Sequels are tricky things. They must deliver the same thrills that thrilled movie audiences the first time around while still serving up new twists and surprises that won’t alienate fans. Unfortunately, most sequels don’t live up to the task. Fortunately, X2: X-Men United, the sequel to director Bryan Singer’s 2000 adaptation of the popular comic book, not only equals its ambitious predecessor, but surpasses it in excitement, story and depth.
X2 picks up a short time after the events of the first film. Public fear of mutants, people born with powers and abilities, is on the rise, especially after a teleporting devilish-looking mutant named Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) tries to assassinate the President. The wheelchair bound telepath Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) feels that mutants and regular humans can live in peace, and to such an end has established a school that trains young mutants to use their powers for the betterment of mankind. The teachers at this school are the superhero team the X-Men. Unfortunately, Xavier has an opposite number, Magneto (Ian McKellen), who believes that war between mutants and humans is inevitable.
Upping the ante this time around is Stryker (Brian Cox), a military scientist who has his own reasons for wanting mutants dead. Following a chilling night time raid on Xavier’s school by Stryker’s men and Xavier’s capture, the X-Men find themselves on the run and ultimately teaming up with Magneto to stop this threat to them both. Running with the old question “Is my enemy’s enemy my friend?”, the film offers some twists right up to an ending that will have fans anxiously awaiting the next installment.
At the time of its release, the first X-Men film was perhaps the most intelligently written comic book adaptation to come along. It successfully explored the comic’s core conceit of bigotry and the desire to belong. While it may be somewhat simplistic to compare Xavier and Magneto to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, some similarities do come through. The heroes and villains of the film didn’t ask for their powers anymore than anyone has a choice about the circumstances they are born into. And Singer knew enough to develop the characters enough so that we cared about the decisions they make regarding their abilities.
X2’s story is adapted (somewhat loosely) from the graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills by longtime X-Men scribe Chris Claremont. Director Singer, along with screenwriters David Hayter, Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris have crafted a screenplay that grows out of the themes explored in the first and complicates them. The idea of anti-mutant bigotry extends deeper than just race relations. As Bobby’s mother says to him after he admits to family that he is a mutant, “Have you tried not being a mutant?”
Fortunately, X2 is written so that if you haven’t seen the first film in a while, you won’t necessarily be lost. For the die-hard fan there are plenty little hidden treats to find over multiple viewings. (Hint: Read some of the other files names on a computer screen.)
There are interesting examinations of the ideas families and fatherhood here. Both Xavier and Magneto see themselves as father figures. Xavier has been building a family of outcasts at his school. Magneto keenly realizes and supplies the father figure that the troubled mutant Pyro is looking for while young mutant Bobby is torn between his biological family and the one he has come to know at the school.
Although there is a fair amount of screen time devoted to Wolverine’s continuing search for his origins, the film is much more of an ensemble piece than last time. The acting is first rate, especially from Stewart and McKellen. Stewart shades his Professor Xavier with just a hint of grey to suggest that he may not be quite as benevolent as he wishes us to think. McKellen plays his Magneto with the cold tone of a bored monarch that makes us forget his warm and good-natured portrayal of Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings films. Anna Paquin, Shawn Ashmore and Aaron Stanford as the trio of younger mutants who find themselves thrust into a conflict that will shape their own personal futures. James Marsden’s Cyclops does get short changed a bit, and that is to the slight detriment of the finale. However, for a cast as big as this film’s, every one gets at least a few moments to shine.