X2 and Wolverine's Search for Male Identity

by John Kim

cf. also Further Thoughts on X2

         This is a collection of my thoughts on the movie X2. As far as I have seen, reviews have focused on shallow aspects of the movie: the powers, plot differences from the comic, and so forth. However, I have seen little analysis of the film on a deeper level.

         Certainly, the movie is centered on Wolverine. He begins as an old male archetype: a cigar-smoking, beer-drinking, motorcycle-riding tough guy. However, he is searching for his identity. He begins by searching in his past, but over the course of the film he comes to reject his past and accept a new role as nurturer. This theme finds its power in the problems of modern masculinity. The traditional role of masculinity often relies on violence as well as treating women as objects to be coveted, protected, and won. In most films, the male hero finds fulfillment in killing the bad guy and/or getting the girl. In X2, Wolverine instead finds fulfillment as a caregiver.

         From the start of the film, it sets up the dilemma:

         Throughout the film, the action revolves around this search. In the first act, Wolverine is given the role as caregiver, to watch after the children. However, he doesn't realize the importance of it at the time. He then faces a father-figure in Colonel Stryker, who claims to hold the secret of his past. Upon first meeting, he desires to find identity there, but he holds to his duty to the children. After escaping, though, he then returns to his past, which while empty on the surface holds secrets underground. There he confronts Stryker and fights a female counterpart to himself. In the end, though, he rejects the past as a source of meaning, and holds to his new role as nurturer.

         By saying that Wolverine is at the center, I do not mean to say that it focuses on him over all the other characters. Indeed, I think that it divides time among a large number of characters -- and their stories touch on many issues besides male identity. However, they all also touch on the dilemma of male identity as expressed in Wolverine.

What's in a Name?

         One of the very interesting aspects of the film was how it really used names as a device. To many films, nicknames like Cyclops, Storm, and so forth are a holdover that is ill-fitted for the film medium. Here, the use of names is very telling to the story. To personal friends, characters will use first names like Eric (for Magneto) or Logan (for Wolverine). The mutant nickname is often a sign of dehumanization for some. However, it is also adopted proudly at times by those who use it.

         For example, early in the film Senator Kelly (really Mystique in disguise) asks Colonel Stryker about Eric Lehnsherr. Stryker responds by confusion, then remembering him as "Magneto". Much later on, Magneto asks John what his "real name" is -- to which he answers "Pyro". Far from being a comic-book holdover to apologize for, I feel that the film has worked in the names and the use of names deeply into the story.

         Wolverine certainly is a case in point. He is accused of being an animal, and is often through imagery compared to an animal -- such as the bloody-fanged wolf in the museum. His dog-tags bearing this name are a key symbol in his quest.

The Role of Women

         Though I would argue that the film is centered on masculine identity, this requires an identification of the role of women. On the one hand, it is vital to the meaning that Wolverine not find fulfillment solely via relationship to a woman, as is so commonly found in films. On the other hand, any valid construction of masculine identity requires differentiating from an equally-valid feminine.

         X2 simultaneously constructs a feminine which has both positive and negative aspects. On the positive side, there are Rogue, Jean Grey, and Ororo (Storm). On the negative side, there are Mystique and Lady Deathstrike (i.e. Stryker's female bodyguard).

         Lady Deathstrike is particularly notable as the female counterpart or mirror image to Wolverine. The film portrays negative femininity not as lack of strength, but lack of faith -- lack of positive identity. Deathstrike is a powerful woman, but she is still a tool of the patriarchal Colonel Stryker. It is also interesting to note that Stryker's son Jason appears in his own illusion as a girl, using that projected vulnerability to deceive Professor Xavier.

         The film is very carefully constructed, I think, in that it wants to construct gender rather than confusing gender. It rejects old stereotypes, but also rejects simplistic reversal. Deathstrike is a powerful woman who acts in a male role as soldier. Jason is a man who acts in a female role as seducer and deceiver. Both of these are shown to be ultimately destructive and tools of the patriarchal Stryker.

         Mystique is a more interesting case. In some ways she acts as henchman to Magneto, but she makes clear that she has her own drive for her actions. She takes on both male and female identities using her power, and also takes on both male and female roles (as soldier and as seducer). Ultimately, though, her power is stereotypically feminine: manipulator of appearance and social chameleon. I think that she is shown more sympathetically than Deathstrike or Jason, but ultimately her approach is shown as flawed.

         The positive women are Rogue, Storm, and Jean Grey. Each of them shows some search for identity as well. Indeed, the feminine search for identity is clearly required if the old archetypes. However, I think that their stories are incomplete -- hopefully to be dealt with more in the sequel.

         Rogue is a naive parallel to Mystique. Her power is to take the identity and powers of others -- through closeness. Hers is thus a distinctly feminine power, which is metaphorical for emotional and physical closeness. However, she regards it as a curse and tries to avoid taking advantage of others -- while Mystique uses her power frequently to her own advantage.

         Storm is dealt with much more briefly, but powerfully nonetheless. Her story is about dealing with her rage at being treated differently, certainly a parallel to an angry modern feminist woman. This is touched on in her brief talk with Kurt (Nightcrawler), but also shown in her abrupt attack when they capture him and in her use as a "weapon" in the aircraft battle. She finds an answer for this when she comes to trust Nightcrawler to carry her, and indeed to save them all. She calls this faith, which I think is true enough.

         Jean Grey is clearly the one given the most attention. If Wolverine begins as an old male archetype, Jean Grey begins as an old female archetype. She is the typical woman: a healer and schoolteacher, an inferior (she believes) to Professor Xavier, and a loyal partner to her man Scott. She even deprecatingly refers to this, saying "Girls flirt with the dangerous guy, Logan. They don't take him home". She feels that she lacks strength. Her story is about her sacrifice, of rejecting the safety of her old feminine role to find her own power.

Family and Nurturing

         The theme of family is touched on in many ways in the film. As with gender in general, it is about the rejection of older ways -- but in an effort to construct new understanding.

         Again, at the very negative end we have Colonel Stryker. He has both a biological son in Jason and figurative children in Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike. His role as the commanding father is shown in his meeting with Wolverine. He is back-lit and hard to see, and he shows that he knows Wolverine even though Wolverine does not know him. Wolverine wishes to speak with him, but as he approaches, a wall of ice separates the two of them. Wolverine sees Stryker's silhouette through the ice and holds up his hand to the shadow of Stryker's hand. However, his duty to the children draws him away.

         Stryker is the ultimate patriarchal evil, however. This is brought home particularly as he leans in to his son Jason's ear as he orders him to kill all of his own kind -- saying "Make me proud." Jason follows these orders unquestioningly, and when in the end he is thwarted, he (as his girl image) pouts "Oh, he's going to be so mad."

         Bobby Drake's family is not nearly this dysfunctional, but we still see it's flaws. Without even any words between them, we see the raging jealousy of Ronny for his "gifted" brother Bobby. We see it in how the parents refuse to accept Bobby's uniqueness, in a blatantly metaphorical scene where his mother asks "Can you just try to... not be a mutant?" The key answer here is given by Pyro, who places the blame for it on the father. This is a very funny line, but like many funny lines it also cuts to the heart of the matter. The film does blame the father. It finds fault with the traditional patriarchal identity, and demands the search for a new one.

         John (Pyro) is himself a great example. He says not one word about his past or his family, but we can see his lack of a father quite clearly. We see him look at the family pictures in Bobby's house, and we see his rage. Without knowing a thing, though, we can see the lack of father. He immediately latches onto Magneto when he meets him, and leaves with him in the end.

Art and Faith

         Certainly what I think makes the film all the more powerful is that it is not insular in its issues. While I feel that Wolverine and his search for identity are at the center, there are many other stories and many other issues in the film. I do not think of this as weakening of diluting that search, however. Gender identity is not some sectioned off portion of our lives which is dealt with by itself. It is an integral part of career, politics, religion, and expression. Every scene in the film touches on and addresses this theme, which makes it all the more powerful.

         The issue of faith is brought in through Nightcrawler, which I thought was rather telling. Nightcrawler at the start of the film is used as a tool by Stryker. However, it also constructs a positive role for his faith. I think this is quite important in that while the film rejects many traditions as wrong, it explicitly keeps faith and specifically Christian faith as positive.

         In one scene, Bobby's mother asks Wolverine what he is professor of. This itself is extremely telling, as well as being a setup for a great joke. What gives the joke its power, though, is the truth. What does Wolverine know that he can pass on to these children? What is he good for? This sums up his whole problem of identity. However, he does have an answer: "Art". It is amazingly fitting, without a simple explanation of why. From the rest of the movie, though, I can say that art is important.

(cf. also Further Thoughts on X2)

John H. Kim <jhkim@darkshire.org>
Last modified: Fri Apr 30 10:45:04 2004