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Posted by gustav at 05:00AM, Thursday, December 05th, 2002

The Most Subtext since Spiderman

X2, the second in the presumed X-Men trilogy, gives us a relativist, anti-authoritarian allegory that references both homosexuality and the Bush administration's War on Rights, while setting box-office records. What could be better for a summer blockbuster?

I liked the first X-Men movie for a bunch of reasons: unlike everything else out around that time (paging The Matrix...), it didn't take itself too seriously; it had a fascinating outsider premise -- do we try to blend in, or say screw you to the rest of society? -- which it refused to paint in black and white; it had a good cast, with its best actor as the head evil guy; and it had a nice look -- good special effects, a little too CGI but without the matrix-trendy pervasive ass-grey look, and good action choreography. The upshot was that it was unexpectedly good. It clearly left the door open for sequels, and my fear was that they would only be rehashes, adding nothing to the original while riding its success (paging The Phantom Menace...)

Fortunately, the sequel manages to add quite a bit of new contemplative fodder, while maintaining high standards of brainless action, and ends up being quite a bit better than the original. In social-relevance-land, a lot of the plot is about the aftermath of the mutant-registration legislation that was the political plot-point of the last movie. Now the government has moved on to secret arrests and detainment of mutants. Hmmm. Sounds vaguely like something that's been going on in the U.S. over the last two years under the guise of anti-terrorism. I found it pleasing in the last movie that the philosophical difference between the antagonists -- Patrick Stewart wanting to assimilate; Ian McKellen saying they want to kill us, let's get ready to do the same -- were illustrated without a narrative voice saying "clearly, this is the only right choice; the other is *evil*." Both were presented with backstory, and with sympathy and credible motivation for the characters involved. I was a little surprised to see this level of ambivalence not just kept up but increased in the new movie. Here, the antagonistic factions join forces against a greater threat, which is presented by a special-ops type force nominally not condoned by the president, who consciously turned his back on their actions while giving them a green light to do whatever they wanted. Again, this all sounds remarkably familiar (Watergate, Iran-Contra, etc.)

(Anectode time: In one early scene, the director of this special ops group has an altercation with a senator. The senator is urging the director not to start a war on U.S. citizens. The director quips some macho bullshit -- "I was raping and pillaging in Viet Nam when your mommy was breast-feeding you at Woodstock, so don't talk to me about war" or some such. A guy in the front of the audience let out a no-doubt CNN-blowing-up-Iraq-warmonger-fed whoop for the director. I had to wonder whether he knew he was cheering for what would clearly be the film's bad guy.)

The whole idea of a secret population that can make a choice about either living, undetected, amongst society's normals, or demonstrating their differences and dealing with the consequences must, of course, refer to the debate about sexuality and choice which the fascist right continues to wage in this country (no coincidence here that the movie makes direct reference to fascist oppression of at least one mutant.) There are a couple quiet lines that play on this, and one big scene where a mutant kid has to come out to his family, replete with tear-jerked "we still love yous," and sibling-rivalry-gone-wrong. The subtext in this scene is clear, and it's done with compassion and humor, and successfully ties in with the rest of the humanist leanings of the film. Which isn't to say I would mind seeing more gay X-Men (aside from Sir Ian.) I start to wonder whether this sort of thing is becoming a pre-requisite for box-office success. I suppose I'd be pleased if it did -- it's a welcome change from the endless fag-bashing jokes of Jackie Chan and Eddie Murphy movies. Those liberals in Hollywood, you know.

I'm still a little astounded after seeing X2. It has all the good stuff you expect from a well-executed action movie -- good, mostly non-obvious CGI (for me, CGI-obviousness and the greyness that most of the big-budget stuff seems to have is a huge turn-off; I'll take the clunky but fun and carefully-planned animated shots from The Empire Strikes Back, or the casual, almost-unnoticed warmth of the talking lamp from Amelie, over the self-adoring desaturated-grey soulless effects of the digitized Gollum from The Two Towers or the inept everything of The Matrix any day); excellent fight scenes; good quips (paging Buffy season seven...); girls adept enough to beat up the guys; and overall decent pacing (the denoument is a little too sequel-obvious, while not being quite portentous enough to pull the sequel cliffhanger thing off). I still can't believe that such a movie can be so intellectual and political. This isn't the Joseph Campbell-style UrMyth that Star Wars was. This is a warning about the places the assault on the Bill of Rights can take us. For it to come out in such high profile, and do *so* well, in the age of Emperor Bush II is about as mind-bending as seeing the obviously-gay Sal Mineo character with beefcake pinups in Rebel Without a Cause from McCarthy-era 1955. I suppose oppression always induces creativity, and I'm always happy to see anti-authority messages out there. This is just one of the last genres I would have expected such a thing.

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