(aka X-Men 2, X-Men United)

D: Bryan Singer
S: Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen

The sequel to X-Men is an equally accomplished comic book film aimed at audiences above the age of seven. It aspires to actual characterisation, comes with a sly sense of humour and a strong thematic centre, and it draws genuinely good performances from a willing cast including distinguished Brit actors Brian Cox and Ian McKellen. Picking up roughly where the original left off, the film opens with its most impressive scene (never a good thing), introducing a new character, Nightcrawler (Alan Cummings) as he launches an assault on the American President using his teleporting abilities. Shortly afterwards we are introduced to the new villain, Stryker (Cox), a vengeful military advisor whose campaign against the mutants goes much further and deeper than the political demagoguery in part one. His plan is to wipe them out entirely, and it does not take long to realise that he also has something to do with the horrific memories which have haunted Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) since the original and have yet to yield answers.

The overriding theme of the X-Men franchise has always been one of the lack of tolerance for diversity in our society and the schizms within disenfranchised communities which can misdirect their energies. A thread along these lines continues throughout X2, but was more fully explored in the first film, leaving director Bryan Singer free to go in new directions from this underlying base. The central themes in this film are of patrimony and education, the systems which enforce and reinforce social prejudice and perpetuate division. On one hand is the story of how Wolverine gained his claws, a story of authority, shifting loyalties and divergent destinies which question the nature of heroism and the right to choose one's own path regardless of social conditioning. Meanwhile there is the story of Stryker himself, a disillusioned father who blames Professor X (Patrick Stewart) for the demise of his son, and, following a raid of Xavier's school which forces the students to flee, we are introduced to Iceman's family, whose response to his revelation that he is a mutant requires little decoding to read in terms of an 'outing'. Families, fathers, creeds and beliefs are all thrown into the mix here, and with the previously villainous Magneto (McKellen) teaming up with the X-Men to outwit Stryker, the audience's sense of the fault lines of heroism is located in more complex character dynamics than usually expected of the genre. As in the first one, heroics are less a matter of outrageous set pieces and more about values and choices in context.

The film is also careful to spend more time with its female characters. Jane Grey (Famke Janssen) is thrust firmly centre stage with an unconventional romantic triangle in which most of the angst and none of the pleasures are hers. In a desperately unconvincing finale [spoiler alert] (which reprises the climax of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, only without the sense of necessity) she even gets to save the day by an act of sacrifice which is her choice and hers alone. Storm (Halle Berry) also gets a little enhancement this time, mostly through her relationship with the timid Nightcrawler (revealed to have been under evil influences in the opening attack), though Rogue (Anna Paquin) demonstrates a more genuine level of development as she pursues a romantic relationship against seemingly impossible odds (given that she cannot actually touch anyone with her bare skin). Even Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) gets to define herself on equal terms with those around her and demonstrate skill, strength, and sensuality worthy of an effective villain who could just as easily be a hero if she chose.

Choice and consequence are central to the film in every sense. The character's choices, rooted as they are in specific conditions and circumstances, determine the flow of the narrative, which, in turn, tells a meaningful story of the importance of making decisions and the ability to change one's mind when it is necessary. The film is also about having faith in oneself, about knowing the basis for any given choice and understanding how taking a particular path will affect the lives of others. The explicitness of the religious sub-text is most unusual in a genre piece like this, but with Nightcrawler's constant praying and his discussions on the subject of belief, it is impossible to ignore its significance. Religion even provides the film with its most emotionally powerful moment, as Nightcrawler recites the Lord's prayer in a moment of quiet reflection unlike anything you will have seen in a superhero movie before. Not all the choices are good ones, of course, and one nice element of the plot is the depiction of the seduction of Pyro by Magneto, a portrait of emergent villainy rooted in disillusionment, bitterness, and adolescent angst.

X2 is not an unqualified success any more than its predecessor was. Just as it possesses most of the strengths of X-Men, it also suffers from its flaws. Again there are too many characters to allow the film to ever settle down properly with any of them (though it comes closer than its predecessor), again there is a sense of incompletion which runs deeper than the teaser finale setting up part three, and again the action scenes, though much improved, are never as rewarding as the genre requires them to be. The climax in which [spoiler alert] Jane Grey gives her life for the others is a problem because of the 'why?' factor in spite of the weight it carries in story and character terms, and this weakens the power of the storytelling on the whole.

There is still much to admire though, and to enjoy. The film's sneaky sense of humour helps it past some of the hurdles of the genre, the performances are very good, and the whole film has the same slick visual style as its predecessor. Fans will enjoy it, casual viewers may also, and it seems likely enough that there will be a third outing in which hopefully Singer gets to finish what he has started before turning over the reins to someone else. X2 definitely has the feeling of something still in progress, though a complete enough narrative in itself, and it would be nice to see it work itself out.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.