Wolverine! Wolverine! Oh, and the Other Guys...
X2: X-Men United
The original Fox X-Men was a big hit. It was a film that defied expectations to prove that not only could superhero movies be good, but that a film about a diverse team of heroes could actually be filmed. The thought of balancing so many characters, so many plot lines, in a trim running time had to worry a number of studio execs -- it's little wonder that for a while there the best X-MenLaunched in 1963 and written by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the X-Men featured heroes distinctly different from those featured in the pages of DC Comics. Mutants who didn't ask for their powers (and very often didn't want them), these heroes, who constantly fought against humans who didn't want "muties" around, served as metaphors for oppression and racism. Their powerful stories would form this group into one of the most recognizable superhero teams in comics (and a successful series of movies as well). adaptation before the 2000 movie was the 1990s cartoon series (with the kick-ass theme song). The fact that X-Men proved to be a success had to be a relief to Fox.
With one successful movie under their belts, though, the question was then: where could the series go from here? There are so many famous storylines in the X-Men comics that any one of them could have served as the next big chapter for the series. Instead of going after some of the bigger stories (like Dark Phoenix or Days of Future Past, stories that would get adapted later, to be fair) the series instead gave us a movie not too far off in style, tone, or story from the movie that came before. Sure, the basic plot points are different but, in essence, this is a very conservative, very expected sequel to the original film. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, just that if people were waiting for the series to really push out into the X-Men biggest hits (or deep cuts), they'd have to keep waiting.
When last we checked in with the X-Men, they'd just saved all the leaders of the free world from a deadly attack by Magneto, and they did it while receiving little to no credit. Now, a couple of years later, a new threat is brewing: Col. Striker (Brian Cox), a military man with a deep, secretive military budget under his control, has it out for all mutants. He blames them for the death of his wife (and son, although his son is a mutant, and isn't really dead, and it's a whole big thing) and wants to get his revenge. As such he strikes out against Xavier's School for the Gifted, leading a raid that puts all the team members -- Eyeball Guy, Red, Weather Girl, and Mr. Claws -- and their students on the run. It'll take the team coming back together, with the aid of foes Magnet Man and Ms. Chango, to find a way to stop Striker before the evil military man is able to implement his plan and kill all the mutants on the entire planet.
When we were talking about the previous movie my biggest complaint about it was that the film felt very small. There were only a couple of real sets in the whole piece, a minor number of action sequences. Considering the scope of the story and the number of characters to introduce this made a certain amount of sense but it also meant that, when going back and watching the film again, it ends up feeling a little slow, a tad anti-climactic all things considered. It's a good film, but after all the superhero films we've had in the intervening (nearly) two decades since, the film had a hard time holding up. What the sequel needed to do was be bigger while still maintaining the elements of the original movie that worked -- the focus on characters, and great chemistry in the cast.
Thankfully, for the most part X2 is able to elevate the best elements of the original movie while expanding the scope. It feels like a very accurate, very solid sequel that improves on the original in every way. That said, the story it tells really doesn't feel that dire and it all comes down to the villain. Striker is a great villain on his own, a scenery-chewing presence with a particularly despicable goal. The problem, really, is that he's just a man, as are all the soldiers in his crew. Even giving him a couple of mutants to fight on his side doesn't really help to balance the odds. When you have Wolverine on your team, you basically have your own army.
Take the big sequence that kicks off the second act of the film. After all the players are setup -- reintroducing the various X-Men, bringing Wolverine back after his little jaunt at the end of the first film, and giving us our villain -- we then get the raid at the school. It starts quietly enough with the soldiers entering via stealth. Unfortunately for them Wolverine is back and he can smell (and hear) that something is off. Immediately he goes into combat mode while the older students help the younger ones escape, and Wolverine is amazing when he's in full-on, rage-filled, combat mode. He slices and dices through soldiers, racking up a body count in a single scene that Jason and Freddy have a hard time matching in both of their respective series (Friday the 13thOne of the most famous Slasher film franchises, the Friday the 13th series saw multiple twists and turn before finally settling on the formula everyone knows and loves: Jason Voorhees killing campers 'round Camp Crystal Lake. and Nightmare on Elm StreetThe brain-child of director Wes Craven, A Nightmare on Elm Street was his answer to the glut of Slasher films that were populating the multiplex. His movie featured an immortal character, Freedy, with a powerset like none other, reshaping the expectations for Slasher movies to come.). It's a glorious, action-filled sequence that highlights just how powerful Wolverine is.
And ol' Mr. Claws isn't the only powerful mutants working for the good guys. There's also new player Nightcrawler (played with aplomb by Alan Cumming), a dark blue mutant with the ability to teleport basically anywhere (anywhere he can see at least, although there are ways around that rule the movie is able to use). Nightcrawler is introduced in a phenomenal opening sequence where he leads a one-man attack on the White House. It's another glorious, giddy action affair that shows how powerful this mutant can be. So when he turns to the side of good (well, shakes of Striker's mind control agent and is able to think for himself again), you know the bad guys don't stand a chance.
Striker's biggest innovation is a serum he uses to control mutants. He has a couple of them under his control -- his son, Jason, a powerful psychic that can control minds (and who also secretes the serum), and Yuriko, a mysterious female assassin with long, metal claws (a follow-up experiment on the Weapon X trials that created Wolverine) -- and they're the best defense he has against all the X-Men. Suffice it to say that while the last, big action sequence is certainly interesting it's never in doubt that the good guys will win. They just have the overwhelming force and ability.
And, honestly, the movie is a tad slow in places. There's plenty going on, no doubt, with the team divided up and pursuing multiple paths from the mansion back to Striker's military base. But the fact of the matter is that there are plenty of moments of downtime, a few of them which drag on longer than needed before we get back to the good bits. Character interaction is all well and good, and a vital part of a solid superhero movie, but this film sometimes gets lost in explaining everything going on when it would be much easier to just get us back to the action and show us what's going on.
And yet, for the most part this film really works. The small issues I have with it -- slow sequences that drag down the pacing, a rather lopsided good-vs-evil final sequence -- don't detract from how much the film gets right. It's (largely) fast paced with solid character moments and good bits of humor. And the big action sequences deliver the huge hits and stellar mutant powers to really show off these superheroic characters. It's easy to go back and judge this film harshly based on everything we've seen since then -- the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. truly recasts everything that came before it in a new light -- but without these first two films in the X-Men franchise it's hard to see how the superhero genre could really have gotten going. This film might have shown some signs of growing pains, but it's still a fantastic effort and great superhero film in its own right.
Sadly, the next film in the series (and the awful prequel, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) would send the series stumbling for some time before it could recover.
Continuity and Issues:
Most of the continuity issues that crop up here are because of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. As we noted in our discussion of that movie, the elements of the Weapon X experiments that gave Wolverine his powers and wiped his memory in the process are reconfigured in the prequel. Here the implication is, once again, that Wolverine lost his memory during the experiment, that the process of applying the metal to his bones also scarred his brain and eroded his memories. This film still thinks that's the case which is the only explanation for why when Striker and Wolverine have their first encounter in the movie, Striker is a tad shocked Wolverine doesn't recognize him. This, of course, despite the fact that Striker was the dude who shot him in the head in the prequel stating in that movie it would wipe his memory.
Of course, there's also the minor issue I have with Striker's secret base. This base is the location of the Weapon X trials (which doesn't really line up with how it's shown in X-Men Origins, mind you), and supposedly Striker has been using it this whole time, since at least the early 1980s. So, somehow, this one base has remained a viable base despite it seeing a number of mutant attacks (from Wolverine in the prequel).
Then there's the fact that Wolverine goes to the base and finds just an abandoned military complex on the surface. Assuming the place to be truly abandoned, Wolvie them immediately turns around and goes home. And yet there's a whole complex hiding under the surface and Wolverine never thinks to go and explore it? Mister "I can smell and hear everything" never once notices a giant military complex just under the surface, one with giant entrances at multiple locations and fifty-plus people working within it? Really?
Finally we come to Colossus, a great hero who's barely used here. In this film (and it's direct sequel), the metal-skinned hero is played by Daniel Cudmore, and American. Colossus, though, is Russian in the comics which isn't such a big deal since movies change details from the comics all the time. But then, in the Deadpool movies, the character is voiced by Stefan Kapicic (and made entirely of CGI), making the character very overtly Russian again. No explanation is given for this change, but they're very definitely the same character. Of course, the Deadpool movies can get away with this kind of thing and we love them for it.