I've seen Bryan Singer's X-Men a few times now, and it's still the best screen adaptation of comics superheroes yet. It feels more like a pilot for a series than a feature film, but its use of cognitive estrangement, its (mostly) fantastic ensemble cast, its intelligent script, and its arresting design all work together to create a memorable pop-culture event.
The sequel, unfortunately bearing the faux-trendy and already dépassé moniker X2, while clearly benefiting from a larger budget, doesn't measure up to its predecessor. It's still kind of fun to watch, but comes across a bit like a James Bond film written by Chris Carter (of The X-Files), i.e., state-of-the-art action with gigantic plot holes and mysterious, confusing conspiracies with moments when characters could easily explain what's going on, but don't.
X2 makes no effort to stand on its own; it's clearly and explicitly a sequel to X-Men. Many X2 scenes play off scenes from the previous film, and this again emphasizes this franchise's likeness to a TV serial. I suspect this film would come across better as an episode sandwiched between two others. Alas, the time, resources, and coordination required to make one of these films mean that the sequel is at least two or three years away.
X-Men told a story; X2 is an episode in which various plot threads are developed. The first one stands on its own; the second one doesn't. X2 is nevertheless filled with good moments; unfortunately, unlike its predecessor, it's a film that does not stand up to close scrutiny.
I had two problems with the first film, neither of which are fixed this time around. First, the conclusion: the details concerning Magneto's capture and the reasons why Xavier is allowed to visit him in his high-security cell were left unsatisfactorily vague. In X2, the problem of the capture is simply not alluded to, but Xavier's continuing visits seem to contradict other story elements in the new film. Second, Halle Berry was disastrously uncomfortable as Storm; this time around she doesn't seem quite as befuddled by her own character, but neither does she inject any personality into the role.
X-Men introduced many characters, seven of whom Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, Anna Paquin as Rogue, Patrick Stewart as Xavier, Ian McKellen as Magneto, Bruce Davison as Senator Kelly, Famke Janssen as Jean Grey, and James Marden as Cyclops developed personalities beyond their plot-assigned roles, with Jackman, Paquin, McKellen, and Janssen being particularly arresting.
This time around Paquin's Rogue is relegated to a smaller part, so she doesn't have much opportunity to tug at the audience's heartstrings. Jackman's Wolverine lacks some of the edge and snarkiness that made the character so vivid the first time around, although he still has rough charm aplenty. McKellen's role is also smaller, but his Magneto is fully realized and his screen presence unfailingly powerful. Marsden, whose body language had imbued Cyclops with so much personality in X-Men, failed to make the character come alive at all this time around, and the scenes that call for him to have intense emotional reactions come across as fake. Stewart's performance was as good as it was last time. Bruce Davison, whose character died in X-Men, nevertheless returns as Senator Kelly, or rather as the shapeshifting Mystique impersonating the secretly deceased senator; this time around Davison impressed me very much, as he spiced his performance with a subtle femininity.
Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, whose Mystique had been mostly decoration in X-Men, is given a larger role in X2, and she's simply fabulous: mysterious, sexy, scary, strong, fragile, rude, and so much more and yet all consistent. Her performance makes you yearn to know more while being fascinated by what's on screen.
Brian Cox and Alan Cumming join the series in this film as, respectively, Stryker and Nightcrawler. Cox an actor I usually like quite a bit doesn't seem to be particularly invested in his character and gives only an adequate performance. Cumming, however, is magnificent, although he is not given enough screen time. His breathtaking entrance at the beginning of the film X2's most visually exciting moment sets him up to be a major player in this movie, but, although he's both fun and fragile whenever he's on screen, the filmmakers failed to integrate him into the story and to give him the space he so clearly deserved and required.
Shawn Ashmore returns as Bobby Drake (a.k.a. Iceman), one of Xavier's students. He had only a small role in the first film, mostly to set up a potential romance with Rogue, a situation that is expanded upon in X2.
Another student, Pyro (who, in X-Men, had only appeared in a cameo, played by Alex Burton), returns, this time incarnated by Aaron Stanford. The whole subplot involving Pyro was given either too much screen time or not enough, i.e., it should have been dropped altogether or expanded. As it stands, it's a distraction that doesn't tie in to the plot enough to justify its presence. And Stanford's performance is unexceptional.
The story in X2 is very messy and lacks focus. There're too many characters. A few of them should have been cut or minimized. Also, Singer should have chosen specific characters through whom to focus and anchor the story, as he had done so successfully in X-Men. X2 lacks the emotional impact of X-Men, and that's because Singer failed to make this film about anyone. X-Men dramatized the ideological conflict between Xavier and Magneto and made us empathize with the loneliness that haunted Wolverine and Rogue. In X2 there's simply too much going on with too many characters, none of whom are given enough screen time for their character arcs to be fleshed out and make us care: Stryker's vendetta against mutants; Nightcrawler's journey from circus freak to assassin to X-Men recruit; Pyro questioning his future; Iceman dealing with his family; Rogue and Iceman's romance; Rogue's crush on Wolverine; Jean Grey's problems and choices; the Jean Grey / Cyclops / Wolverine romantic triangle; Xavier's students on the run; Mystique's determination to free Magneto; Wolverine's quest to find his past. Pyro, Nightcrawler, and Jean Grey are all wasted characters in a way, the very important things that happen to them lacking the emotional weight that should have been present for the film to be truly effective.
And too much screen time is wasted on Halle Berry and Kelly Hu, whose characters have no particular emotional stake in the film's events in addition to being bland and undefined. Kelly Hu's much-publicized appearance as a Wolverine-like mutant mind-controlled by Stryker is nothing more than a transparent excuse for an overlong fight scene.
As with X-Men, X2's conclusion leaves unanswered a few thorny questions e.g., how can Xavier's school continue to operate normally given the film's disastrous events; this comes off as lazy writing. X2 borrows much more directly from the comics than its predecessor. Alas, like the recent Spider-Man and Daredevil films, the result is a patchy script that tries too hard to hit specific story points at the expense of well-developed drama.
In addition to the story being told in a too emotionally detached and event-driven manner, there are too many details that don't make sense. For example, when Wolverine a natural-born tracker with heightened senses and highly motivated to discover the truth about his forgotten past goes to investigate the base where he was, long ago, experimented on, he fails to explore the seemingly abandoned base closely enough to uncover the still-active underground levels, or even to detect signs of activity. Characters' powers fluctuate randomly in order to advance the plot, or, worse, are ignored entirely. Several "tense" moments, key scenes, and tragic events could have been resolved or avoided with little effort by, say, Iceman or Storm. The capabilities of the X-jet also fluctuate illogically, again to artificially create suspense. Too many situations in X2 are ultimately difficult to believe in.
X2 should have cut characters and plotlines, or it should have been twice as long. But in either case, the script should have been more carefully crafted; special effects don't cover up plot holes and visual continuity mistakes.
Most of all, X2 should have been Famke Janssen's movie. Her low-key style mesmerized me even more this time around I kept wanting to see more of her as Jean Grey and was only frustrated with how little screen time she was given. Ultimately, X2 is Jean Grey's story. For the ending to have the punch and resonance it needed to have, Janssen should have been given in X2 the centre stage that had been occupied by Jackman and Paquin in X-Men. That said, as any reader of X-Men comics will guess given X2's conclusion, the next film will undoubtedly put Janssen in the spotlight. We all know what comes next, and, if Singer & Co. pull it off, the third X-Men film will be, by far, the best yet.