Outside of the first two Christopher Reeves Superman films, for the longest time, movies couldn’t get comic book superhero adaptations right. Part of the problem has been that the filmmakers saw the source as B-movie material and brought that level of disrespect to the screen (Judge Dredd, The Punisher); part of it is bringing to life characters never inspired on the page in the first place (Blade, The Rocketeer); and part of it is Hollywood just making its usual allotment of bad movies (most of the Batman series, Spawn, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles).
Improvements in computer-aided special effects during the past decade have added a level of verisimilitude to fantasy previously beyond reach (though, to be sure, there’s still a way to go), and it has emboldened Hollywood to make ever more expensive stabs at the genre. The biggest name in the comics industry, Marvel, is profiting with The Hulk and yet another Punisher movie forthcoming. Exhibit A in showing that the movies can get it right is Sam Raimi’s titanic success, Spider-Man; but that which the cinematic muse giveth, she may also taketh away, hence Daredevil.
The first X-Men movie was mediocre with underdeveloped characters, boring action scenes, and a world of fantastic super powers that still lacked any wonderment. Director Bryan Singer seems to have learned a few lessons, and goes a long way in remedying these mistakes in producing the much superior sequel that is X2. This time around, the X-Men and their arch-nemesis Magneto (Ian McKellan) must team up to fight against William Stryker (Brian Cox), a military scientist who plans to kill all mutants using Cerebro, a machine built by X-Men leader, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). The machine is normally used just to locate mutants in order to help them.
The first movie was plagued with leaden exposition. The sequel dispenses with that. Like The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, X2 assumes one has either seen the first film or has read the literary source. Without that background, many viewers will likely be lost for the first half of the film, especially as to what is troubling young Rogue (Anna Paquin). She cannot control her ability to absorb other mutants’ powers and life force upon skin contact. As a results she and her boyfriend, the Ice Man (Shawn Ashmore), cannot express physical intimacy. The lack of blatant exposition is a good thing however. It makes the audience think and figure out what is going on. This film caters specifically to the fans.
Singer juggles a host of subplots – the attempt by the amnesiac Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) to uncover his past; the love triangle among Wolverine, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), and Cyclops (James Marsden); the love triangle among Ice Man, Rogue, and Pyro (Aaron Stanford); Xavier’s relationship to Stryker; Stryker’s relationship to Wolverine; the interest of Storm (Halle Berry) in the religious faith of the teleporting acrobat Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming); and the efforts by the evil shape-shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) to rescue Magneto, who was captured in the last movie. That all of this is clear in the movie is a notable feat in itself. The newest supervillain is Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu), a female version of Wolverine, who obeys Stryker. The physically stunning Hu is a welcome replacement for the ludicrous Sabretooth and Toad from the first film.
Singer stages some terrific set pieces from the opening scene of a possessed Nightcrawler’s attempted assassination of the President of the United States to Magneto’s escape from his plastic prison to virtually every scene with Mystique (between X2 and Femme Fatale, Romijn-Stamos joins Monica Bellucci as one of the few supermodels to make a successful transition to the big screen). Everything seems to be going well in the film until it hits its final fifteen minutes with an extremely forced, contrived ending. Editors Elliot Graham and John Ottman (also responsible for the rather generic music score) have a battle between Jean Grey and a possessed Cyclops end with puzzling abruptness. Then a scene keeping track of Rogue and Ice Man seems to have been left on the cutting room floor.
What should have been the emotional climax of X2 lacks any resonance because no chemistry has been established between Cyclops and Jean Grey. A lot of this has to do with James Marsden’s total inability to act, so it’s hard to blame Singer for leaving him out of the movie as much as he could. He should have done the same with Halle Berry, who despite a Best Actress Oscar, continues to give clumsy and aloof performances. Thankfully Ian McKellan and Brian Cox are on hand to show how it’s done. McKellan especially hams it up Hannibal Lecter-style, and one of Cox’s most priceless moments is when he is not playing Stryker, but Mystique impersonating Stryker, waving goodbye to the guards pursuing her.
The comic fans can look for small cameos by the characters Kitty Pride, Theresa Cassidy, Hank McCoy, Piotr Rasputin, and a very fleeting reference to Remy Lebeau. X2’s very last shot leaves long-time X-Men fans with anticipation that some form of the storyline that made X-Men popular again after its Stan Lee days is in line for the next installment.