I had somehow missed the first three X-Men movies, and have still missed The Last Stand, technically. But when I asked a comics friend if I should watch that one too, he responded, “Not if you’re sober,” so we’re just gonna pass that one (until I’m not).
Part of me feels like I should try to compare and contrast X1 and X2, to figure out what makes the first one good and the second one great, but what even is the answer there? Is X2 just better plotted? X1 more bogged down with character introduction? Maybe. But then again, I like character introduction. I also love scene setting, and X1 is fabulous at that. It starts in Poland, perfectly. Michael Chabon knew exactly what he was doing when he began The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay* with a boy in 1930s Czechoslovakia, because to tell your story of new American gods, it is good to start in the Old World. Comic book characters sprung like primary-colored Athena’s from the minds of scrappy young Jewish men in Brooklyn, New York, trying to literally live on imagination, and so yeah: Erik Lehnsherr.
Let’s talk about Erik Lehnsherr.
Charles Xavier is important too but we’ll get to him in a minute — we start with Erik, because Erik demands you start with him, because Erik is angry. And his anger is important. Sure, it’s the most blatant bit of on-the-nose storytelling since maybe the Mutation As Queerness Metaphor that we’ll also be getting to (there is a lot to be got to in the X-Men franchise) (I love the X-Men franchise), but when Erik shows you the concentration camp numbers stained into his wrist and swears he will not be rounded up again, well you’d be forgiven for whispering some awed curse words.
In the world of the X-Men movies, the whole structure of how people react to superpowers is different than in its Marvel sister-universe, the Avengers franchise, because here our heroes are “mutants.” Instantly set apart, not normal, Other, with all the fear and lack of safety and hot resentment that comes with that. Which is why it means everything for the mutants to find community with each other — for Logan to normalize the hell out of Rogue’s impossible existence with a simple “Fair enough” as they rumble through Canada in his truck, to support Bobby when he reveals that he hasn’t “come out” to his family yet, to always assure each other that “mutation is not a disease” and they do not need to be fixed. The mutants are persecuted for being different, violently so, and as extreme and just flat bad as his aims and methods may be, we fully get why Erik is not going to stand for it. I genuinely forget he’s the villain at times, in a way I never do even with other sympathetic super-enemies like, say, Loki.
But then again, X2 contains this actual bit of dialogue:
Pyro: “So, they say you’re the bad guy.”
Magneto: “Is that what they say?”
“They” both is and is not Charles, because damn if Charles doesn’t wish every minute that Erik weren’t the bad guy. But he is Charles’ perfect foil, that is sure. Because where Erik is a pessimist who believes humankind has had chances to not be awful and blown them repeatedly, Charles Xavier is an optimist who believes in everyone’s capacity for goodness. He has a sense of faith in both individuals and the universe, at a strength rarely seen outside of maybe Agent Dale Cooper. And just as we need Erik’s anger, Professor X’s unconquerable hope is also so important. Even if it weren’t for the future of the world, and were simply the trust that someday he and Erik might be on the same side again. Erik, whom Charles loves almost like a threat — “I will always be there, old friend,” he assures him in his plastic prison, always.
I haven’t even mentioned anyone’s powers. Their powers are SO COOL. Magneto controls metals, which is spectacularly useful and/or dangerous in 99.9% of situations. Magneto is formidable. And Professor X has telepathy, feels people’s thoughts and can slip into their minds, and I adore that I’m still not exactly sure about the scope of what he can do, because that feels right. Charles, your power is spooky. It’s a good thing you mean so well.
But that’s just Magneto and the Professor. We could be here all day if I went through all the mutants we meet in just the first two X-Men movies. There are just so many of them, and their abilities so varied, that the cast of characters basically becomes a murderers’ row of deus ex machinas, and I love it. It’s high fun the way a heist movie is: assembling a mod podge team of people with different skills but one common goal.
Now, don’t get me wrong — the X-Men movies are not exactly nuanced masterpieces of cinema. Like all superhero movies, they are grand in a way that’s always hovering on the line between glorious and ridiculous. They have the myth’s hand-wave toward plot holes and rationality, because that’s not why they exist. They exist because we want to see a woman who can create storms come spinning into a frozen forest in a whirlwind, crackling lighting out of her fingertips, and rescue two new members of her found-family of beautiful, melodramatic weirdos. That is why we go see X-Men movies.
Anyway, to answer my initial question: X2 is better because it contains Nightcrawler.
* If anyone with even a passing interest in comic books or their history has not read Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, wow do I ever encourage you to do that. It won the Pulitzer for fiction for good reason. Read it in October — it feels like it’s always October in that book.