September 11 was but an unimaginable future horror when Bryan Singer set to work on his sequel to X-Men. Yet, in the time it has taken for the $120 million comic-book blockbuster to reach our screens, a weird synchronicity between art and real life has occurred. Almost by chance, X-Men 2 now looks like a highly polished mirror held up to our troubled times. It is not just post-9/11, but post-Iraq.
Given that the timeless themes of intolerance and prejudice have always been at the heart of the X-Men universe - the first film even opened in a concentration camp - and given the seemingly limitless adaptability of the comic books’ mutant metaphor, it is not a complete surprise to find our own world reflected in the multi-layered fantasy of X-Men 2. What is astonishing, though, is the sheer clarity of that reflection.
"It’s really, truly amazing," gasps Brian Cox. A newcomer to the franchise, the acclaimed Scottish actor plays William Stryker, a US government official who uses a mutant’s attempt to assassinate the President to justify an attack on Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, by implying that the target is a terrorist training facility.
Soldiers enter the mansion at night and shoot tranquilliser darts into sleeping children. As military helicopters hover noisily above the mansion, all is panic and chaos inside. The upshot is a local war between "normal" humans and mutants which threatens to escalate into global mass destruction. Sound familiar?
Although there was a press junket for X-Men 2 in LA, Cox says London is the first place he has done publicity for the film.
"I think the Americans are very nervous about Stryker, because they don’t want to damage their opening weekend. But you can’t blame the film for history kind of realising itself. Stryker does happen to be Director of Homeland Security, though. So that - and the fact that we’re dealing with these right wing hawks - makes it a little awkward, to say the least.
"This shows you the kind of mentality that is going on and the pressure that people are under in the States. It’s not a very nice time, to be honest. It’s also about fear, because everybody’s afraid of their position."
As if to illustrate Cox’s point, Dan Harris, one half of the film’s young writing duo, later tries to distance himself from comments he made to the American magazine Cinefantastique comparing Stryker to George W Bush, and the events in the film to the invasion of Iraq. "I was just blabbering, and I apologise for that. So we can’t talk about that. I was wrong, because I said some dumb, dumb, dumb things that weren’t true," he says, unconvincingly.
Stryker could be "a bit" problematic, admits producer Lauren Schuler Donner, because he represents the government and reflects "government suspicion of anybody who looks Middle Eastern. But that’s an unhappy coincidence," she suggests. "In terms of themes, X-Men 2 would be relevant at any time."
Donner is right. Historically, the X-Men comics have always had their finger on the zeitgeist, so X-Men 2 is simply carrying on that tradition. "Spider-Man is about a teenager growing up and getting the girl," sneers co-writer Mike Dougherty. "The X-Men films have a political awareness."
Indeed, it was in part the conflicting ideologies of progressive liberal Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and the militant Magneto (Ian McKellen) that drew Bryan Singer, who was keen to make a science fiction fantasy film, to the X-Men story in the first place.
"The notion that Professor Xavier was Martin Luther King and Magneto was Malcolm X, and these were two men who had very strong, decent beliefs, but had taken different roads. And the irony of that, and the moral ambiguity of that, intrigued me. It was a step beyond simple crime-solving, superhero action. It was much more socio-political, and in that way exposed more truth."
Of course, there are myriad other readings - Xavier and Magneto could be Jews fighting for and against assimilation, for instance - which is partly why the X-Men comics have lasted 40 years and are now spread across six different titles (as well as spawning an animated TV series and video game). Another reason for this longevity is the mutant metaphor, which is so allegorically adaptable that it allows for a high level of identification whatever your race, creed, colour, religion, sexual orientation, age or whatever. The fact, too, that its superheroes are treated like outcasts and freaks is, ironically, also highly comforting, especially for adolescents.
"The things that make the X-Men freaks also empower them, which is cool," says Shawn Ashmore, who plays Bobby Drake, aka Iceman, in the films. "Because when you’re a teenager reading this comic book or watching the film, it’s like the things that make you feel different are usually the positive things, but you don’t see it at the time. You sort of have to grow into that."
Singer was a perfect choice to direct this material. Not only is he able to handle large ensemble casts but, as a gay Jew, he also knows what it is like to be part of a minority. More than most summer event movies, X-Men 2 - and X-Men before it - feels like personal film-making. Where the first film seemed to express his feelings about being Jewish in America, the new one makes its themes of homosexuality and homophobia more explicit. None of the characters is actually gay, but one does literally "come out" to his parents about his mutant powers. "Have you ever tried not being a mutant?" asks his shocked mother.
Elsewhere, the fact that Alan Cumming is gay gives his casting as Nightcrawler, a teleporting blue-skinned mutant who happens also to be Catholic, a mischievous subversive twist.
"He’s a devout Catholic but he looks like the devil, so I couldn’t think of anything more appropriate than putting an openly gay actor in that role," laughs Dougherty. "It’s like an openly gay actor playing a superhero, which people don’t usually think go together, and playing a superhero who is a Catholic demon. It’s a perfect match."
Singer’s identification with the material, I discover, goes beyond questions of religion and sexuality. He was, he tells me, an "infant adoption", so Wolverine’s quest to discover his origins has become an increasingly personal journey for him. "Because it’s not just about where did I come from, who am I really, but how important is that to who I am now and to who I’m going to be?" says Singer.
So these films are a way for Singer to explore his own situation?
"Absolutely. And what better way than in a giant, action, summer event movie. I could think of no better place to spill out one’s own personal problems and foist them onto the world," he laughs. "And for that I apologise.
"But then again," he adds, "these ideas and concepts have existed in the X-Men world since its creation at the height of the civil rights movement in America in the 1960s. They are what has been the backbone through all six offshoots of the comic book, the graphic novels and the animated series - tolerance, acceptance, finding your place in the world, prejudice."
Linking the X-Men movies to Singer’s previous films, The Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil, is a fascination with the cause and nature of evil. In X-Men, Magneto’s militant line and cynical view of human nature is founded in his incarceration in a Nazi concentration camp. The fear of the knock on the door haunts both X-Men films, while Cerebro, the machine Xavier uses to communicate telepathically with the world’s mutants, becomes a weapon by which Stryker could carry out his final solution to the "mutant problem".
Underneath its thrilling set pieces, humour and moving relationships, X-Men 2 is actually quite a chilling film. Ultimately, it all goes back to Singer. "I was very obsessed with the Holocaust as a child and man’s inhumanity to man and, ultimately, it came from my fear of intolerance. In certain places, for whatever reason, just for being Caucasian or having blue eyes, someone might want to cut my head off. For being American, for just being myself, someone might want to destroy me. That concept is so terrifying that it constantly bears exploration."
With luck, he will continue this exploration in a third X-Men film. Certainly the door is left open for another instalment, although only X-fans are likely to know the meaning behind the movie’s mysterious final image ...
Published in The Scotsman, 23 April, 2003