X2: X-Men United (20th Century Fox, 2003)

The quick take:
The great: Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, Anna Paquin’s Rogue, Ian McKellan's Magneto, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos's Mystique, Shawn Ashmore's Iceman, Aaron Stanford's Pyro, Alan Cumming's Nightcrawler, Bryan Cox's Col. Stryker, Bryan Singer’s direction.

The second-rate: Halle Berry's Storm and a development at the end of the movie that doesn't feel inevitable.

The verdict: It's better than the first X-Men, though you might have to see it twice to agree. See it. Twice.

Behind the quick take:
My prejudices: I'm suspicous of sequels. Probably the first sequel I saw that I liked better than the original was Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. I still haven't decided whether The Empire Strikes Back is better than the original Star Wars. Technical improvements are nice, but it's hard for sequels to compete with their predecessors's feeling of originality. First movies tend to be about the first steps of the hero's journey, when the audience and the characters learn together what the world and those characters are really like. In sequels, initial revelations are old, so writers must find a way to make the familiar new again. It's not a job for amateurs.

The story: Col. Stryker has a plan -- using a serum that puts people under his control, he will make a few select mutants help him kill every mutant on Earth. Professor Xavier stumbles onto the plan too late and is promptly captured by Stryker. Mystique also stumbles onto part of Stryker's machinations; she sets out to free Magneto from his metalless prison. Once Magneto is free, three sets of players -- Stryker's group, Magneto's group, and the X-Men -- begin working for very different ends.

And that's all the summary you need.

The casting: Everyone who was good before is better now. Even Berry, for all that she's earnest or whiny when she should be efficient or indignant, is better, though there's still no complexity to her performance, no sense of the regal or of righteous anger burning beneath a polite exterior. James Marsden (Cyclops) and Famke Janssen (Jean Gray) had almost nothing to do in the last movie; in this one, they each have a moment or two to shine, and do. Kelly Hu's Deathstrike is written as a one-note character, but Hu makes the most of that limited part. The pleasant surprise was Shawn Ashmore's Iceman, who is much of the reason we believe we're watching a story about ordinary people who find they're freaks, and not a story about heroes with great powers who want to wear flashy costumes and fight evil.

The production values: This much of my review of X-Men applies to X2: "Everything looks great, except for Magneto’s pinhead helmet, which he doesn’t wear very often. The fight scenes are fast and satisfying. The effects do their job." The bar for effects has been raised in the last three years; this movie makes the bar easily. And, unlike the previous movie, the fire shots are just fine.

The writing: The character bits are still delightful. One of my favorites is a bonding scene, late at night at Xavier's mansion, played perfectly by Hugh Jackman and Shawn Ashmore.

The main plot is nicely developed. Where the first story focused on Wolverine and Rogue, this story is more truly an ensemble tale. The disadvantage for viewers is that means you're watching everyone and identifying with no one in particular, which might be part of the reason I was a little disappointed the first time I saw this. My biggest disappointment on the first viewing was that the ultimate threat is a human, not a mutant. I like my villains superior in ability to my heroes. On the second viewing, I decided that Stryker's motivation, cunning, and resources were enough to please me.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the writing is how well the three competing sets of players are handled. Each group affects the story at some point, sending it in a direction that the other two could not have expected.
The major writing disappointment comes near the end. To keep from spoiling the moment, I'll be vague: someone becomes separated from the team for no apparent reason inherent to the action -- except that the ending requires that the character go it alone. The problem could have been avoided if there was a sense that this person had to fallen behind to win time for the others to reach safety. On the second viewing, that didn't bother me as much, partly because it's nicely played, partly because I knew it was coming.

The DVD: I don't know if there are cut scenes that will appear on the DVD. This movie, unlike the first, doesn't need extending. But I'm prepared to be convinced that I'm wrong.

Last thoughts: I hope Bryan Singer returns to make the third X-Men movie. He's set a style for the first two movies that I would hate to lose.

[Will Shetterly]

Here's the very cool X2 Web site