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Minority Retort

Director Bryan Singer deepens themes of persecution and pogrom in the sequel "X2: X-Men United."

by Michael Aushenker

April 30, 2003 | 8:00 pm

Director Bryan Singer on the plastic prison set of "X2: X-Men United."

Director Bryan Singer on the plastic prison set of "X2: X-Men United."

A war is brewing. A minority in our midst is being actively persecuted. Society fears and loathes them. The government is using legislation to identify them and the military to hunt, contain and kill them. This is not Nazi Germany. This is America.

If the plot of "X2: X-Men United," Bryan Singer's sequel to 2000's "X-Men," rings eerily like the Jewish plight in Germany circa World War II, it is not coincidental.

"My obsession with the Holocaust as a youth plays into many of my views, both personal and creative," said the 41-year-old director.

In 1963, Marvel Comics founding fathers Stan Lee and Jack Kirby designed "The Uncanny X-Men" as such allegory. Based on the multiethnic and more popular New X-Men of the 1970s, Singer's "X-Men" films expands on this concept. "X2" is loosely inspired by the 1982 graphic novel, "God Loves, Man Kills," which depicts a nationwide witchhunt for the second-class minority of mutants; classified as homo superior, they are humans born with varying superpowers that make them the vanguard -- and the bane -- of the human race. Mankind is divided over whether mutants are gifted or freaks, and mutantkind is ideologically divided into two camps: one represented by professor Charles Xavier (played by Patrick Stewart in the movies), who trains mutants to hone their skills and assist humanity; the other led by Erik Mangus Lensherr, aka Magneto (Sir Ian McKellen), leader of a mutant movement intent on wresting authority away from the inferior, crucifying humans.

Singer, who was adopted, said he can relate to the outsider mentality these misfit mutants feel.

"I know very little about my biological parents, but my parents are both Jewish," Singer told The Journal at a recent Pasadena Ritz-Carlton summit. "My mother's from New York, my father's from Jersey City. They're of Polish and Russian descent."

The Princeton Junction, N.J., of his youth was not a Jewish neighborhood.

"I was not bar mitzvahed," Singer said. "I lived in a predominantly Catholic area. But we observed [the major holidays]."

"It was part of an identity," Singer continued, "and, of course, anxiety as a kid because we didn't get to have a Christmas tree and presents, which is always the Jewish kid's big complaint."

Identity has been the theme running throughout Singer's body of work. This includes the affable talk show host fighting his dark side in Singer's first film, "Public Access," and "The Usual Suspects." The latter, Singer noted, hinges on "the criminal mastermind posing as a harmless cripple." In "Apt Pupil," the old man next door is a Nazi war criminal, Singer said, and with the "X-Men" you've got these extraordinary beings [hiding super powers].

Singer parlayed the clout from 1995's Oscar-winning "Usual Suspects" -- which also established actor Kevin Spacey -- to explore his intrigue with the Holocaust in 1997's "Apt Pupil."

"Although I researched the Holocaust immensely and know a lot about it," Singer said, "I felt, first and foremost, that I was making a Stephen King adaptation about the passage of evil, how it moves from person to person throughout society and how it emerges where you least expect it. That fascinated and scared me."

Singer was also a tad scared over how "Apt Pupil" might be received.

"I brought it to the Museum of Tolerance and showed it to Rabbi [Marvin] Hier," Singer recalled. "It went over extremely well. The rabbi sent me a beautiful letter about the film. That was very important to me because there were other Jews who were concerned that I was exploiting the Holocaust."

Singer reteamed with "Apt Pupil's" McKellen in the first "X-Men" film, which opens with the concentration camp origin scene of McKellen's metal-manipulating Magneto.

"I would never pretend to be equipped, at this point of my life, to make a movie like 'Schindler's List' or 'The Pianist,' let's say, but for me to be able to recreate that sequence was very powerful," Singer said.

According to Singer, he added complexity to McKellen's evil character by making him Jewish.

"In the comic book, he was in a concentration camp, but he was not necessarily Jewish," Singer said. "I made that decision that morning because that's the way it worked. Jews were transported primarily together, and if I was going to put yellow stars on these extras, I was going to be putting one on young Erik."

Singer draws a line back to "Apt Pupil," where the Nazi's dark side is transferred to the 16-year-old obsessed with him.

"It shows that evil can pass through anyone, German or Jew," he said. "One must be cautious with all people because with all people, anything is possible."

When a reporter observed that the director had cast McKellen as villains spawned from both sides of the Holocaust equation -- as a Nazi and an evil Jew -- Singer laughed.

"We're good friends," he said. "We've done three movies together, but I don't think it's ever come up."

"X-Men" was the first big-budget blockbuster to deliver the classic Marvel formula -- superhumans with very human angst. It paved the way for 2002's record-smashing "Spider-Man," and, this year, "Daredevil" and the upcoming "Hulk." Adapting the source material has been "a challenge" for Singer. These mutants may have baked and churned Marvel's bread-and-butter for nearly three decades, inspiring dozens of titles and selling millions of comics and merchandise. However, unlike the more recognizable and accessible "Spider-Man," "X-Men's" popularity never transcended its core audience. "X-Men" comics -- opposite the tighter, lighter, singular "Spider-Man" -- have always been unwieldy and convoluted; a downbeat, action-laced soap opera that can be difficult to enter cold.

Singer delivered a serviceable first installment with "X-Men," which made a name for Hugh Jackman, who returns as Wolverine. Darker and edgier than its predecessor, "X2" introduces Alan Cummings as the scene-stealing Nightcrawler, and promises to make stars out of the returning Shawn Ashmore, who plays Iceman, and Aaron Stanford as Pyro. Also expanded on in the film is another mutant of Jewish descent, Katherine "Kitty" Pryde.

Singer downplays connections to the movie's source material, "God Loves, Man Kills," beyond peripheral inspiration. He purposely converted the graphic novel's televangelist antagonist into a military one to avoid "the potential of demonizing a religion. When you make him a fundamentalist Christian or a fundamentalist Jew, you open up a can of worms [that distracts from the story] in an adventure film for the summer."

With "X2," Singer already has his plate full creating a film that works for audiences who missed "X-Men."

"That's why I called it 'X2' and not 'X-Men 2,' because I see it as a stand-alone picture."

In truth, nuances of "X2" might be lost on the uninitiated, for whom this film may be a trial by fire, ice and adamantium (the fictional unbreakable metal fortifying Wolverine's skeleton). But for presold fans, "X2" delivers a homo superior sequel.

And, would you believe, Singer actually copped to a favorite "X-Men" character.

"Xavier's always been the one I've been most fond of," Singer said, "because he's in charge and has to lead a group of people, and yet is fraught with insecurities constantly and has to hide them in order to get things accomplished and to inspire people. And that's what I have to do as a director every single day."

"X2: X-Men United" opens May 2 in theaters nationwide.

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