In the X-Men comics, the Jean Grey/Phoenix/Dark Phoenix sequence originally from the 1970's and 80's was one of the all-time great storylines in all of comics history. In fact, it's still going, because Marvel realized (somewhat too late) just how powerful that theme was with the fans. The echos and spinoffs from the Phoenix saga have kept resonating through all the X-Men titles with follow-on characters like the post-Phoenix real Jean Grey (in the long-running X-Factor series), her apparent clone Madelyne Pryor (whom Scott Summers married when Jean was MIA and presumed dead, had a son with, then separated), Rachel Grey/Summers (the daughter of Jean and Scott from an alternate timeline), and ongoing conflicts between Scott and Wolverine, Jean's two lovers. And the Phoenix entity itself keeps showing up, once in a while. Jean herself has been put through a confusing near-endless cycle of death/resurrection/Phoenix re-animation, though it seems unlikely any of these would make it into the movies, since the X-films have now defined a path of their own.
According to screenwriter Zak Penn, the original concept for the movie X2 (X-Men United) was to go all the way into the Phoenix story, but he persuaded director Bryan Singer to hold back on it till the X-Men movie world was more well established. On its own merit I'd say that was a wise move; it's just that in X3 (2006) under different director Brett Ratner, they actually did go into Phoenix and messed it up. However, hope springs eternal. We'll see what the new Dark Phoenix (2019) has to show us next year with the rebooted younger X-Men cast. Fingers crossed.
Anyway, in X2 we just get three short moments when the Phoenix entity makes its appearance within Jean as a sort of prelude, but they're exciting moments in themselves and a key to the big climactic scene that is the payoff to the whole movie. From the moment of its theater release (2003) X2 has been one of my favorite movies, let alone superhero movies. And I'll say that a rating of 10/10 doesn't mean 'perfect', which as far as I'm concerned can't be defined for films; it just reflects how I feel about it. I watched this again on DVD just this week and it still holds up very well against all the other movies in this now-big genre.
My "top 5" list of all-time best superhero flicks right now is (no particular order) X2, Thor, Iron Man, Avengers, and Wonder Woman. What do they have in common? The answer isn't great special effects, although they all have that. It's (a) storyline and (b) characters that we care about, just like in any good movie of any genre. X2 from 15 years back is the oldest of these. Its special effects are just fine for what it needs, but the point is that it does NOT rely on its big action sequences as its whole reason for being. It's what happens BETWEEN those action set pieces that matters: the story, the characters, the dialog. If those are good, then you've got something that lasts.
After the success of the first X-Men (2000) we eagerly looked forward to the second instalment with anticipation and a bit of anxiety: would it be as good? maybe even better? It delivered, and that was important: the whole idea of the superhero genre was very new then and its eventual success was not at all guaranteed. The familiar X-people were back, the key actors were more comfortable with their roles, and the new people (Nightcrawler, Pyro, and brief bits by Colossus and Shadowcat) fitted in well -- the opening scene of the movie where Nightcrawler blitzes the White House guards to get to the president is one of the great introductions to a character who's going to play a substantial role in the rest of the movie.
The X-Men franchise has had some distinctive things going for it compared with the MCU. Right from the start, it's had something closer to gender parity with Storm, Jean, Mystique, Rogue all having strong roles. (And X2 easily passes the Bechdel test: as an example, see the scenes between Jean and Storm when they go off to track down Nightcrawler.) This is ground that the MCU still hasn't covered 15 years later. Another strong point is that the dialog and direction of the X-films doesn't rely on Joss Whedon-like self-referential humor, irony, or snark. Those have their place -- at Whedon's best, it's brilliant -- but at times it's just nice to watch something that takes itself seriously and where the issues feel real. Wonder Woman (2017) fits that category, too.
On repeated viewings of X2, though, you really start to admire the structure of the plot -- its complex web of interlocking storylines and characters, and the patient way in which it all unfolds until everything finally comes together in the last half-hour. Just about every piece of the web that appears in the first half of the film, large or small, gets used in the second half. If your movie is just a framework for running from one action scene to another for the sake of eye candy, you can't do that.
Who is actually the central character, among this big cast and complex story? Logan (Hugh Jackman) is the center of a sub-plot about uncovering his own origin, but he's not at the epicenter of the entire film. Magneto (Ian McKellen) is in a lot of scenes and is the leader of a sort of parallel attack on Stryker, but again no. Professor X (Patrick Stewart) is MIA in the middle of the film (again!) and surprisingly we hardly notice. As I hinted above, this movie belongs to Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). On a second or third viewing, you can see the ending coming in what happens with Jean throughout the film (including, especially, the first appearances of the immensely powerful Phoenix force within her). And it's the last 15 minutes that lift this movie from good to great. Jean's heartrending, fully self-aware sacrifice allows all the rest of the team to survive, along with the mutant kids rescued from the evil Stryker's clutches. Greater love hath no man. The emotional kick of this scene is doubled by the grief pouring out from Scott and Logan, who both desperately loved her in different ways.
Not that there aren't other good action sequences at well calibrated intervals. There's the visit of Bobby, Rogue, Pyro, and Wolverine to Bobby's parents' house (where we get the best line of the film from Bobby's mother, "Have you tried ... not being a mutant?), which goes sideways when the police arrive. There's the Blackbird chase by two fighter planes, with the moment when the Phoenix force first pops up; the all-out violence of the fight between Wolverine and Deathstryke; and the extended battle within the giant hydropower dam-turned-lab. But again, it's what happens between these that is important. The characters develop, interact, grow, and end up different people than they started.
It was a letdown that X3 (2006) couldn't continue the string. The franchise wouldn't rise to these heights again until Days of Future Past (2014). We'll see what next year's Dark Phoenix has to bring. The storyline is still begging for a good treatment.
(A footnote: Jean Grey is a puzzingly colorless name (no pun intended) given that it's from Stan Lee himself, that lovable promoter and genius behind the Marvel superhero universe. Stan came up with loads of strong and/or alliterative names for his comics characters like Susan Storm; Peter Parker; Jessica Jones; Luke Cage; Ororo Munroe; Scott Summers; Rogue; Reed Richards; Ben Grimm; Stephen Strange; Nick Fury; and dozens more. Why something so ordinary?)
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