When summer 2003’s first big blockbuster, “X2: X-Men United,” debuts this weekend, most moviegoers will have heard of mutant stars like Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Storm (Halle Berry). But only a select gang of comic-book geeks will get it when minor members of Marvel Comics’ mutant universe like Gambit, Beast and Jubilee appear.
“The movie works both ways,” says legendary comic book creator Stan Lee, who invented the X-Men in the early 1960s and worked as executive producer of “X2.”
“For people who aren’t comic-book fans, it’s a good story. But there are also a lot of details for people who know the X-Men inside out.”
To get the most out of the movie, here’s an “X2” guide to the inside jokes, arcane trivia and behind-the-scenes gossip every X-fanatic ought to know.
WHERE WE LEFT OFF: At the end of 2000’s “X-Men,” Wolverine (the comic book answer to Edward Scissorhands) has left the X-Men to get in touch with himself. Meanwhile, villainous shape-shifter Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) has taken over the body of influential Sen. Robert Kelly, who then shocks the country by reversing his position on the crucial Mutant Registration Act, thus helping the bad mutants take over the world. No. 1 baddie Magneto (Ian McKellen) ends the first film imprisoned in plastic – but don’t think for a second he stays there. The best special effects in “X2” come during his escape.
WHO IS THIS NIGHTCRAWLER? According to the comic books, this bendable blue mutant (played by Alan Cumming) is Mystique’s son. When Nightcrawler was a baby, however, she abandoned him to save herself, and he was raised by gypsies. He was an acrobat in a German circus – thus the accent – before Storm and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) meet him at the beginning of “X2.”
WHAT’S UP WITH ROGUE’S HAIR? In “X2,” mutant high schooler Rogue (Anna Paquin) still has white streaks in her hair. They appeared at the end of the first movie, while her power was being drained to propel Magneto’s mutation machine.
WHY DOES WOLVERINE HATE CYCLOPS? When Wolverine returns from his retreat, he’s riding a motorcycle that belongs to Cyclops (James Marsden). The pair bickers over the bike momentarily, but the real fight is over Jean Grey. She’s the love of Cyclops’s life, but Wolverine has a thing for her.
FACES IN THE CROWD: Hundreds of mutants who show up in X-Men comics are never mentioned in “X2,” but a few make cameo appearances. Hard-core fans will surely return again and again to spot them all. Watch for Gambit, or Remy LeBeau, who fights with exploding playing cards; Beast, or Dr. Hank McCoy, a furry blue mutant with superhuman quickness and brains; Colossus, who transforms his flesh into steel; Shadowcat, who slides through solid objects; Jubilee, who makes explosions with her hands; Artie, who communicates through visual images; and Siryn, who creates sonic waves with her superhuman vocal chords.
THE WING THING: We don’t want to spoil the ending, but just so you know – that bird-like image on the water refers to an extraterrestrial being called the Phoenix Force, which takes over one of the mutant’s bodies in the X-Men comic books.
WHAT IT ALL MEANS: Stan Lee wrote the first X-Men comic book at the height of the civil-rights struggle. “I wanted to show the evils of bigotry,” recalls Lee. The idea is just as important today, says Alan Cumming. “I really liked the message that we need to be more tolerant and understanding of other cultures different than ours.”
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN: Pulitzer Prize-winning author and comic-book fanatic Michael Chabon (“The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”) wrote a treatment for the first X-Men movie in 1996.
“I put way too much thought, time and energy into this thing, all for free,” says Chabon, who went on to write the script for “Spider-Man 2.” “The proposal was politely discussed, then just as politely rejected.”
But Chabon’s original proposal has become a cult favorite among literary comics fans. It’s posted on Chabon’s excellent Web site, www.michaelchabon.com/XProposal.html.
WILL THERE BE AN X3? Officially, the producers of “X2” aren’t saying whether there will be another sequel, but rumor has it that Romijn-Stamos and others have already signed on. Bryan Singer, who directed both “X-Men” and “X2,” says, “As long as there are stories to tell and they’re taken seriously, I think this universe can be explored for decades.”