If one's a nerd, growing up is supposed to be a good thing. One gets to finally leave behind those difficult teenage years: the crying jags, the freakish bodily changes, the days of writing bad poetry and brooding to the sounds of the Cure, Metallica and Sergei Prokofiev's "Violin Sonata No. 1 in f minor." One can also abandon that haunting sense of alienation, that feeling -- half self-loathing and half self-aggrandizement -- that no one can understand the misfit pain of being so different, so weird . . . and (one's unconscious whispers) so special. It can all be forgotten -- unless one is a Marvel Comics X-Man, a mutant whose strange and staggering powers are feared by the rest of society. To be an X-Man is to illustrate that most human of afflictions -- a graceless adolescence -- and that most human of hopes -- to be truly exceptional.
Or so I gathered from the first X-Men movie. For all its lumpiness, the debut feature had an unexpected lyricism in the way it cast social estrangement and discrimination against an apocalyptic backdrop. The mutants grappled with all those pubescent issues -- stories locked in the past, nascent sexuality, alienation -- but also faced harsh prejudice and the threats of war and extinction. Teen angst (even among the grown-up mutants) met broad references to ethnic, racial and sexual hatred. It was a heady stew.
The X-Men franchise has changed in the few years since the smash success of the first film. The new film is geared to do even more damage at the box office, as X2 has a half-hour on its predecessor, more characters and beefier special effects. But it's lost some of the plangent quality of the first movie, that feeling of urgency and struggle that made its characters memorable. In growing up, X2 has become a more solid piece of entertainment, perhaps, but it's lost a bit of its soul.
Much remains the same from the first movie. The good guy X-Men are facing the usual challenges. Wolverine (played by Hugh Jackman), all "adamantium" claws and omnipresent facial hair, stalks around like a nightmare version of the Fonz. Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), the X-Men's father figure and a preacher of harmonious mutant-human relations, comes under attack, as does his special school for "gifted children" -- that is, mutant kids. Storm (Halle Berry) is consumed with anger. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) is having difficulty controlling her telepathic abilities. And Rogue (Anna Paquin), the pouty teen whose barest touch can suck the life out of you, is trying to figure out how to kiss her boyfriend without killing him.
The mutant villains of the last movie have become wary X-Men allies. Magneto (a scene-stealing Ian McKellen) and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), last seen trying to annihilate regular humans, have teamed up with the good guys to thwart the genocidal plans of a mutant-hating general. But a dizzying array of new characters and special effects leaves precious little time for meaningful interactions between our mutants -- the human aspect, that is, of their superhuman plight.
Rogue, in particular, has a lessened role. In the first film she beautifully illustrated a teen's awkward relation to her changing body, that adolescent sense of gloom and isolation, all of which was magnified by her mutant status. She both desired and feared physical intimacy, something that has become nearly impossible for her to enjoy. Despite it all, she began to blossom when she made her way to Professor Xavier's school -- the outcast at home among other outcasts. This time, however, she seems relegated to the kids' table, her dramas (particularly the fascinating psychosexual ones) rendered as teenage issues.
Thank goodness for Mystique, who puts an intriguing spin on female mutants' love lives. Played by Romijn-Stamos, who is naked save blue paint and scales, Mystique shifts forms and voices in seconds. Her sexuality is also polymorphously perverse -- she appears as Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Storm and Jean Grey in order to taunt men. But her character isn't played as a cheap tease -- the ability to change shapes is both a delight a purposeful choice. When asked by another mutant why she doesn't choose to appear as a regular human all the time, she responds, "Because we shouldn't have to."
Despite this, the balance is off -- the threat to the mutants is cartoonish, the stunts are performed in that perfunctory summer blockbuster way. True, the opening scene is a doozy. A mutant named Nightcrawler attacks the White House, whirling and teleporting in puffs of blue smoke that are like a mutant version of squid ink. The "Dies Irae" from Mozart's "Requiem" adds a little orchestral fire and brimstone, and Secret Service agents roll around on the floor. It's all good fun. But take away that scene, Mystique's slithery charm and the courtly bitchiness of Magneto, and viewers are left with glum mutants who don't even enjoy their superpowers.
Hopefully the next installment (the end of this movie screams another sequel!) will get it right, combining the mutant staples of disenfranchisement and zest for one's unique powers. Sci-fi and comic-book genres can be a fantastic revenge of the nerds; Neo of The Matrix is at first a computer programmer in real life, for Pete's sake, and Peter Parker of Spider-Man fame is a sweet dork who lives with his aunt and uncle. I hope that as the X-Men franchise grows older, it doesn't lose its sense of the joy -- and the terror -- of growing up.
Noy Thrupkaew writes about culture for the Prospect and TAP Online. She highly recommends David Oistrakh's recordings of the Prokofiev sonata.