The X-Men franchise hit its stride in 2003 with the sequel X2: X-Men United. Again directed by Bryan Singer, X2 is one of those rare sequels that builds on the framework of the first film and out-does its predecessor. Singer seemingly identified the weaknesses of 2000′s X-Men and fixed those problems, while taking everything that worked with the film and broadening the scope. Like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan before it, X2 makes good on the promise of the original (indeed, the film recalls The Wrath of Khan on more than one occasion – but perhaps more on that another time).
Picking up shortly after the events of the first film, the X-Men face a new threat in General William Stryker (a deliciously evil Brian Cox), who has a history with Wolverine and Xavier, and is hell-bent on eradicating the mutant population. With this threat to mutants, the X-Men and Magneto’s Brotherhood form an uneasy alliance to defeat a common enemy. This is perhaps a result of the attacks of 9/11, the complicated and conflicted moral debate established in the first film is reduced to a straightforward “good vs. evil” scenario.
Stryker’s plan is fairly standard in terms of diabolical plots, and while this drives the film forward – and like its predecessor – X2 once again really focuses on Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and his search for identity. Much of the film is dedicated to Wolverine trying to fill in the gaps of his memory, and Jackman makes the most out of this great material. While this is the main thrust of the narrative, it doesn’t overtake the film. Singer and company pace and balance the film well; each character is able to build on what was established in the first film, and in particular, the young mutants Rogue (Anna Paquin), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), and Pyro (Aaron Stanford) develop quite nicely throughout the course of film. And yet, there’s plenty of screen time still for Alan Cumming’s Nightcrawler, Rebecca Romijn’s Mystique, and Ian McKellen’s Magneto, all of whom are crucial to the plot of the film; X2 may be jam-packed, but never feels over-stuffed (unlike its successor) and never collapses under its own weight. Sadly, however, Patrick Stewart’s Xavier and James Marsden’s Cyclops lose the fight for screen time, as their characters seem to be here to service the plot.
Despite the simplification of its morality and its tendency to be a little action-heavy toward the end, X2 is briskly-paced, full of engaging performances and terrific set-pieces, from the opening White House attack to the final battle between Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike. The film stands alongside Superman II, Spider-Man 2, and The Dark Knight as one of the best comic book film sequels.
X2: X-Men United (2003, USA, 133 mins). Directed by Bryan Singer. Written by Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris, and David Hayter. Starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Brian Cox, Famke Jannson.