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Amid action, 'X2' offers quiet message of struggle

May 12, 2003|Scott Essman

In his review of "X2: X-Men United" (May 2), Times film critic Kenneth Turan engrosses the reader with canny descriptions of the effects and thrills in the new comic-book action-adventure film. At the end of the review, however, he notes that " 'X2' might not be the place you'd think to look for any kind of message."

Yet one need only look slightly below the surface to discover the horde of homosexual references that director Bryan Singer and company have laid into the foundation of the film.

In its most general sense, "X2" is about a league of mutants (born distinctly different from "humans") led by professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen), two apparently childless, single, middle-aged males. That all mutants are excluded from mainstream society, warranting a special underground society (Xavier's school and Magneto's more radical band of neo-terrorists), is a profoundly homosexual undercurrent in the film.

In the world of "X2," we see reactionary politicians, namely William Stryker (Brian Cox), who wishes to wipe out all mutants (coincidental parallels to recent Pennsylvania politicians?). In Stryker's case, his wrath is most directly driven by the discovery that his son was a mutant -- a classic metaphor for a straight father rejecting his gay son.

Moreover, heterosexual love is as confusing as it is forbidden for "X2's" lead characters. Thirtysomething Jean Grey (Famke Jannsen) is conflicted over feelings that she has for both Cyclops (James Marsden) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), unable to consummate her love for either. Forced to deal with his own demons, Wolverine fantasizes about Grey and Rogue (Anna Paquin) but cannot make a choice; there are too many uncertainties in his past that lead him on his tortured path. He plays right into the hands of cunning Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), a shape-shifter whose profound beauty and ability to change sexual personas comes off as a tease to Wolverine, leaving him unable to choose. After a female character commits suicide, in part due to her own sexual identity conflicts, Cyclops and Wolverine are forced to console one another, though they cannot make direct eye contact.

Still, the most profound impact of "X2's" subtext is found in its young, indecisive characters. Rogue is unable to physically touch her "boyfriend" Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), a strong symbol of the taboo nature of homosexual feelings that the characters have sublimated. In their early 20s or younger, Rogue and Iceman confess that they are "working it out" when it comes to their relationship. A third young character, Pyro (Aaron Stanford), represents the possible love triangle.

When the group, expelled from Xavier's compound, arrives at Iceman's house, his parents are unaware he is a mutant. They reject him, his brother turning him in with Judas-like severity, and Iceman is forced to abandon the family, ostensibly forever. How many American teens can relate to this scene on a profoundly emotional level?

"X2's" numerous subtleties and dialogue references are many and will require multiple viewings to reveal. This author's favorites: a map showing the existence of mutants in virtually every corner of the Earth, and a phallic symbol in the shape of a soda bottle, handed from one character to another who blows on it to make the soda cold. Only a smart and distinguished production like "X2" could include that scene and still play in thousands of multiplexes.

The film represents a brilliant attempt to infuse a mainstream entertainment with homosexual themes and issues, playing to mass audiences without hitting them over the head with overtly gay material. Whereas many prominent gay characters are presented as cause for comic relief on popular TV sitcoms, Singer and his collaborators have carefully crafted a film that on the surface is an action spectacular, but is much more than that, speaking quietly to general audiences. As "X2's" mutants internally struggle over whether to separate or integrate into humanity, a strong parallel is drawn to our gay community's battles to do the same in our "straight" society.

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Freelance writer Scott Essman most recently produced a DVD about the career of makeup artist Jack Pierce. He lives in Glendora and can be reached at scottessman@yahoo.com.

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