The gap between the first and second X-Men films was only three years, but in that time, the superhero genre exploded like no one could have predicted. Blade had a sequel, Daredevil and the Hulk received the mega-budget treatment, and let's not forget the one that really got people's attention, the amazing Spider-Man. Not The Amazing Spider-Man, but Sam Raimi's incredibly successful adaptation of Peter Parker's origin story that broke records and entertained audiences around the world to the tune of $800 million. I think the studio execs took notice.
So here we are in 2003: X2: X-Men United has been seriously hyped, and with the original cast returning (minus a character here and there), expectations are high. What did we get? Well, not only was X2 true to the essence of the first film, both in its tone and characters, but its story is actually better. It does exactly what a good sequel is supposed to do; expand the world and further develop the characters.
Mutant and human relations have piqued dangerously after an attempt on the president's life (by a mutant) causes nationwide panic. Meanwhile, we catch up with the X-Men; Wolverine is still struggling to remember his past, Jean Grey is loosing control of her powers, and Magneto is devising a plot to escape his plastic prison. The characters are thrust into a rescue mission involving military scientist William Stryker, who plans to use Professor X's incredible mind powers and his machine known as Cerebro to track down all the world's mutants and commit mass genocide. Enemies must become friends in order to find Stryker's base of operations and rescue Charles before it's too late.
Like the first film, this isn't exactly kid's stuff. The story focuses on telling a mature story with themes of tolerance and acceptance, this time even further explored. There's a scene in which Bobby (Iceman) reveals that he is a mutant to his parents, but "mutant" could be replaced with "gay" and it would read the same way out of context. It's a bit on-the-nose, but I kind of love it.
The returning cast seems even more comfortable in their roles this time around. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen bring a Shakespearian weight and magnitude to what could be a very silly premise, Hugh Jackman gets to show more of his range as Wolverine, and Famke Jansen gets a bit more to do as Jean Grey. Newcomer Alan Cumming is pitch-perfect as Nightcrawler, extremely vocal about his faith and brought to life with make-up just as extensive as Mystique's. One shocking thing about the TV series was how focused on God and religion Nightcrawler's episodes were, despite the show being aimed at kids. It goes to show how different the world of children's television was in the early '90s. I'm thankful the religious themes weren't watered down for the film either.
Halle Berry is still Halle Berry, and I still feel she is miscast. But she certainly doesn't do anything that aggressively hurts the film. I even thought she was better written this time around.
The action in the film has been amped up a bit compared to its predecessor. Fight scenes have more energy and the visual effects are ambitious and effective. The opening scene with the attempted President assassination is absolutely breathtaking, as is Magneto's escape from prison. Action set pieces are mostly accomplished with real sets and practical effects (the dam break at the end of the film), but there are also some CG-heavy scenes (Storm's multiple tornado attack) that hold up quite nicely after a decade.
What makes X2 so interesting is how the characters interact with each other when their guards are down. Magneto, Wolverine, Mystique, Jean Grey, and other characters are stuck together in the woods formulating a plan to save Charles and the other mutants, and the film just spends time letting them talk to each other. It's a scene that gives the film its heart, and reveals things about the characters that give them three dimensions. Nightcrawler asks Mystique (who, if the film follows the comics/show, is unknowingly his mother) why, if she can change her appearance at will, doesn't she choose to look normal all the time. She responds with, "Because we shouldn't have to," and it says a lot. In addition, the relationship between Wolverine and Jean is given further development, and her rejection of him allows us to see a more vulnerable Logan for the first time.
With the plot in full swing in nearly every other scene, it does let a few characters fall by the wayside. Lady Deathstrike (not given a name here) is harshly underdeveloped, which is a shame because I liked her character in the TV series. Cyclops is missing for a great portion of the film, and Colossus has fewer lines than you have fingers on one hand. In addition, Beast is not present or even mentioned once again, which is just a personal complaint. It doesn't really harm either film, and I can understand the want by the production team to not have three blue-colored characters in full body makeup. I guess I'll just have to wait one more film to see you, Hank.
Stryker is a great villain, and poses a viable threat to the X-Men. He has access to military soldiers and incredible weapons, and his plot to wipe out all the mutants is fueled not by blind personal hatred, but by tragic events involving his wife and his mutant son. It's slightly off-putting that the X-Men kill his soldiers without a second thought; after all, they probably weren't even in on his plan. But that's a simple nitpick regarding morality that doesn't affect the overwhelming amount of things that the film gets right.
Considered the best superhero movie of all time when it was first released, X2 is in many ways a perfect model of its genre and also a great defiance of it. Director Bryan Singer seems to have real passion for the material, and there's an ever-present joy about the film, despite its dark moments, that keeps things fun. With a weighty and ambitious screenplay, characters that hold your attention and your heartstrings, and fun and impressive action, X2 is the rare sequel that satisfies and keeps you hungry for even more. But unfortunately, the departure of Singer in the third X-Men film kept it from fully satisfying.