X-Men managed to make superhero films a legitimate blockbuster sub-genre for the ‘00s. His sequel, called X2 because X-Men 2 is just too damned long apparently, raises the stakes in a number of ways. The budget is clearly larger, meaning that we get more big mutant power action sequences (and a much stronger third act as a result). This includes a fantastic opening bit in which the blue, acrobatic, tail-possessing teleporter Nightcrawler assaults the White House, and a fun dogfight. The movie also delves deeper into the central metaphor of mutants. The first film gave us mutant-on-mutant violence, but in this one, humanity is the real threat. There’s the clear possibility, only hinted at in the first film, that Magneto is right, and that mutants might be the victims of genocide.
The villain is a mutant-hating general named William Stryker. He has the ability to control mutants, and he uses some, like Nightcrawler, to manufacture mutant incidents that he can use as justification to round up American mutants. He kidnaps Xavier, and, in a very well-executed sequence, raids the School to round up the mutant children. The X-Men have to rally around Magneto (who escapes from a plastic prison in another great scene) to fight back against Stryker. There are some nice little character moments along the way: we see Nightcrawler as a mutant unable to hide his differences who leans on Christian faith, we get more of Wolverine’s origin (really all we need, despite a whole terrible movie about the topic in 2010), and we see Jean Grey’s problems dealing with the escalation of her powers (a very important storyline from the comics that will be mangled in the next movie installment). A new character, Pyro, was clearly created for the sole purpose of switching sides, but his arc is still a nice addition to a series that takes much of its strength from an antagonist with a credible philosophy. The best of these character moments is when Bobby “Iceman” Drake comes out as a mutant to his family. Sir Ian McKellen, meanwhile, chews through the scenery with abandon, and I think he even manages to steal scenes that he’s not even in. It’s like he’s taking a victory lap for the Oscar that he should have won for Fellowship of the Ring, and it’s very fun to watch.
The film’s storyline draws heavily from a Chris Claremont graphic novel called God Loves, Man Kills. Published as a standalone graphic novel in 1982, it was aimed at a more adult audience, and it’s probably more mature than this film. It’s a decent starting point for anyone interested in the comics, though Claremont’s narration-heavy style hasn’t aged all that well. Again, he is one of the most underrated influences of modern sf.
Compared to X-Men, the action scenes are better, the effects more impressive, the dialogue is more clever (even the jokes are funnier), and the thematic issues more apparent and interesting. It’s a far better film than the first, and one of the best superhero films all around.