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The Next Level

MORE MUTANTS! MORE MAYHEM! MORE DRAMA! HOW IN THE WORLD DID X2: X-MEN UNITED BECOME SO HIGHLY EVOLVED?

November 2002. A new age of moral clarity is dawning. Words like good and evil are back in vogue. Citizens eye their neighbors with fear and suspicion. War is coming, and already the grim scent of inevitability is on the wind.

At least, that's what's in the script. Today.

The world of the X-Men -- Marvel Comics' ostracized mutant savants, who use their abilities to defend a human society that rejects them -- is a vivid, volatile, very familiar place. Not unlike the Vancouver set of X2: X-Men United. One difference: The only mutant savant here is Bryan Singer, and the ''abilities'' are creativity, time management, and money (around $120 million, in fact). ''With great power comes great responsibility'' goes the mantra of another friendly neighborhood Marvel fixture. By that equation, Singer -- director of the first X-Men and The Usual Suspects -- is, at this moment, the most responsible man in British Columbia.

''Look back at the jet,'' he barks to Famke Janssen through a bullhorn. ''Now look at the wall. Wall. Jet. Wall. Jet.'' The actress is marooned in front of a giant greenscreen, statuesque and authoritative in skintight black leather. She appears to be levitating a very heavy...something...while simultaneously repelling a giant wall of...something else. By the look of concentration on her face, it's a tall order even for her character, the tortured, telekinetic Jean Grey.

Singer has the same look. He's 37 but could pass for 25. He's recently dyed his close-cropped hair club-kid platinum. And he's practically feverish with anarchic energy -- and ideas. Two in particular, neither related to the scene he's currently shooting. One involves the Promethean binding of a key character by the metal-manipulating rebel leader Magneto (Ian McKellen): Singer wants the victim strung up in a tree. The other idea is a new and unplanned shot, showing a door blown off its hinges by the optic laser blast of Cyclops (James Marsden).

Now would be a good time to note that this is the last day of soundstage work on X2. All that remain are six very full days of location shooting in northern Alberta. And the production is already two weeks behind schedule. In other words: Not an ideal time for 11th-hour brainstorms.

Word of the revisions begins to spread. ''I hear a rumor there's going to be a character in a tree,'' remarks a stunt coordinator.

''It ain't a rumor, baby,'' says Singer. ''C'mon, that's been in the script for at least, like, two days.''

By the time the design team coalesces into a pensive semicircle around Singer, he's changed his mind: He now wants the unfortunate individual pinioned against concrete. (''Any s -- -head could drive a spike into a tree. Concrete is more of a Magneto thing.'') He then begins enthusiastically miming the Cyclops sequence.

''This is our last day,'' says Ralph Winter, one of the producers. ''We don't have any more days.''

''We can build it over a lunch,'' Singer suggests brightly.

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