The first X-Men film was a commercial success and a sequel was naturally just assumed. In light of the first film’s success, director Bryan Singer was given almost free reign over the sequel with a bigger budget and a longer runtime. When it hit theaters in May of 2003 it was met with critical praise and raked in the dough, beginning a trend where suddenly sequels were topping their prequels. The X-Men found themselves in the conversation over what was the greatest super hero brought to film. Spider-Man 2 would kind of quiet that discussion, but in general, it seems X2 is highly regarded by fans of both the comic and of the first film.
Anticipating a trilogy from the beginning, Fox wisely had locked up the key cast members for multiple films. This proved especially smart considering between the first two films, Halle Berry became an Academy Award winning actress and found the role of Storm well beneath her by the time X-Men 2 came around. To sort of appease her, X2 would expand upon Storm’s role from the first film, where she was mostly an after thought, and put her in more of a leadership role this time around. Her role would be increased even more when it came time to film X-Men 3.
Considering Wolverine is such a dominating, yet polarizing, figure it makes sense to start off with his character. When the first X-Men film ended, Wolverine was taking off to check out a location he believed would turn out to be the Weapon X facility. It is actually never referred to by the film as the Weapon X project but it’s the same thing; the place where Wolverine obtained his fantastic skeleton. Finding little to appease his curiosity, he returns to the X-Men where the film’s plot takes off. In the first film Wolverine was an outcast, in this one he’s forced into a leadership role when the mansion gets attacked while everyone else is away. We get to see a little bit of Wolverine’s berserker persona as he takes out numerous military types.
It is refreshing to see a hero go all out with little regard to human life, and that is how Wolverine approaches the encounter at the mansion. There’s no negotiation or even the slightest hint of mercy and it’s one of the cooler scenes in the film. Beyond that though, Wolverine is portrayed as a bit of a reluctant guardian to Iceman, Rogue, and Pyro for a good portion of the film. His character is a little jokey, with a dry sense of humor that is probably brought out too much. Wolverine would be better served to be shown a little more irritable, and more of a loner. He does run off during the film’s climax to seek out answers regarding his past, which was a smart move, but his toughness is kind of undone by his over the top reaction to Jean’s death (and if I just spoiled anything for you I don’t care, you’ve had almost 8 years to see the thing).
Ultimately, Wolverine’s past isn’t completely revealed, a wise move considering the comics had always resisted doing the same (though they have since given us the Wolverine Origin books). His character is again consumed by boyish lust anytime Jean is present. Another aspect of the character that I think was focused on too much in the films. Especially in X2 where Cyclops is barely in the film so the whole love triangle aspect is kind of irrelevant.
The film’s main villain is Colonel William Stryker, played by Brian Cox. Comic book fans know Stryker as an evangelist who believes mutants are the work of Satan. He was introduced in the excellent graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills which was created in 1982. When fans learned that both Stryker and Nightcrawler would be included in X2, it seemed to make a lot of sense. After all, Nightcrawler is known for both his demonic appearance and his faith. The two characters play off one another quite well. Perhaps Singer got cold feet over the idea of tossing religion into the mix, or maybe they just felt Stryker would work better for their story as a military man. As a military man, he is given access to the president where he’s able to get clearance to raid Xavier’s mansion. He’s also given access to an imprisoned Magneto where he’s able to utilize some sort of drug that functions as both a truth serum and mind control device.
This mind control drug sets up the film’s first scene, where Nightcrawler attempts to assassinate the president against his will. Though I suppose assassinate maybe the wrong word as I’m pretty sure Stryker wanted the president alive, but who knows? This leads to the X-Men seeking out Nightcrawler which gets him involved in the plot.
Nightcrawler, played by Alan Cumming, is the big addition to the cast of mutants for X2. He’s long been a fan favorite and was a welcomed addition for the sequel. He’s played pretty much how one would expect, the only real addition to his character the film makes are the scars that appear all over his body. These are the result of self-mutilation, with Nightcrawler claiming he carves an angelic symbol into his flesh for every sin he commits. Otherwise, his look is pretty much identical to his classic comic book look, save for the costume. Here he’s given a black trench coat and striped pants. The coat makes sense considering that someone of Nightcrawler’s appearance would probably try to conceal it as much as possible. He still has his teleportation powers, though if he leaves behind a stinky odor the film doesn’t let us know, he just disappears into a puff of blue/black smoke. He’s also shown to be able to stick to walls during his attack on the White House. Singer chose to show this using wires instead of special effects and the results are mixed. His trademark faith is represented and on display most prominently during a conversation he has with Storm. Storm is shown to be quite bitter towards humanity, something not really consistent with her character, while Nightcrawler displays an inner peace and instructs her to have faith. This of course leads to a moment later in the film where Storm expresses faith in Nightcrawler and it is as corny as it sounds.
The basic plot is a little hokey, but works given the film’s setup. Stryker detests mutants and fate saw fit to give him a mutant son. He sought out Xavier’s help to “cure” him, which Xavier told him was impossible, so he took the boy home. The boy’s name is Jason and he is basically the movie version of the character Mastermind, a villain capable of creating powerful illusions to corrupt his foes. Stryker claims his son resented he and his wife and drove her to suicide. He’s kept his boy restrained ever since and aims to use him to get to Xavier. Obtaining all of the X-Men’s secrets from Magneto, Stryker creates his own Cerebro. His intention is to use Xavier to kill all of the world’s mutants with his Cerebro. It is explained that Xavier’s telepathic powers are so adept that he can kill with a thought when connected to Cerebro.
Mystique springs Magneto using an ingenious plan of seducing and drugging one of
Magneto’s guards while at a bar and injecting him with iron. Magneto rips the iron from the poor sap’s body and uses it to create his escape. Which is where the “X-Men United” part comes into play, as the X-Men are forced to team-up with Magneto and Mystique to stop Stryker.
The cast is particularly large for this sequel, which might explain why Cyclops is taken captive early in the film. There’s some timing issues as well that harm the film’s credibility. Jean and Storm take the X-Jet to Boston to find Nightcrawler early on and are away when the mansion is attacked. In the amount of time it takes them to fly back to New York, Wolverine and the rest drive from NY to Boston to the home of Bobby Drake (Iceman). Apparently, Jean and Storm decided to take the scenic route. Also, an awful lot happens in the amount of time it takes Jason to lead Xavier to the false Cerebro which makes it hard to take the film’s threat very seriously.
The acting is pretty solid overall. I was especially surprised by the Iceman and Rogue characters, portrayed by Shawn Ashmore and Anna Paquin, as teen romance is hard to pull off on-screen without looking corny. The two handle their roles, and sometimes silly, dialogue quite well. Not award winning stuff or anything, just not a low point. Aaron Stanford does a good job portraying Pyro, the young mutant that doesn’t buy into Xavier’s methods and ends up siding with Magneto. He is the focal point of one of the film’s more memorable scenes.
Patrick Stewart is called upon less in this film as Charles Xavier, but he is always up to the task. Ian McKellen is a more convincing and ruthless Magneto, which I enjoyed, though he still looks like a harmless old man most of the time. Famke Janssen reprises her role as Jean Grey and her on-screen chemistry with Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine is capable, if a bit over dramatic. During the course of the film Singer teases the Phoenix plot line several times, setting the stage for the third film (which he would not direct).
The film ultimately works given the set-up created by the first film. The characters behave in a logical way and remain consistent. There isn’t any dead weight and ultimately my main gripe is with the film’s other villain, Lady Deathstrike played by Kelly Hu. She’s actually never given a name by the film and is merely a silent lackey for Stryker. I believe she has just one line in the whole film. She’s also given Wolverine’s healing factor and her own adamantium skeleton, which is teased throughout the film before being revealed before the big fight scene with Wolverine. She is brain-washed by Stryker so we never learn anything about her. Like Sabretooth in the first film, this villain apparently has no history with Wolverine. Where as in the comics she despises him and is out for blood. She was never a great villain, and following this film the comics would even start to adopt this look for her where he claws are retractable, but still feels wasted here.
There’s a lot of little bits of fan service sprinkled throughout the film. We get our first glimpse of Hank McCoy on a television show in human form. There’s also the computer screen accessed by Mystique which contains files labeled Omega Red and Nathaniel Essex, among others. Several X-Men receive cameos during the mansion attack, most notably Colossus who apparently is not Russian in the film-verse.
In the end, I can’t complain too much with this film. I would have liked to have seen a more true to the comics portrayal of Stryker as I think he’s a fascinating subject and one that would add considerable weight to the plot. His character in X2 feels interchangeable, Singer could have used someone less important and achieved the same effect. This would have saved Stryker for another and more worthy story. The cast is also too big, which is something the first film struggled with. It’s hard to say where things could have been done better but it is a shame that Cyclops had to be pretty much written out of the film all together. The addition of Nightcrawler did work, and it’s a shame Alan Cumming could not be convinced to reprise the role for the sequel (not that it would have made it much better) as he added a nice dimension to the team. If anything, too much time was spent on the Bobby Drake side-story where he “comes out” as a mutant to his parents. The whole scene is full of cliches and the X-Men present come across as being extremely (no pun intended) defensive. So while the film works, I’d still like to blow the whole thing up and start from scratch. For now though, this is the best X-Men film we’ve received, I just think there’s a better one that has yet to be made.