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X2 is the only X-Men movie that ever really nailed the X-formula

The X-Men movies follow the comics and certain plot guidelines, but only X-Men United brings them together

Alan Cumming as Nightcrawler, a blue-skinned, yellow-eyed mutant with a spade-tipped tail, pins the president of the United States to his Oval Office desk and hisses in his face in X2: X-Men United Image: 20th Century Fox

For nearly two decades, 20th Century Fox produced X-Men films with a pretty simple formula. Each movie had a dual marquee plotline: one that was a grander, blockbuster-friendly event (and often a comic book adaptation), and one that provided a more personal emotional arc for a character. Sometimes they intersected in serviceable ways: The first film’s personal arc belongs to the runaway Rogue (Anna Paquin), who is horrified by her mutant powers, while Magneto (Ian McKellen), representing the other end of the spectrum, is trying to turn world leaders into mutants.

But often, the paired plotlines never gel: With X-Men: The Last Stand, director Brett Ratner and writers Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn seemingly couldn’t decide whether to focus on Magneto, Jean Grey, Rogue, or Wolverine. The film is so bloated that its mega-arc about a bittersweet “mutant cure” falls flat, and none of the cast members get space to breathe.

It doesn’t help that Wolverine evolved from major mutant player to the X-brand’s central mascot as of 2000’s X-Men, so even movies where he isn’t the central character, like Days of Future Past, are forced to operate in his shadow. But one film makes the standard X-formula work, not only by combining the emotional arc with the event arc, but by making fitting use of Wolverine’s leading-man status. 2003’s X2 merges various comic book storylines as a springboard to explore the mutant struggle, and it delivers on promises the prior film only hinted at, and that many of the later films missed entirely.

Hugh Jackman as Wolverine in X2: X-Men United puts his adamantium claws in some black-masked mook’s face Image: 20th Century Fox

The original 2000 X-Men gets by on the strength of its casting. Everyone is likable, especially Hugh Jackman, but Ian McKellan’s haunted gaze really seals the deal. The direction, on the other hand, is fairly milquetoast. It’s one of the reasons why, two years later, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man crushed X-Men at the box office, and remains the nostalgic favorite: It actually seems curious about the capabilities of its hero and his world. 2003’s X2 is a much stronger installment, especially due to the comic book storylines chosen to make up its twin backbones: the horrifying God Loves, Man Kills arc, and Wolverine’s traumatic history with the Weapon X program.

Written by Chris Claremont, perhaps the greatest author to ever touch the series, God Loves, Man Kills is about a fire-and-brimstone minister who attains troubling celebrity status by enabling the public’s rampant anti-mutant hysteria, with the U.S. government’s tacit blessing. The minister, William Stryker, who has also been involved in the murder of other young mutants and even his own mutant child, wants all mutants to die. It’s up to the X-Men and Magneto, teaming up as they so often do, to reveal Stryker’s genocide plan before he can kick it off.

The personal story in X2 involves the machinations of Weapon X, a secret government program that created would-be assassins like Wolverine, Sabretooth, Deadpool, and others. The project’s experiments famously added the adamantium to Wolverine’s skeleton, replacing his rad bone claws with rad metal claws. There is no single Weapon X storyline in the comics, as it’s constantly evolved over the last 50 years, but the X2 movie version lends Wolverine an efficient superhero origin story and gives him the sympathy he needs to subsist as both X-Men’s most notable character and its most notable asshole.

Director Bryan Singer (who later all but disappeared from Hollywood after a series of sexual misconduct and assault allegations) and his writing team tweaked those narratives when squishing them together: William Stryker is no longer a preacher, but instead the head scientist of Weapon X. Brian Cox plays him with cruel sovereignty. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) is mostly around to set up The Last Stand’s eventual lackluster “Dark Phoenix” adaptation, but this burgeoning plot point doesn’t make a mess of things. And instead of having committed filicide, Stryker’s mutant son is left alive as a lobotomized tool that Stryker uses to keep mutants in check.

Professor X (Patrick Stewart) sits with his eyes closed, surrounded by blue seats and orange lights, in X2: X-Men United Photo: 20th Century Fox

The Stryker plot and the Wolverine plot mainly work in concert because they’re both about the same thing at their core: villains who see mutants as less than human. The changing ways in which mankind views mutants lingers in nearly every bit of X-Men media, allowing X-stories to consider how humanity treats anyone perceived as an outsider or minority. The films are no different. That theme — which shifts from era to era, with mutants standing in for everything from those with AIDS to LBGTQ folk to immigrants — has kept the X-Men relevant since their creation in the 1960s.

But X-Men films, even at their best, often fail to grasp that idea at its most potent. It’s the curse of having a blockbuster about a multitude of people with cool nicknames and flashy powers. Inevitably, the scale will tip in favor of spectacle, leaving the characters’ indefinite struggle for recognition and equality as a kind of “Oh yeah, I guess that’s still going on, huh?” while the battle royale continues. The fight for civil rights is the X-Men’s most human story, but it’s mostly led to samey action sequences in The Last Stand, Days of Future Past, and Dark Phoenix — cold sequences of military dudes yelling “Go! Go! Go!” as they attack mutants while political leaders look uncomfortable.

X2, though, translates the struggle for equality in a surprisingly painful manner. Stryker’s initial attack on the X-Men’s manor is a tyrannical display of force, and the way he looms over his tragic son and sneers at Wolverine while espousing his beliefs makes him easily the most hateable baddie in the X-Men franchise. By filtering the theme of mankind’s distrust of mutants through this particular dynamic character, X2 eludes the imbalance many X-Men films face when they also have to play to the superhero-movie requirements.

Magneto (Ian McKellan), in all white, stands in his glass prison in X2: X-Men United and raises his hand, palm up, as he begins his escape Photo: 20th Century Fox

Concentrating on Stryker also makes the film feel surprisingly small, as giving the mutants a human antagonist allows them to react in human ways. Even Magneto, who spends most of the first film as a kind of X-Men final boss, is granted a seething personability in the face of someone (and something) that threatens them all. And Nightcrawler, introduced in X2’s opening sequence with an impressive special-effects-heavy battle, but revealed to be a quiet, religiously devout character, seems to symbolize this change of finding a relatable heart within the blockbuster extravaganza.

Having Wolverine — the easiest character for the X-Men films to use, but the hardest to master — as the physical conduit for painful exploitation of mutants gives the movie much of its ultimate singularity among the long-running series. Wolverine’s trajectory in the X-films is typically that he’s a jerk who doesn’t really want to help anyone else, until he does. That dynamic gets replayed throughout the franchise (it’s basically his whole arc in the first film) and even from scene to scene in some of the movies, and it’s often a way to insert some levity through grumbling quips.

Here, though, Wolverine is allowed to not just have a tortured past, but to actually be wounded. He ranges between being a screaming, animalistic force of nature and being the eternal little lost boy, with his extended life as a curse that means he will carry the burden of his nightmarish formation for that much longer.

Wolverine’s utter despair in the face of his tormentors makes his very personal struggle feel universally deadly, as pain is the intended goal of all the bigots who wish to see mutants gone. And the application of Stryker as both the face of that ideology and the performer of its central misdeed does the same, refining the overarching storyline down to one bitter, awful man. “One day, someone will finish what I’ve started!” Stryker threatens Wolverine in the finale, a promise that allows the film to end without an improbably tidy resolution to the war against mutants.

Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) sits in the X-Men’s plane, surrounded by gleaming blue seats and silver walls, in X2: X-Men United Photo: 20th Century Fox

In the 20 years since, a few X-films have outdone X2 in terms of one load-bearing strand or another. Assembled with stylish aplomb by Matthew Vaughn, X-Men: First Class’s story about the formation of the X-Men works well mainly because its director actually seems interested in them as a cast of characters rather than a bunch of people to bounce off Wolverine. And Logan delivers the emotional arc of its titular character with compelling poignancy because there’s really no other choice — every aspect of the film revolves around him in some way.

But no film has managed to simultaneously capture both the bigger mutant conflict and its effects on one character as well as X2 did. It isn’t a perfect film; director Bryan Singer mostly relies on the strength of the casting and the material. His boilerplate directing style does the story no favors, outside of a few inspired sequences. By the time he reached his last franchise installment, X-Men: Apocalypse, any aspirations for a personal story were crushed under the weight of the clumsily executed comic book derivations. X2 is an outlier in its franchise and in Singer’s filmography — a rare example of two sides of a story finding peaceful cohabitation instead of strangled partnership.