Men United. X2 is reputed to be the much stronger movie, but I recalled my own reaction as being fairly contrarian: that it was perfectly fine, but actually fell a bit short of the first movie overall.

Having now recently seen them both back-to-back, my opinion was, weirdly enough, both affirmed and challenged.

If you haven’t seen it in a while, X-Men is probably not quite as good as you remember. Action-wise, the recent Marvel movies drink its milkshake right up. With the exception of the climactic battles in and on the Statue of Liberty, the action setpieces are all flashy curb-stomp battles where one side is completely overwhelmed and the outcome feels preordained. The final scenes remedy this, but do so at the expense of fight choreography that often looks distractingly hokey.

But it ain’t bad. The script has a light, deft touch that does a good job of humanizing its characters, and a lot of the quotable one-liners remain quite good in context. (“I am psychic, you know.”) Hugh Jackman owns as Wolverine, making his grumpy loner qualities come off as human and interesting when they could easily have been dull and tedious. And, of course, you have Ian McKellan as Magneto, who I tend to unjustly forget when discussing great cinematic supervillains. (Seriously, given the problems they’ve had with their own antagonists, Marvel Studios would probably kill to let Magneto be the baddie in one of their movies.) It deserves to be remembered as the strong foundation on which most modern superhero movies are based. Released today, it would come off as a worthy addition to the Marvel movies, just one that doesn’t particularly raise the bar — and given that, in the real world, it actually helped set that bar, that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

X2 definitely tries to raise the bar over its predecessor, and in many ways it succeeds. The plot is bigger, more ambitious, and more interesting. The action scenes are (mostly) far superior. Alan Cumming and the special effects team absolutely nail Nightcrawler, who seems to have been quite well written to begin with. Halle Berry doesn’t embarrass herself, and raises her game to “Unfortunate non-entity where there’s supposed to be a strong, iconic figure.”

But … here, let me quote MightyGodKing’s Christopher Bird on how this movie is generally remembered:

“Everything about this is good and nothing is bad.”

Nope nope nope nope noooooooooope.

The climactic fight scene between Wolverine and Lady Deathstryke may be the worst third-act showdown in superhero movie history. Going into the full details would double the size of this post and obscure the fact that on the balance I quite liked the movie, but the short version: no buildup, no stakes, horrifying ending that makes the “hero” out to be every bit the monster the villain claims he is — and then some.

Jean Grey’s heroic sacrifice was probably the worst heroic sacrifice in superhero movie history until Man of Steel topped that shit. Again, short version for exactly the same reasons: contrived, very low stakes, completely ignores the mutants who would have had a fighting chance at getting everybody to safety but who inexplicably sat on their hands the entire time while Jean got herself killed apparently for the sake of a misplaced callback to an iconic X-Men storyline that most people watching the movie (including me) couldn’t have cared less about.

Of course, that sacrifice happens during a ridiculously drawn-out ending (topped only by Return of the King) that keeps on going and going a solid twenty minutes after the movie should have ended.

And the dialog and character interactions don’t even touch what the first movie accomplished. In their place are thudding moments like Professor X’s clumsy-playful threat to make Wolverine think he’s a six-year-old girl, or that ghastly “We like what you’ve done with your hair,” which deserves to be as reviled as Storm’s “You know what happens to toads when they get hit by lightning?” reading, and isn’t because Ian McKellan is otherwise so freaking fantastic. (Seriously, list all the villains who would be so cruel and tasteless as to taunt a sixteen-year-old girl dealing with the aftermath of their unsuccessful murder attempt. It’s a short list. The Joker and King Joffrey “Baratheon” would be on it. Magneto and Mystique shouldn’t be anywhere near it.)

No, X2 gets a lot of things right, but fucks-up more places than I think movie nerds like to admit. It’s still a good movie. And I definitely respect the effort to raise the franchise’s game. But on the balance, I don’t think it’s any better than its predecessor.

Next up, possibly this weekend, are X-Men: The Last Stand, on which I hear opinions raging from “Eh, actually not that bad” to “No, really, that bad;” and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, for which my expectations have been set as low as you can get without digging into Manos: Hands of Fate territory.

  • Jasmine

    Cross-posted for posterity: So – since I am new to all of this and knew nothing about X-Men before jumping into this (short of “Storm and Wolverine are awesome”, an impression I think I had from the cartoons being played in the background of my childhood), I think I am uniquely qualified to discuss this. The first movie is the better one, in terms of being iconic. It’s simpler, yes, and I think that works in its favor. It’s the one I’ll remember more, though srsly what’s up with Halle Berry in these? The second one was more exciting and had more going on for it, but the looooooooongomg ending was so dumb. I definitely see where we got modern-day superhero movies from, having seen these two movies, but they’re definitely not as gripping as some of the current Marvel stuff (which I expected). I think perhaps the second X-Men movie is, as Pete says, more remembered for being good than anything else. And now I’m going to go back to work and stop talking about comic book movies.