The most common complaint regarding the 2000 summer hit X-Men, an adaptation of the popular Marvel comic book about a team of mutant superheroes, was that by necessity it spent too much time familiarizing general moviegoers with its myriad characters -- an odd gripe, since critics usually denounce most summer movies for containing more action than exposition. At any rate, with the introductions out of the way, X2 (*** out of 4) can boast of a more polished script, vastly improved special effects, lengthier battle sequences, and a longer running time (135 minutes, a full half-hour over its predecessor) that gives more players more time to strut their stuff. But I can't claim that it's a better movie than the first flick, which, among other attributes, displayed a sense of wonder that's been replaced here by a business-as-usual attitude emblematic of many big-budget affairs.
OK, with the criticism out of the way, we can now concentrate on the positives, because as far as heavily hyped, commercially savvy, slickly produced blockbuster extravaganzas go, this one's a keeper -- as well as a fine way to kick off the popcorn movie season (in that respect, it shares more than its comic book origins with Spider-Man, last summer's satisfying opening number).
X2 begins where X-Men ended, with the villainous Magneto (Ian McKellen) in jail (love that cell!), the kindly Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) recruiting new mutant/students for his Xavier's School for Gifted Children, and the outsider Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) searching the wilds for traces of his mysterious path. But along with the other X-Men -- weather-controlling Storm (Halle Berry, mercifully dropping the Elmer Fudd accent that was a major distraction in the first go-around), optics-enhanced Cyclops (James Marsden), telekinetic Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and power-absorbing Rogue (Anna Paquin) -- as well as one Magneto aide-de-camp (shape-shifting Mystique, again played by Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), these characters will find their paths once again intertwined, albeit in ways not anticipated by anyone involved. Rather than squaring off against each other, these disparate super-beings find themselves united against a common enemy, a Bush Administration military man known as William Stryker and played with the proper degree of fascist self-righteousness by Brian Cox. (OK, the movie doesn't have the balls to mention Bush by name, but given the screen president's physical resemblance, his willingness to persecute everyone who's different from him, and Xavier's opening monologue about how humans have never been in the habit of co-existing peacefully on this planet, it's safe to say the writing's on the wall.)
Armed with unlimited resources and eager to get started trampling on citizens' rights, Ashcroft -- I mean, Stryker -- mounts a full-scale, all-out war on Xavier's school, with soldiers busting down doors and shooting innocent, terrified children. Their forces depleted and scattered, some mutants take it on the lam while others are captured. Cheney -- I mean, Stryker -- scores a real coup when he takes Xavier himself as prisoner, figuring that with his capture he will be able to eradicate every mutant on the planet.
As if there weren't already enough characters competing for screen time, returning director Bryan Singer and his five writers add two more to the mix, with mixed results. As Rumsfeld's -- I mean, Stryker's -- brainwashed mutant assistant Deathstrike, Kelly Hu can't establish much in the way of her character, who's meant as an interesting counterpart to Wolverine but comes off as a second-rate villain. Alan Cumming fares much better as the sweet-natured Nightcrawler, a blue-skinned German with the ability to teleport out of tight jams. The roles of Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and Pyro (Aaron Stanford) have been beefed up, and faithful fans of the long-running comic series also get treated to brief appearances by (among others) Colossus and Dr. Hank McCoy.
As with many sci-fi sequels, from The Empire Strikes Back to (no doubt) the upcoming The Matrix Reloaded, X2 will seem largely incomprehensible to folks who elected to skip the first picture. But even they'll be able to gleam the subtext that has not only been evident in most superhero films but also in the comic books from which they originated, particularly those created by the legendary Stan Lee. A just and civilized society has no room for prejudice against those who are born different, and X2 hammers that point home at every turn. Besides the digs at a government mindset that believes in the Orwellian Animal Farm decree that "All animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others," the movie also looks at intolerance from a societal viewpoint, as best exemplified by the scene in which young Bobby Drake (Iceman's alter ego) comes "out" in front of his family by confessing he's a mutant, only to have his mother ask, "Have you ever tried not being a mutant?" And when Stryker rants about the evil mutant agenda, it's not hard to picture Jesse Helms in the role.
Jackman, who became an overnight star after the first X adventure, again excels as Wolverine, while McKellen is even more relaxed and playful in his second crack at Magneto (his catty comment to Rogue about her appearance is priceless). But the top acting honors would arguably have to be bestowed on Famke Janssen, who keeps getting better and better with every film role. Returning as Jean Grey, she's able to carry the weight of the film's acting load on her shoulders, as her character contends with all manner of obstacles (including being at the center of a love triangle with Cyclops and Wolverine). Janssen's soulful performance -- and the role it fleshes out -- conclusively demonstrates that, in the best superhero movies, the most special ingredient isn't the effects after all.