Following a mutant assassination attempt on the President, Colonel William Stryker initiates a war on mutants, specificially the superhero group, the X-Men. Now, they must join with their sworn enemy, Magneto, to survive; while Wolverine discovers that Stryker holds the key to his murky past...
Where would X2 be without evolution? Three years ago, general consensus had it that the first X-Men movie, while enjoyable, was somehow lacking; that Bryan Singer, the Usual Suspects wunderkind, was patently uncomfortable working within the big bucks arena. Well, what a difference three years makes: for Singer has evolved. And as a result, X2 is one of the finest comic book movies to date, and a film that in every conceivable way improves upon its predecessor.
Singer's evolution is confirmed in the astonishing opening sequence in which Alan Cumming's teleporting Nightcrawler attempts, under duress, to assassinate the American President. As he bamfs [itals] around, moving too fast for terrified Secret Service agents (and the camera itself) one thing is clear: Singer no longer has any hang-ups about handling action. Which is just as well, as X2 redefines 'action-packed', including incidents both large (a suspenseful attack on the X-Mansion, during which Wolverine unleashes his berserker fury in truly iconic fashion) and small (a fiery conflagration at Iceman's family home). Spidey can sure swing, but, with a $50 million budget increase, this is the first comic book movie to really explore the potential of its heroes' powers. Halle Berry's Storm sets tornadoes on a pair of fighter jets in a cracking dogfight sequence. Jean Grey's telekinesis expands at a frightening rate. Professor X's telepathy has global consequences. Singer handles the diversity of powers superbly, assisted by cinematographer Tom Newton Sigel and editor/composer John Ottman, whose prudent pruning gives the film real momentum.
At 130 minutes, X2 is some 37 minutes longer than the original, and Singer needs every second of it, for there's a lot to cram in. Amazingly, though, Singer avoids the 'too many cooks' syndrome that so tarnished the Batman films, while at the same time giving pretty much everyone - save James Marsden's Cyclops, sadly - something meaningful to do.
Jackman's Wolverine is again very much the focal point, and the hugely charismatic Aussie conveys Logan's growing anger and confusion about his shadowy past. Yet he's ably supported by the likes of Famke Janssen, subtly portraying Jean's struggle with her burgeoning powers, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, having all sorts of fun in a beefed-up role as Mystique, and the old stagers McKellen and Stewart. And the newcomers don't disappoint, either. Aaron Stanford is all rebellious chic as the tormented, torn Pyro; Brian Cox's Stryker is so nefarious that he enables the audience to temporarily sympathise with Ian McKellen's Magneto; and Cumming's Nightcrawler is a delight.
X2 is also possessed of an emotional complexity that won't surprise comics fans, but will delight connoisseurs of the summer blockbuster. This film wears its heart on its sleeve, be it Wolverine's anguished search for his past (which kicks off with a chilling confrontation with his 'creator', the evil Stryker; and which takes in a savage scrap with Kelly Hu's similarly-clawed Lady Deathstrike), the poignant sequence in which Iceman 'comes out' to his family, or Magneto's corrupting influence upon the X-Men. The plot, in which hatred of a minority group threatens to spark a global war, is frighteningly topical and Singer doesn't flinch from showing that resolution often comes at a bitter price - albeit one which paves the way for a pleasingly inevitable X3.
Yet it's not all FX-augmented naval-gazing. Though it does get very dark, X2 is unashamedly entertaining, with crowd-pleasing moments for geeks (the appearance of metal-skinned muscle man Colossus in full armoured form should benefit upholsterers everywhere) and non-geeks (a Nightcrawler-led mid-air rescue is exhilarating) alike. There's also a very welcome sly sense of humour, courtesy of a fine script by relative newcomers Mike Dougherty and Dan Harris, who manage to balance multiple storylines while maintaining continuity from the first movie.
There are problems - the third act sags a little under the sheer weight of storylines; while some of the expositional dialogue is a little heavy. However, this thought-provoking, scintillating and stylish flick has opened the summer of superheroes in fine style. The Matrix Reloaded may have better effects and The Hulk may be more eye-catching, but as an overall package, X2 is going to be hard to top.
During shooting, Singer constantly referred to The Empire Strikes Back as his template - and, by jove, he's made a movie that's worthy of the comparison. On its own terms, though, it's a truly great genre sequel.