Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 6, 2019)
When movies based on comic books produce sequels, it seems that the second flicks in the series often represent the best. One can argue that both Superman II and Batman Returns surpass their predecessors, and many will argue that 2003’s X2: X-Men United betters the original from 2000.
X2 opens up roughly where the first one finished. At that flick’s end, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) departs to try to learn about how he became a mutant, and X2 follows his quest.
After a slam-bang action sequence in which a new-to-us teleporting mutant named Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) almost assassinates the president (Cotter Smith), we join Wolverine in the frozen north as he comes to the Alkali Lake Industrial Complex, the site of experiments that made him the mutant he is today. Back in the lower 48, we re-encounter the rest of the X-Men. We learn that telepathic Jean Grey’s (Famke Janssen) powers have recently increased substantially and seem to be getting out of control.
When Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) learns of Nightcrawler’s attack, he meets with his main allies to plot how to work on the issue. He works with Jean as well as weather-manipulating Storm (Halle Berry) and laser-eyed Cyclops (James Marsden).
Others have their own ideas how to deal with the mutant issue: the president confers with Colonel William Stryker (Brian Cox), who wants to use force. Former anti-mutant hawk Senator Daniel Kelly (Bruce Davison) turned dove since the last film, but that’s because Kelly actually died and has been duplicated by shape-shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) ever since then. It turns out Stryker’s been in touch with powerful mutant leader Magneto (Ian McKellen), and because he used to be Mystique’s boss, Kelly tries to get to visit him.
We also get to know some younger mutants: the edgy fire-controlling Pyro (Aaron Stanford), nice guy coldster Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), and touch-of-death Rogue (Anna Paquin). Wolverine returns back to Xavier’s school and briefly encounters his old friends before they head out to investigate the assassination attempt. This reignites tensions between Cyclops and Wolverine, as both vie for the affection of Jean.
From there we discover that the cruel Stryker got information out of Magneto through the use of drugs. Stryker gets to Magneto one more time to get more details about Xavier’s school and his telepathy-amplifying device Cerebro. Xavier can use the tool to access virtually every person – and mutant – on Earth. This lets him locate Nightcrawler.
Storm and Jean go to retrieve him, and they find out why he acted as he did at the White House. Cyclops and Xavier visit Magneto, where the Professor grills his old nemesis about the attack and other issues. We get a hint of why Stryker hates mutants so much, since we learn that his son is one and Xavier couldn’t help him.
They also discuss Wolverine. Apparently Xavier knows more about Logan’s murky past than he’s revealed, and we’ll eventually discover a connection to current events there as well.
As all this occurs, Mystique infiltrates Stryker’s computer files and heads to rescue her buddy Magneto. Wolverine remains at home with Xavier’s students, which leaves him the sole leader as something terrible happens: Stryker stages an all-out assault on the school.
First his forces capture Cyclops and Xavier before all something breaks loose at the academy. Wolverine flees with Rogue, Iceman and Pyro, but not before a brief – and tantalizing for him – meeting with his maker.
From his assault, Stryker captures a few mutants, though most remain at large. He attempts to use Xavier to find and exterminate all the mutants.
Wolverine and the kids head out to hook up with Storm and Jean and regroup. Mystique uses a clever method to bust Magneto out of jail, and he then attempts to take the war with Stryker to another level. This results in a union between unlikely allies as our heroes try to rescue Xavier and stop the mutant Armageddon.
Earlier I posited that many prefer X2 to the original flick, and I find myself in that camp, though not to an extreme degree. As with the comparison between Batman and Returns, both seem very solid. In these cases, the sequels win just because they seem a little more self-assured and assertive.
X-Men was director Bryan Singer’s first action flick, and to his credit, he handled the movie’s set pieces quite well. The tight little picture didn’t include a ton of them, but what we got was fairly exciting, and he ramped up the action nicely.
In some ways, X2 blows its action wad a little early. The opening sequence in which Nightcrawler attacks the president flies by quickly and packs a great punch to launch the flick.
For a more extended piece, the assault on the school brings out the director’s best. It’s a dark piece that finally allows Wolverine to cut loose. The sequence doesn’t last as long as I’d like, but Singer sets up the battle in a tense manner, and while it occurs, he gives it a sense of heart-pounding action.
None of the film’s subsequent action pieces work quite so well, though plenty of fine sequences appear. The jet chase seems terrific, and the police standoff at Iceman’s house also presents nice involvement. The finale might be a little less climactic than I’d like, but it concludes the film on a reasonably satisfying note.
One consistent minor weakness of the first two X-flicks relates to character development. The first movie flew by at a relatively brisk 104 minutes, so we barely got to know the names of the participants, much less learn much about them.
X2 fills almost 40 minutes more, and since it includes many of the same characters, we probably should feel like we know them better. However, it packs in so damned many roles that development remains basic at best.
If anything, the characters seem less dynamic just because Singer may feel he doesn’t need to tell us much. Since we already know many of them, the director might not think they require much additional examination.
Not that the film really suffers for the absence of character exposition. After all, comic book flicks don’t really rely on that kind of thing. Character depth sure adds to movies when appropriate – such as in the Batman movies and in Spider-Man - but it’s not crucial. We want a decent story and some good action and we’re generally happy.
To be sure, X2 does attempt some character depth, mainly via Wolverine. However, without much time to devote solely to that role, those elements never add up to much. Granted, the movie connects Wolverine’s past to the current situation well, but these pieces remain minor.
Even if the various characters do get lost a bit along the way, I still really enjoyed X2. When compared to the first flick, it simply seemed tighter and more self-assured.
I didn’t find much fault with X-Men, but there’s an intangible feeling of confidence that more fully pervades X2. It comes across as richer and better developed.
Everything that worked in X-Men also succeeds in X2, just at a higher level. It’s a very good sequel.