Some films speak more profoundly to certain communities than they do to the broader culture, and the overt storyline becomes a cover for the deeper truth. At least, that is the argument put forth by the film’s star, Alan Cumming, who suggested that X2: X‑Men United (2003) is a queer movie. The movie tells the story of a threat to powerful shape-changing mutants, who must team up with some non-mutant humans to keep the US government from forcing them back into hiding. Director Bryan Singer, who had cast himself and fellow queer actors in smaller roles, and who was embroiled in a tabloid-fuelled legal dispute with an accuser who said Singer picked him up for oral sex, managed to mix action and allegory in a way that invited audiences to see queerness without prejudice.


Crafting Perception Through Queer Eyes

In a memorable anecdote on a podcast, the actor Alan Cumming remembers his role in X2: X-Men United (2003) as the queer apex of his career. With a gay director at the helm and a cast of queer players in front of the camera, X2 is an anomaly in the landscape of mainstream cinema, where the queer subtext is not suppressed, but coddled. When queer individuals on both sides of the camera are aligned in this way, a film can take on a whole additional layer, a way of imbuing what might otherwise be just another showcase for costumes and CGI with texture, with an extra dimension of lived experience and knowing perception to which its queer audiences can attune.

Allegories of Acceptance

The vital role of perception is central to X2’s relationship to its audience, and its claims as an allegorical text, with some of the most effective scenes in the film based around allegories for the coming-out experience, as the climactic moment in the film where Iceman reveals his mutant identity to his parents makes clear. This use of allegory to provide a direct entree into queer experience not only helps to appeal to a wider audience, but it also encourages empathy on the part of the viewer, widening their own perception of the challenging nature of the coming out process.


The Layers of Character Perception

The queer subtext that Cumming highlights allows us to see that the film is full of characters who are open to queer readings, from their sexuality to the particulars of their lineage, and who draw on everything from queer desire to queer family. In these characters, X2 inserts queer threads in the superhero tapestry. Queer films offer audiences a notion of what it means to be different But they also weave another thread into the superhero tapestry: queerness.

Queer Subtext as a Superpower

That ‘X2’ offers up such a rich coded queer subtext is in itself a tribute to the diversity of characters as the franchise’s superpower – and to the malleable nature of perception as the key to queerness. Placing its allegories in the context of a superhero epic demands that its viewers perceive queerness not as an otherness, but as a facet of culture that can and must be understood.


Perceiving Past Controversy

Even if we accept that the film has a queer subtextual life (as I do), does this mean we should not also consider the criticisms levelled at Singer’s conduct on set, and whether this does or does not eclipse his film’s legacy as a moment of queer visibility in cinema? I find a lot to think about in Cumming’s reflections, but if anything they illustrate his point that what the film sets in motion can, indeed must, be divorced from the actions of a single person; the merits of its cultural contribution can be accessed on their own terms.


Perception Shaped by Context and Content

This all shows that perception is a dynamic relationship between content and context: the content of X2, enriched by genuine queer voices, necessarily pulls on the context of the viewer, steering them towards a more accepting queer perception. In this context of cinema, where stories reflect upon and shape us, X2 is a landmark moment in the conversation around representation and acceptance.


In its most basic sense, perception is the way we depict the world around us. Film, above all, has the greatest power to manipulate perception, to make people think and feel differently. Through the lens of cinema and, in particular, through such a film as X2: X-Men United, interpretation isn’t just a good idea – it is a dual-edged sword that not only undoes preconception but also props up empathy and celebrates diversity. Alan Cumming’s comments remind us, forcefully, how powerful all-inclusive storytelling can be. By embracing queer subtext, X2 does far more than entertain. It changes the way people see the world, transforming perception so that viewers can see the hero in everyone, regardless of who they choose to be. Storytelling is a participatory, not a passive way of seeing, and audiences are formed by the stories we read or watch. If anything, X2: X-Men United shows how far we have come, in its radical address to the issue of queerness, both literal and symbolic. Here is a film that invites us to see with our hearts, as well as our eyes. Movies are a spectacle to be sure, but please, let’s cast a more empathetic gaze.

Jun 18, 2024
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