X2 (2003)
Director: Bryan Singer

Thanks to Marvel Comics, superheroes experienced a renaissance in the 1960s now referred to as the "Silver Age." New superhero comics were appearing right and left, many of them staying popular to this day. One of these comics was centered around a team of mutants known as the X-Men. Born of the civil rights movement, the X-Men teetered on the brink of cancellation before finally gaining an audience and becoming one of the most popular and influential titles in the genre. Eventually, the comic was adapted into a movie that started its own renaissance for superhero movies. When X-Men was released in 2000, it sparked a revival in the genre and helped change the perception that all movies based on Marvel properties were poorly made filler for video store shelves. And where do you go when you have a successful movie based on successful source material? A sequel, of course! Loosely based on the 1982 graphic novel "God Loves, Man Kills," the simplistically-named X2 surpassed its predecessor in both critical acclaim and box office returns, and was hailed as one of the best superhero movies ever made. But does it live up to the hype?

X2 (2003)Our story starts shortly after the previous movie, with humans still fearful of mutantkind. Are they the next step in human evolution? Are they a new species put on Earth to replace non-mutated people? And what of the ones who can walk through walls, or use mind control? What kind of threat would they pose? Such questions have only served to push the inevitable war between humans and mutants even further to realization. The movie's opening scene starts quickly enough, as a blue-skinned mutant with a prehensile tail invades the White House. He lays waste to an army of guards and Secret Service agents, who can't seem to get a shot at him, thanks to his ability to disappear into a cloud of smoke and reappear somewhere else. Teleportation, gotta love it.

The mutant soon infiltrates the Oval Office, where he takes out the last of the Secret Service and tackles the President (Cotter Smith). He pulls a knife on the President, but before he can cause any kind of harm, a half-conscious Secret Service agent shoots the mutant in the arm. He teleports to safety, leaving behind the knife jabbed into a desk with a small note reading "Mutant Freedom Now."

The scene shifts to New York, where the assassination attempt has drawn the attention of the X-Men. While they dismissing that he's a new member of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) decides that they should get to him before the police do. Shortly after this decision, none other than Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) arrives back at the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters. He's immediately greeted by Rogue and her new boyfriend Bobby "Iceman" Drake (Shawn Ashmore), but soon turns his attention to Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). Though she's suffering from painfully bad dreams, a loss of concentration that causes her to hear a cacophony of voices, and an intense dread that something terrible will happen, Jean seems quite happy to see Wolverine.

However, less happy to see him is Jean's boyfriend Cyclops (James Marsden), who doesn't take to kindly to some punk like Wolverine putting the moves on his woman. You can cut the sexual tension with a baseball bat. But Wolverine hasn't come back just to flirt with Jean, he's returned to ask Professor Xavier for more help in unlocking the secrets of his forgotten past. Unfortunately for him, Xavier refuses, telling him that "sometimes, the mind needs to discover things for itself." Wolverine is disappointed, left to stew on the school's night watch as Cyclops takes Xavier out to attend to some business while Storm (Halle Berry) and Jean head to Boston in search of the mutant assassin.

Meanwhile, the assassination attempt has also attracted the attention of Colonel William Stryker (Brian Cox), who sees the attack not only as a way for the proposed Mutant Registration Act to gain support, but as a way to seek a personal vendetta against mutantkind. Having made a few discoveries about a supposed "mutant training ground," Colonel Stryker gains permission to attack Xavier's school under the false pretenses of rounding up the students and staff for questioning. What the President doesn't realize, however, is that Colonel Stryker plans to use the information he forced out of the imprisoned Magneto (Ian McKellan) to acquire knowledge of "Cerebro," a giant supercomputer built by Professor Xavier and Magneto that connects its user to every living being — human or mutant — on the planet. As Professor Xavier visits Magneto in his plastic prison, he's horrified to discover that his old friend was forced to tell Colonel Stryker everything he knows about Cerebro, and even more horrified when knockout gas comes in through the ventilation system and renders them both unconscious. Cyclops attempts to break his way into the cell, only to get incapacitated by Colonel Stryker's assistant Yuriko (Kelly Hu), a mutant with the power to grow long metal talons from her fingernails (who comic fans will recognize as Lady Deathstrike). For those of you who don't know Lady Deathstrike, imagine Freddy Krueger as an attractive Asian woman that knows martial arts and has one line of dialogue, and you've got the idea.

Colonel Stryker and his task force siege Xavier's school in the middle of the night, and while many of the mutants into hidden escape tunnels, Wolverine makes a valiant stand. He tears a line through Colonel Stryker's team, introducing soldiers to the business end of his claws. That's something you very rarely see in superhero movies: one of the heroes actually killing people right and left! I don't mean the cartoony "he just knocked them out" kind of thing, he was slicing up guys! I'd expect that kind of thing out of the Punisher, but I guess Wolverine isn't above stabbing a guy in the chest either. But just as Wolverine has a face-to-face encounter with Colonel Stryker, who seems to know something about the clawed wonder's past, they're broken up by Rogue, Iceman, and the flame-manipulating John "Pyro" Allerdyce (Aaron Stanford). Wolverine has no choice but to leave with the three, allowing Colonel Stryker to find the bowels of the school and retrieve his prize. Meanwhile, Storm and Jean are hot on the trail of the would-be presidential assassin, discovering him at an abandoned cathedral in Boston. The cornered mutant introduces himself as Kurt Wagner (Alan Cumming), whose demon-like appearance is offset by his devout religious faith. A one-time circus acrobat billed as "the amazing Nightcrawler," he welcomes Jean and Storm into his abode, having never met any other mutants and looking for someone to patch up the bullet hole in his arm. They question him about why he would try to kill the President, and he has no idea. The whole event was a total blur. They discover a bizarre scar on the back of his neck (similar to the one Magneto received after being drugged by Colonel Stryker), and convince Nightcrawler to come with them to meet Professor Xavier.

Speeding away in Cyclops's car (which they happened to hotwire on their way out), Wolverine and the X-Teens soon end up arriving at Iceman's house. Bobby introduces Wolverine, Rogue, and Pyro to his parents (Alfred Humphreys and Jill Teed) and brother (James Kirk, no relation), then proceeds to sit them down and essentially come out of the closet about his mutant power. His brother doesn't understand why Bobby has to be a mutant and calls the cops, telling them that Bobby broke into the house and is threatening to kill their family. Storm, Jean, and Nightcrawler are heading back to the school in the X-Jet around the same time, but are unable to find a signal to land. They contact Wolverine, who informs them of the disaster at the school and tells them where they've fled to. He finishes the phone call, but notices FBI agents sneaking up outside. Wolverine runs to the living room and tells the others that it's time to go, but are met by a veritable horde of cops in the front yard. Wolverine gets shot in the head after being refusing to drop his "knives" (it's kinda hard to drop your knives when they're part of your hands), prompting Pyro to open up his lighter and spread giant fireballs over the immediate area. He destroys all the police cars, but before he can hurt anyone, Rogue is forced to take her glove off and suck the energy out of him.

And right on time, the X-Jet arrives to get them out of Dodge before any backup can arrive. Although reunited, the X-Men are soon corralled and attacked by fighter jets. While Storm utilizes the weather to fight off the jets and Jean tries to hold off the missiles fired at them with her telekinesis, the X-Jet is still struck and goes into a tailspin. But just before they crash, they stop twenty feet from the ground. Lucky for them, Magneto and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) were in the area after staging a violent jailbreak, and Magneto decided to catch the plane. He calls a truce with the X-Men, explaining that Mystique used her shapeshifting ability to do a little spying and discovered Colonel Stryker's ultimate goal: to kill every mutant on the face of the planet. But why, and how?

Y'see, Colonel Stryker's son Jason (Michael Reid MacKay) is a quite powerful mutant with the ability to telepathically cause illusions, in the vein of comic supervillain Mastermind. Jason's parents sent their son to Professor Xavier with the hopes that his mutation could be "cured," but there was really nothing the professor could do in that aspect. Unable to become a regular human and angry at his parents for their refusal to accept him as-is, he tortured his mother by projecting nightmarish hallucinations into her brain. These hallucinations drove her insane, causing her to drill a hole in her head in an attempt to pour them out of her skull. Needless to say, drilling a hole in your head means you won't be living too much longer. Mrs. Stryker's forced suicide didn't sit too well with the colonel, who responded by lobotomizing his son and extracting fluid from his brain, which he uses as a drug to control other mutants. It's this drug that Colonel Stryker uses (in conjunction with Jason's power of illusion) to brainwash Professor Xavier into using a homemade version of Cerebro to eliminate the whole of mutantkind. Think Scanners on a much larger scale. Forced into an uneasy partnership, the X-Men and the Brotherhood storm Colonel Stryker's subterranean base in the Canadian wilderness in a final battle that forges new bonds and strains old ones, sheds light on dark secrets, and sadly requires a sacrifice that wasn't ready to be made.

X2 succeeds in being a little more fun to watch than its predecessor, but it isn't without flaws. Like the previous movie, X2 suffers from too many characters, and not enough screen time to really get to know any of them. The movie is so overloaded with characters, it gets diluted. Even the cameos from and references to various other X-Men characters just serve to bog things down even more. With so many characters, we barely get to make an emotional connection to any of them, perhaps with the exceptions of Wolverine and Iceman. I'm not saying I want to see everybody sit down and peacefully talk things out when they could have a wild scene-stealing brawl instead, but come on. This is what separates the X-Men movies from others in the genre. In other superhero movies, we get underneath the skin of our protagonists, whether it be tormented billionaire Bruce Wayne, bumbling reporter Clark Kent, or nerdy student Peter Parker. You get to see what makes them tick. But with a dozen characters to choose from, it's hard for the movie to have any real focus.

I'm also of the opinion that the use of Cerebro as a tool for genocide was actually rather dull. While I applaud them for using the concept to give the always wonderful Patrick Stewart more screen time, the effort just turned me off. Brainwashing a super-powerful telepathic mutant into causing the heads of other mutants to explode by merely thinking really hard seems silly, even by comic book standards. If it were me, I would have switched it around and used the Legacy Virus from the comics instead of Cerebro, but I guess that's why I wasn't hired to write the movie. While I respected what screenwriters Michael Doughterty, Dan Harris, and David Hayter attempted to do with the script, it just ends up being… hollow? Boring in places? In need of a little cast pruning? But where the movie starts going wrong is trying to give us scenes that feature characters that aren't involved with Wolverine. Wolverine is the only character that most audiences want to see, so trying to shove boring one-dimensional characters like Storm down our throats just because Halle Berry won an Oscar in the time between the two movies makes me resent X2. Anna Paquin is an Oscar winner (albeit that was over a decade ago), so why not give us more Rogue? I'm a Rogue fan, I could handle that. But Wolverine is so obviously the main focus, they might as well drop the other X-Men and make Wolverine: The Movie already. I also thought that the setup for X3 was so blatant, the only way it could be any MORE obvious is if they put a big flashing sign that said "X-Men 3: Dark Phoenix — Coming Soon" at the end of the movie. I'm not saying I don't want to see the Phoenix in a movie, but come on.

I've also noticed something of a gay subtext in X2. If the first movie can be considered an allegory for race relations, the sequel can be seen as a metaphor for homosexual rights. Considering Bryan Singer and Ian McKellan are gay and Alan Cumming is bisexual, I guess I shouldn't be all that surprised. The subtext can be most evidenced in the scene in which Iceman essentially comes out of the closet and reveals his powers to his family. I'm not gay, so I don't have a closet to come out of, but I thought the scene was handled very well. And it led to the very cool "Pyro blows up an entire squadron of police cars" scene, so it can't be that bad. However, the subtext doesn't get in the way of the movie being a cool action movie. From the previously mentioned Pyro/police firefight to the Wolverine/Deathstrike brawl to the opening scene. Bryan Singer's direction is very fun to watch, and even those who didn't like the movie should be able to respect the effort put into it. The special effects are wonderful, never once detracting from the movie. I dare you to watch the "Nightcrawler vs. the Secret Service" scene and tell me you don't think it's absolutely amazing. The makeup is once again great, as both Alan Cumming and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos look very believable in full character regalia.

The cast improves over the previous movie, but the lack of character development gives many members of the cast less to work with. Famke Janssen was criminally underused, especially considering the direction they were pushing her character. Also underused was James Marsden, who appears in maybe three scenes prior to the finale. His absence leaves the love triangle involving Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Wolverine to fall to the wayside and almost become forgotten about. But the cast isn't always like them. Despite her character having absolutely nothing in the way of depth or development, I really liked Kelly Hu as Lady Deathstrike. The character is so depthless that she's almost flat, but Hu makes Lady Deathstrike fun to watch, almost like a female Darth Maul. You don't really need to know who she is to enjoy the Wolverine/Deathstrike fight at the end. I also enjoyed Brian Cox's turn as Colonel Stryker, but perhaps the most fun member of the cast is Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. Jackman is great in the role, and has an intensity that makes the character very cool. I mean, he actually goes nuts and starts killing all those soldier dudes until they die. He's definitely the star of the movie, and as I said before, I just wish Fox would hurry up and make Wolverine: The Movie.

X2 is fun to watch, yet still seems to be trying too hard. Maybe doing a little streamlining and not using such a huge cast of characters could help the franchise in the future. I know the comics have a rather large cast, but come on, they're not making a movie adaptation of War And Peace here. In spite of its flaws, X2 is satisfying, and there's always the opportunity to make it bigger and better with the next one. I'll give X2 four stars because if anything, it entertained me.

Final Rating: ****