If it seemed like X-Men (2000) consisted mostly of build-up, its sequel is all payoff. The awkward exposition that comes with such a complex franchise out of the way, X2: X-Men United hits the ground running and vastly improves on the original with a quicker pace, a more cohesive plot, better special effects, and truly spectacular action sequences. Those who felt the first film lacked tension will delight at the second chapter’s dramatic turns; those who fell in love with the characters will be pleased to see them treated with the same respect; and those still whining about the absence of bright spandex are idiots.
Loosely based on the graphic novel X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills by Chris Claremont and Brent Anderson, X2: X-Men United introduces General William Stryker (Brian Cox), a presidential advisor and military scientist who represents everything the X-Men and their arch-nemesis Magneto (Ian McKellen) fear from humanity. Dedicated to eradicating the “mutant threat”, he and his followers kidnap Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and attack the X-Men’s school for mutant children, forcing the heroes to team up with old enemies in order to rescue their mentor and their charges as well as prevent a psychic genocide.
The movie features several new mutants, including the teleporting Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), a devout Catholic with demonic features, and Pyro (Aaron Stanford), a rebellious teen who can control fire. The latter’s subplot is my favourite, beautifully humanizing the series’ core themes as the boy bears witness to kids being assaulted, family members abandoning their own, and police officers firing on the innocent, all due to anti-mutant prejudice. The heartbreaking storyline reaches its climax in a sincere conversation with Magneto, whose aggressive outlook takes on new meaning in light of these events.
X-Men has always stood out from other super-hero franchises for its social commentary. Like the source comic book series, X2: X-Men United draws parallels with contemporary forms of intolerance, giving more poignancy to the characters’ conflicts. There’s a sly satirical edge to the sequence in which Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) reveals his mutation to his family: “Have you tried not being a mutant?” Meant to echo the sort of discrimination homosexual youths have to face, the dialogue gets deliberately absurd, yet the scene never loses its credibility as a defining moment in the junior X-Man’s life.
This is in part thanks to a surprisingly large cast willing to share the screen instead of competing for attention. With the exception of Halle Berry, who plays Storm with so little conviction she forgot the character had an African accent in the first instalment, all the actors fully commit to the film’s outlandish universe. Even Anna Paquin, who’s given little to do other than squeal and look scared, finds the right intensity in Rogue’s few intimate scenes. This is crucial in a story that juggles over a dozen characters and relies on situations to which young viewers are meant to relate despite it being science-fiction.
This is not to say the movie consists entirely of teen angst and talking heads. Unlike its predecessor, X2: X-Men United is a true action blockbuster with gorgeous visual effects and breathtaking fight choreography. I especially enjoyed the opening scene, in which Nightcrawler raids the White House, teleporting back and forth behind multiple opponents. Also of note is Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) duel with his female counterpart Yuriko (Kelly Hu), better known to fans as Lady Deathstrike. She’s an innocent mutant under mind control, but he fights her anyway because you apparently can’t have an X-Men film without Wolverine sinking his claws into some woman.
The Brotherhood, which the heroes fought in the previous instalment, also gets in on the action, and this is when the movie is the most fun. These mutant activists aren’t shackled by Professor X’s dream of peaceful coexistence, so they tend to find the simplest, most brutal solution to any given problem. Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) in particular seems to revel in her mayhem, taunting her adversaries with girlish smiles and vulgar gestures. She and Magneto spend most of the film terribly pleased with themselves as they help the X-Men wage a battle they’ve been predicting for years.
It’s amazing how likeable the villains become in this new context. Even Magneto’s final solution, which is impossible to condone, is understandable as a drastic act of retaliation. The character from the first X-Men movie wouldn’t have resorted to such radical measures, but the Brotherhood’s leader feels the humans have forced his hand. Given Striker’s horrifying actions, can anyone really blame him? We’re not asked to approve of Magneto’s violent means, only to accept them as part of an escalation that started with intolerance, lead to hatred, and may end in war.
For all its splendour and spectacle, X2: X-Men United remains a film about ideas and principles. In this respect, it’s a faithful adaptation of the source material, which revolutionized the super-hero genre thirty years ago by recreating the X-Men as idealists instead of action heroes and pitting them against a complex villain whose goals were as noble as theirs and whose methods were questionable but never unreasonable. That’s why I can’t understand why anyone would be upset about the colour and fabric of the costumes when the movie captures the comics’ themes and characters so perfectly.