X2 (2003)

Director: Bryan Singer

Starring: Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Anna Paquin, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Brian Cox, Alan Cumming

Oh, look at that! Halle Berry’s face is just as big as Hugh Jackman’s on the theatrical poster for “X2”! Isn’t that adorable? Well, of course, she had just won an Oscar for “Monster’s Ball,” so the marketing team had to take advantage of her popularity and all. Yeah, whatever… “X2: X-Men United” makes some of the same errors in judgment as its predecessor, but fortunately fewer of them. I like to think of that as evolution. From that perspective, “X2” clearly helped the franchise evolve from the growing pains of its first try, providing a stronger story with stronger characters, all while casting a sense of hope for the future. It even provides an easy set-up for the third movie, one which followers of the “X-Men” comic would instantly recognize. How that wildly popular storyline would be handled was anyone’s guess back in 2003, but first we had this chapter in the movie saga with which to marvel at our heart’s content.

Picking up some time after the events of “X-Men,” which saw Magneto (Ian McKellen) defeated and placed in a plastic prison cell, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has arrived at Alkaki Lake in Canada, hoping to find the missing pieces to the puzzle that is his memory. Unfortunately, he finds nothing there. Meanwhile, back in the States, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) has been experiencing changes in her telepathic abilities ever since the climactic battle on Liberty Island from the previous film. It seems that Magneto’s machine, which had been intended to induce mutation in normal humans, has caused this surge in Jean’s powers. But Jean’s dilemma will have to be put on hold, thanks to a mutant attack on the White House. Enter William Stryker (Brian Cox), who with the Presidents permission intends to lead a raid on the X-Mansion. Stryker’s intentions are hardly patriotic. He wants the technology known as Cerebro, which Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) uses to locate mutants, for the purpose of waging war against those whom society deems “different” and “dangerous.”

One of the strengths of “X2” is that it makes sure you’ll care about all of its mutant characters, even the ones that don’t have any spoken dialogue or only show up for a brief amount of time. Viewers are introduced to several new faces who will seem familiar to anyone knowledgeable about the comics. The big strong lad who can turn his skin to metal to deflect enemy attack is called Colossus. Serving under Stryker against her will is the deadly silent Yuriko (Kelly Hu). But the clear standout among the new characters is Pyro (Aaron Stanford), who has the power to manipulate (albeit not to create) fire.

As before, Halle Berry remains the single truly problematic main cast member, but at least this time she’s speaking with her own voice instead of a broken African accent. Still doesn’t prevent bad delivery at times, though other times she’s simply given badly written dialogue. James Marsden is still weak as Cyclops, but he gets a reprieve in “X2” because he spends most of it either off-screen or under Stryker’s control. Alan Cumming, who reportedly hated playing his character because of the extensive makeup required, is actually kind of annoying as Nightcrawler. The character’s Catholic faith is not the reason for this, however the script’s requirement that he recite several of the most overused passages from the Bible is a contributing factor. The rest is made up by a one-note performance from an actor who clearly demonstrates his disinterest in being here. A pity… I’m usually a Nightcrawler fan.

On the flip side, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen can make anything worth watching, but the ones to watch “X2” for are Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen and Rebecca Romijn. Like Stewart and McKellen, Jackman commands attention, and he’s also great at making you believe he is the character he plays. I can’t say with absolute certainty that he was the one and only choice to play Wolverine, but he has always projected a visible understanding of the essence of who the man otherwise known as Logan is. It’s unfortunate that the strongest aspect of “X-Men,” the friendship between Wolverine and Rogue (Anna Paquin) is largely set aside this time, but Wolverine’s got other things… and other women (namely Jean)… on his mind. Rebecca Romijn, who three years earlier seemed like an odd choice to play the shape-shifter Mystique in “X-Men,” made the role her own in 2003’s “X2.” The movie does have a certain sense of humor to it, and the spunky, bad girl Mystique gets the majority of those laughs.

If you were to take a poll amongst the X-Men, they would all agree that Jean Grey is the heart of the team. Cyclops and Wolverine most especially would make that claim, biased opinion or not. Famke Janssen was good enough in the role the first time around, but she excels in “X2.” The greatest scene in the movie… and in the entire “X-Men” film franchise… is hers. Jean, above all others, is the most heroic character of this piece. One can’t help but think of the most famous scene from another sci-fi film, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” when she steps off the X-Men’s jet to contain a flood created by the crumbling dam at Alkali Lake, buying the team the time it needs to escape. To further the “Wrath of Khan” comparison, Janssen repeats Patrick Stewart’s opening monologue from the first film, just as Leonard Nimoy had recited the famous “Space, the final frontier…” monologue that had until that time always been spoken by William Shatner.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’ve been spoiled by the quality of the superhero movies released since 2008. “X2” is no “Dark Knight,” and it doesn’t excite me as much as it did a decade ago, but there is no question that it is far and away the best of the first three “X-Men” movies. Certainly, the fantastic finish helps out a lot in that regard, but really, it was a team effort that made this one as good as it is. I have two favorite storylines from the “X-Men” comic… and I think it’s fair to say there are many fans who can say the same… The “Dark Phoenix” saga, and the “Days of Future Past” two-parter. It’s only logical that both would find their way onto the big screen, one in 2006, and the other coming in just a few short weeks in May 2014. Botching those storylines would anger fans around the world. Getting them right would earn critical praise, and could inspire continued interest in the film franchise. Unlike Wolverine, this film franchise is not indestructible, so what’s it going to be? Evolution, or extinction?

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