Special Feature: Is ‘X2’ the greatest comic book adaptation?

I saw Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass (2010) for the second time last night and I can honestly say the film loses none of its edge on a repeat viewing. Like many of those who have seen the big screen adaptation of Mark Millar and John Romita Jr’s graphic, yet hilarious take on the superhero genre, I loved the film. Yes, it was unspeakably violent; yes, some of the comedy may tread rather close to certain lines of acceptability – but hell, it was fun.

Whether you’re a ‘Nouvelle Vague’ devotee, an Ingmar Bergman worshipper, or a stern follower of British Social Realism, the reason you started watching films as more than just a diversion was because you enjoyed the experience. Kick-Ass undoubtedly delivers ‘enjoyment’ by the bucket load.

However, Kick-Ass is not my favourite superhero movie. That honour goes to X2: X-Men United (2003), Bryan Singer’s superb follow up to the hugely successful X-Men (2000). Much to Singer’s credit, the first film threw out some of the iconic imagery associated with the original Marvel comic and early ’90s, Saturday morning cartoon (including the X-Men’s lurid blue and yellow spandex, instead replaced with slick, black leather suits).

Cult favourite Logan/’Wolverine’ (Hugh Jackman) and Marie/’Rogue’ (Anna Paquin) became the film’s central focus as they joined fellow ‘mutants’ at Charles Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) ‘Academy for Gifted Youngsters’. Xavier’s students then successfully united in order to foil the plans of Machiavellian mutant ‘Magneto’ (Sir Ian McKellen).

For the much-anticipated sequel, Singer ramped up both the action and the emotional stakes. Magneto’s thrilling escape from his plastic prison (telepathically ripping the iron atoms from the blood of his guards before gliding to his escape) remains one of my all-time favourite cinematic moments. Equally as thrilling is the film’s opening sequence, following renegade mutant Kurt Wagner/’Nightcrawler’ (Alan Cumming) as he defeats ranks of White House bodyguards in order to get within an inch of the US President – in my opinion, easily the best opening to any comic book adaptation.

However, it is emotional power that is the key to X2’s enduring brilliance. Each and every mutant has their individual issues and ‘demons’, yet the film never falls into the territory of ‘super-powered’ melodrama. Importantly, we truly care for the film’s characters: when Bobby Drake/’Iceman’ (Shawn Ashmore) ‘comes out’ to his parents about his mutation and faces their denial and rejection, or when Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) sacrifices herself to save her friends, it strikes an emotional chord.

Compare this to the other supposed ‘greats’ of the genre: in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), do we the audience really care about the death of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal)? If we have any prior knowledge of the Spider-Man universe before going into one of Sam Raimi’s recent adaptations, we know that the protagonist’s Uncle Ben will die as it’s intrinsic to the structure and psychology of both the narrative and character.

Vaughn’s Kick-Ass perhaps comes closest to X2’s pathos, yet it is undeniably easier to make a character who we are constantly reminded is ‘only human’, seem human. Singer’s X2 delivers on its opening promise – a recitation of Lincoln’s inaugural speech on the importance of friendship over enmity – by reminding us that ‘humanity’ is more than just mere genetics; the film’s mutants, reviled as freaks, are still people. It may sound clichéd when put across so bluntly, but it is this subtext of acceptance and equality that raises X2 above the competition.

Sadly, the third film in the series, Brett Ratner’s overwrought, brainless, soul-crushingly awful X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), book-ended the trilogy with a disappointing low. The feminism of Singer’s films was replaced by idiotic misogyny; the calls for accepting and understanding all others replaced with fear-mongering and analogies of racial-war. The Last Stand was not only a failure of filmmaking in terms of narrative and character construction, but a complete betrayal of the ideological standpoint of the first two films.

Singer has since gone on to make the underrated Superman Returns (2006), a project reportedly closer to his heart than X-Men. However, with rumours suggesting that Singer could be set for a return to the franchise as soon as his schedule allows, it seems that the superior style and substance of X2 could potentially be revived. I for one can’t wait to see the end product.

David Sugarman