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X2 (2003)

Rating: ***1/2 out of 4

“You know, outside the circus, most people were afraid of me. But I didn’t hate them. I pitied them. Do you know why? Because most people will never know anything beyond what they see with their own two eyes.” - Nightcrawler

"Have you ever tried…not being a mutant?” - Mrs. Drake

“You know all those dangerous mutants you hear about on the news? I’m the worst one.” - Pyro

Cast: Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, and Famke Janssen.

Writers: Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris, David Hayter, Zak Penn and Bryan Singer

Director: Bryan Singer

After Bryan Singer found somewhat unexpected success with X-Men, the inevitability of a blockbuster sequel loomed and he took careful observation of the elements that worked in that first film and opted to rectify those that needed fixing; in short, he looked to Wrath of Khan his first film in an effort to make a sequel that rose above its predecessor and soared to levels not often reached with a mainstream franchise. On the film’s commentary, he said that the first film can really be viewed as nothing more than a really fleshed out prologue for a much cooler movie that was to be the sequel. Singer rose decisively to the challenge and made a picture that, at the time, was probably the best sequel to a comic book film ever made.

The movie picks up shortly after the first film concludes. Wolverine is on the journey to discover his long-forgotten origins (as promised at the end of the previous film). Magneto is in an isolated prison cell to serve out the rest of his life for trying to rid the world of the human plague. Professor X is honing his team of heroes and challenging the malleable minds of his students. But when a mutant with extraordinary powers makes an attempt on the life of the U.S. President, a faction of the government makes its move to strike at the mutant populous forcing the X-Men and Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants to form an alliance and save Professor X who has been nabbed by Col. Stryker—a man who is the sole remaining key to Wolverine’s past.

As you can see, the film has to juggle many, many storylines (several of which I did not even relay to you). Remarkably, the film is able to do so with relative ease and manages to keep afloat without bogging the film down with too much excess. This speaks to Singer’s excellent ability to focus the film on a few central characters, but with that comes a flaw…one which we shall tackle shortly.

As in the previous film, Jackman shines as Wolverine. He owns every frame with ease…and being surrounded by the likes of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, that is saying something. Famke Janssen’s role is beefed up nicely here and lends to the film’s powerful conclusion. Also with inflated screen time are Halle Berry’s Storm and Shawn Ashmore’s Ice Man, both of whom add nice texture to the film, but it is the introduction of Alan Cumming’s Nightcrawler that steals the show. Not only is he executed with precision from his comic origins, he is wonderfully performed. Also bringing strength is Brian Cox as Col. Stryker. He is just arch enough to make him a lastingly memorable villain, but plays him very straight arrowed so that he maintains his threat level even though he has no powers. It is really a strong performance.

The inflated budget also allowed Singer to make a prettier film with a larger sense of scope that was seriously lacking in the previous film, and this time around the special effects are up to scratch. Somehow, he manages this task while also keeping in line with his already established (and regrettably) bland looking world from the first film but adds just enough finesse to make the world feel the same but more aesthetically pleasing. The film still lacks the color that the comics have, but at least it is an improvement over the last one.

Still, with all of the film’s successes and deserved praising, fractures are becoming more evident. Part of the strength of the comic is the allegory for prejudice of those people who are viewed as different and while it is present in this film it is left somewhat forgotten to the gloss of the action unfolding. It really offers nothing new to the proceedings, but merely a restatement of what was said in the past picture. That being said, the film does stop for a moment midway through for a very strong ‘coming out’ scene for the character of Ice Man when he reveals to his family that he is a mutant. More scenes like this, which was handled so beautifully, were missed. But, again, it hearkened back to Rogue/Wolverine’s truck scene in the previous film: “When they come out…does it hurt?” / “Every time.” So, a redundancy…but a welcomed one.

Also, while opting to focus on the characters we already grew attached to the last time around; Wolverine, Rogue, Ice Man, Storm and Jean Grey with Magneto, Mystique and Professor X having sizable roles as well, most other characters are left with nothing much to do. Cyclops is but a glorified cameo in this picture. While, on the one hand, it makes sense to build on those who have struck a chord with the audience, on the other it shafts several characters who really could bring a lot to the table. That was part of the magic of the comics. Unlike, Spider-Man or Hulk or Daredevil, the X-Men allotted for every character to be the main character at some point. Not every story has to be Wolverine’s story. From a character development standpoint, the two films don’t offer much. And, the film so concerns itself with including character cameos it begins to suffocate the characters moving the story forward. This will linger throughout most of the franchise and it starts as early as this picture.

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The last thing that disappoints is that, even though the film is billed as the X-Men uniting, the characters kind of fail to do so. Most of the time they are split apart, in point of fact. Sure, an alliance is formed between the two rival groups of mutants, but the team doesn’t come together as a cohesive unit, as they did in the first. Each character accomplishes their plot on their own merits, rather than forming a union. This is another really odd thing the series will struggle with as it moves forward and a large reason for this is because they center focus on Wolverine who, by nature, is a lone wolf who doesn’t play well with others nor lends himself to become one with an ensemble that the property demands.

Even with the cracks emerging in its shiny veneer, the film works exceptionally well. Singer set out to make, what he called “this franchise’s Empire Strikes Back,” and to his credit, he accomplished this goal. It is an exciting, oddly emotional actioner with some well-placed bits of humor and most characters get a moment to shine, even if only for a moment. The story offers more complexity than the first and we are privy to some pretty cool visuals. This really was a welcomed improvement over the last picture, but it would be the last go around for Singer for more than a decade. Unfortunately, with his departure this ship was left without a rudder and the whole franchise blew off course.

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