For a good, long time, my favorite “action movie” was, hands down, X2, aka “X-Men United.” I mean, it has plenty of melee action, bullets, and explosions, in addition to superpowers, a thrilling story driven by the characters, etc. It’s a pretty thrilling ride. But it’s been awhile since I’ve gone back and seen it again, so I started thinking.
As I considered this post, I got to thinking, is it still my favorite? I mean, take your pick of quality action flicks from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or the Spider-Man franchise, or one of the classic action movies. There’s The A-Team, The Matrix, any one of many Jackie Chan films, the Mission Impossible films, the recent Sherlock Holmes pair of films, the first Transformers, Van Helsing, Taken, and an ongoing, and growing, list of more. And that’s just the actual movies, not even touching the television shows.
While I’ve listed entire franchises in previous Top Picks, I find I must limit myself to a single movie for this one. So:
I’d say the single best contender for X2’s throne is Dark Knight, the second installment of Nolan’s trilogy. Batman Begins had to set things up first (and the various MCU movies compete with each other too well to pick one) so Dark Knight comes out leading the pack. But how do do the current king and this challenger really compare?
Like X2, Dark Knight has a melee action, bullets, and explosions (in spades). It has a much more convoluted storyline than X2, courtesy of DK’s Joker being a madman, far less confined than were X2’s antagonists, Striker and Magneto. There were technically more baddies in DK than X2, but there was only one chief antagonist, with all the chaos, murders, and even the fall of Gotham’s angel, Harvey Dent, being the handiwork of the Joker. Meanwhile, the conflict in X2 was three-way, and had two chief antagonists.
In DK, the conflict was an old, elemental struggle between Joker and Batman, where one seeks to make people worse and the other wants to inspire people to be better. This was explored thoroughly, with major and minor characters making pivotal choices, good and bad.
In X2, the conflict was between two warmongers on opposing sides and the peacemakers caught between the two. Striker and Magneto were very much reflections of each other, each predicting the doom of their own “kind” at the hands of the other, unless they strike first and annihilate the whole lot of them all at once! All the more impressive, then, when the X-Men manage to foil the schemes of both, in a simple quest for coexistence.
Considering all the tensions in the world today, including in my own nation, I’d say both of these movies deliver much-needed messages. Dark Knight argues that people are good, so long as they choose to be, and so long as they can be selfless. United speaks of peace and coexistence, opposing the forces which stir our fears to urge us towards the path of war and destruction.
Worthy themes, both.
So, DK is more complicated and, on a certain level, more personal, with bigger explosions, and all with one overwhelming villain for our hero to fight. Meanwhile, X2 is a little simpler, perhaps, but more potent for it, with multiple sides and villains, a fairly balanced cast of heroes, and with a single, resounding argument for tolerance. So, for content, conflict, and villainy, the race between these two is fairly neck-and-neck.
So how about the characters?
Well, in DK, most all of the characters, good and bad, develop some, yet stay very much as they have always been. Harvey Dent is the prime example of a man who changes, as he gives up on the good he has fought for. The loss of his soul is far worse than the loss of Rachel’s life. Of course, that is partially because Katie Holmes was too busy with Mad Money to come and see her character to her demise, else that would have been a truly gut-wrenching loss, compounded by what comes after.
X2 has less character development, but more of a concrete “quest” for them to follow. Cyclops simply gets the short end of the stick in every movie, which is ironic as he’s supposed to be the primary leader of the X-Men after Charles Xavier. Everyone else gets a little something, though. Halle Berry’s portrayal of Storm comes into her own as a leader and as a character, partially through her interactions with Nightcrawler.
Wolverine finds out a great deal about his past, and eventually gives up that quest altogether in favor of his new family, even after proving that, yes, he is the baddest ass on the block.
Even Jean gets her own mini-arc, with her power growing exponentially while turning down Wolverine, and then giving her life to save the boyfriend whose potentially-mountain-leveling power she just overwhelmed, by holding an entire lake of water at bay for a few moments while lifting the X-Jet up and out of harm’s way.
Ok, I take it back. DK puts its characters through a tighter wringer, but X2 has more character development, and losing Jean really is a heart-breaking loss.
So, X2 is nudging ahead of DK now.
And while DK is certainly thrilling and explosive, it also just kind of brushes over the part where Batman kidnaps a Chinese citizen and delivers him to the authorities who lose him to the Joker, who murders him. That would have some serious repercussions on an international scale.
X2 feels a little more “real world” in that respect. It opens with Nightcrawler’s mind-controlled assault on the President, and it ends with dealing with the consequences of that exact event. Similarly, when Wolverine defeats Lady Deathclaw, he has to carry the weight of looking into her eyes, seeing her finally come to her senses exactly after he has dealt the finishing blow.
DK, meanwhile, features Batman taking the blame for things he did not do, in order to preserve the name of a man who lost his soul and his morality, and whose name, we saw in Dark Knight Rises, was used to deny humans, albeit criminals, their rights. And this happens right after a literal boatload of these criminals refused to save their own lives at cost of innocent civilians.
So, again, X2 just barely manages to edge ahead of the thrilling, explosive, and poignant Dark Knight.
At least, in my book.
So, once again my favorite, albeit with some pretty good competition: X2: X-Men United.