If X-Men is the dress rehearsal, X-2 is the command performance. Every single issue the first one has is addressed, every problem solved. it remains one of the best examples of modern western superhero cinema and even now it stands as a mark that the franchise has arguably reached again but certainly never surpassed (Logan notwithstanding). It’s a really, really good, well put together movie. And as we’ll see, it haunts its franchise mates like an adamantium-enhanced Banquo.
X-2 picks up a short amount of time after the original. Magneto is still in prison, Mystique is still in deep cover as Senator Kelly and Rogue has settled in at the X-Mansion. Meanwhile, every hairdresser’s worst fever dream, Logan, has traveled to Alkali Flats and discovered a ruined military base that seems oddly familiar. Oh and a mutant has just tried to kill the President…
Any way you look at X-2 it’s bigger and better than the original which is pretty much the platonic ideal for a sequel. The character balance is especially great this time round and it’s expansion in turn solves arguably the biggest problem the original had; the empty world. The screenplay, this time by Michael Dougherty, David Hayter and Zak Penn from a story by Hayter, Penn and Bryan Singer works overtime to view the massive issues at its core through a human lens. The President, seconds from death in the legitimately frightening opening, is acting from fear as much as bigotry and that makes him both more pitiable and more dangerous. An interlude which sees Rogue, Bobby, Pyro and Logan flee to Bobby’s parents’ house gives you a stark look at the background a lot of mutant kids have to escape from. The core motivation of William Stryker, the lead villain, involves weaponizing his already partially lobotomized mutant son and his own disgust at his child. Time and again, the movie shows us the world as both deeply hostile to the leads and deeply conflicted. Everyone is convinced they’re the hero. Few are.
Caught in the middle of all this is a massively expanded cast that’s crammed full of excellent actors all clearly relishing having something to DO. Famke Janssen and Halle Berry especially seem to enjoy getting strongers arcs and while Berry is still under-used, Janssen is front and center thematically and literally. Jean is the mutant singularity embodied, and the way the movie explores her growing abilities is genuinely interesting and arguably the only thing that we could have done with seeing more of.
The Xavier/Lensherr relationship is similarly much improved and far more nuanced this time. The final scene sees Charles Xavier use a frankly terrifying intimidation tactic that would make his old friend nod approvingly. Better still is the moment where Lensherr reveals that he’s been drugged and interrogated about the school. McKellen is just stunningly good here, the emotions fighting for control of his face. Horror and shame at how he’s been used and the danger he’s put children in. Guilt hiding behind sneering admissions that themselves are a frantic lie he’s telling himself about how much control he has. Rage at his friend for putting him there. Anger that he, the predominant mutant terrorist on the planet, has become nothing more than a snitch. It’s an incredible moment and one that both men land absolutely perfectly.
But the movie’s best elements are it’s new characters, and new focus, Shawn Ashmore and Aaron Stanford (Both future genre MVPs along with Ty Olsson who appears as a racist prison guard here) are excellent as the literal embodiment of the two sides of the mutant issue. Ashmore’s Iceman is principled, focused, over cautious and completely cut off from the family he desperately wants. Stanford’s Pyro is a spark looking for tinder who finds it and discovers every one of his favorite persecution fantasies is true. Neither is right but neither is quite wrong enough and their friendship with Rogue, and ensuring conflict, is pretty much the perfect screen depiction of every narrative engine at the core of the X-Men franchise.
The same is true of the other side of the ethical line, with Brian Cox and Kelly Hu as William Stryker and Lady Deathstrike. Cox is one of those performers who is basically unable to turn in bad work and his Stryker is a typically Coxian jovial grandfather who wants to murder you and your entire family. His plan is sensible, well thought out, is based on sound if completely immoral reasoning and actually works. He is a genuine, tangible threat at every level and that makes the reluctant team up that forms the third act all the more effective. Plus let’s not forget this is the franchise that in one movie’s time has Magneto tear the Golden Gate Bridge off it’s mooring and use i to get to Alcatraz because he doesn’t remember boats are a thing so let’s enjoy competent evil while we can.
Hu is less lucky, required to do little more here than kick face which to be fair she and the stunt team are remarkably good at. It’s a shame because Hu is a rock solid actress who could have done more than she’s given here. That being said she and Jackman have the franchise’s first legitimately good mutant-on-mutant fight scene that’s crammed full of character and innovative brutality that you can actually see happen. No bad wire work, no janky camera angles, just Singer, for once, locking down and letting his performers work. The scale is still, in every fight, either one mutant on one, or one mutant versus cannon fodder but here at least it’s a feature not a bug.
So it’s all good right?…Mostly. The movie gives Cyclops more to do, which is great but all of it is fighting with Logan over Jean, which is much less great. The ending, which sees Jean apparently sacrifice herself to save the others, aims for Empire Strikes Back and pretty much hits it. The snippy feud between Logan and Cyclops over who she ‘belongs to’ is anything but. It renders Jean down to an abstract, a prize to be fought over. In other words it removes the agency she struggles all movie to achieve and locks the guys into the least interesting plot you can give them. All three deserve better.
Despite this, X-2 remains a really good time. The new characters all land, the franchise suits the expansion of cast, scale and budget and it’s a big movie where a man with knife hands kills people that’s actually also about something. Like I say, this is the command performance. Unfortunately, as we’ll see, that led to a series of diminishing cover versions that were key to the franchise’s serious mistakes and eventual reboot. All of which starts with X-Men: The Last Stand, the next in the series and the first, most enthusiastic and least successful of those cover versions.