Some background: "X2: X-Men United" is the second live-action, big-screen installment of the continuing adventures of the Marvel Comics superheroes and super villains, and it comes in an appropriately extras-laden, two-disc package. Increasingly, the importance of a movie appears to be based on how big its DVD set is. It's like newspapers: The bigger the headline, the bigger the news.
At any rate, I didn't care overmuch for the first movie, 2000's "X-Men," because I thought it spent far too much time introducing us to its multitude of characters and left little opportunity to elaborate its superficial and rather muddled plot. The film also had the misfortune to follow shortly after "The Matrix," and many of its special effects and stunts seemed derivative. But the movie looked terrific, its sets, costumes, and characters alone almost enough to recommend it. In this second go-round, there is considerably less time spent on introductions (although there are several new characters), more time on plot, and an equally good audiovisual presentation. The result is that I enjoyed 2003's "X2" far more than I did "X-Men" and would not hesitate to recommend the second film to anyone who asked.
Now, I'm not suggesting that "X2" is a great or classic movie, only that I liked it. I suspect fans of the Marvel comic-book characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby loved the first movie because they were thrilled to see their favorite fictions so well brought to life on the screen, and they didn't care to a great extent whether the plot made any sense. They should like this second movie, too, because most of the players return, and despite there being more of them than ever, there is still time left over for better interaction among them and a better-developed story line, which is why I appreciated it.
A lot of the same characters are back for more, so they don't need as much prefacing material this round, and Bryan Singer directs in his same no-nonsense style. Among the reappearing faces are Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as the two old rivals, the good Professor Charles Xavier and the not-so-good Eric Lensherr, known as Magneto. Of course, Logan, known as Wolverine, remains the leading character; he's played by Hugh Jackman, who even under the whiskers reminds us why he should be a prime candidate for the next James Bond. In fact, if the film had been just about Wolverine, it might have helped because there continue to be a few too many peripheral persons hanging about even for so long a film as this. Although, truth be told, I began liking the film's major characters far more in this sequel than I did when I first met them.
Also among the old hands are Halle Berry as Ororo Munroe, known as Storm; James Marsden as Scott Summer, known as Cyclops; Rebecca Romijn-Stamos as Raven, known as Mystique; Anna Paquin as Marie, known as Rogue; Aaron Stanford this time as John Allerdyce, known as Pyro; and Famke Jannsen as Dr. Jean Grey, known as Dr. Jean Grey. Plus, there's the suspiciously shifty Senator Kelly, played by Bruce Davison, who disappears early on.
Among the new members of the cast are Alan Cumming as the noble Kurt Wagner, known as Nightcrawler; Kelly Hu as the deadly Yuriko Oyama, known as Deathstrike; Shawn Ashmore as Bobby Drake, known as Iceman; and Michael Reid MacKay as the mysterious Jason. Plus some cameo appearances by Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), Siryn (Shawna Kain), and others. About the only character I really missed this time out was Ray Park as Toad. I thought he was one of the coolest (and most repulsive) characters from the first flick. Oh, well. Among the new humans to the story are a powerful, no-goodnick military scientist, Colonel William Stryker (Brian Cox), and the Chief Executive of the United States, President McKenna (Cotter Smith).
And, yes, there is that more expanded plot I mentioned. Remember that over the course of millions of years, humans had to mutate (evolve) into their present condition slowly, but the X-Men and their fellow mutants evolved much more quickly, making them a kind of subspecies of the human race but with much greater strengths. Well, it seems that in the not-so-distant future our society continues to mistrust the mutants (not so unreasonable a fear, given their often unusual appearance and superpowers and the damage they seem to wreak wherever they go), and after an apparent assault by mutants on the President, Col. Stryker attempts to use the Professor to exterminate the lot of them, good or bad.
The opening sequence, the attack on McKenna, is well done, fast-paced, and imaginative. Wolverine's search for his identity is played up more than ever and becomes an integral part of the story. And the romance and rivalries among several of the characters are also heightened, to good effect. A couple of bothersome items, however, are the director's insistence on making numerous crosscuts between scenes, which becomes a bit annoying it's used so often; and the film's excessive length at almost two-and-a-quarter hours, the action going on well past what should have been its climax.
What's more, we again see the scriptwriters' attempts to invest the plot with the rudimentary elements of such serious topics as prejudice and discrimination, not that these attempts are as brief or simplistic as they were in the first film or that they aren't quickly forgotten here, but they do constitute the premise for the mutants, good and bad, uniting (hence the title) to battle the most-evil humans. Regardless, by the time the film gets rolling, what we're mostly concerned about are the sets, costumes, makeup, action, and special effects, with the characterizations and themes tending to be overshadowed. Not that that's such a bad thing, either. The plot is pure comic book, but it's immensely entertaining fun.
The check discs Fox sent out for review look terrific, so viewers are again in for a visual delight. The screen size I watched measures a wide 2.13:1 anamorphic scope, very close to the film's theatrical release dimensions. The colors are deep and rich and extremely well detailed. Facial tones are a tad dark, but there are very few haloes or moiré effects, very little grain, and very good object delineation.
The sound is everything a person could hope for in audio reproduction. It comes in a choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS 5.1, the DD 5.1 that I listened to being wide ranging, dynamic, deep, and loud. Very loud. The surround effects are intense, with precisely directional noises coming from all five-point-one speakers. Everything from explosions to shattering glass and from thundering cascades of water to the inevitable helicopter flyovers produce a startlingly realistic presence.
As usual, the bonus items on this special edition set spill well over into a second disc, and as usual the second disc is divided into a multitude of small bits and pieces that could just as easily have been incorporated into a single, longer element. I suspect the studios divide things up this way because they feel it looks more imposing and gives the impression that there's more stuff present than there really is. Nonetheless, the first disc includes the movie and two audio commentaries, one with director Bryan Singer and cinematographer Tom Sigel; and the other with co-producers Lauren Shuler Donner and Ralph Winter and co-writers Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris, and David Hayter. In addition, there are a whopping forty scene selections; spoken languages in English, French, and Spanish; and subtitles in English and Spanish.
The second disc is divided into seven parts, each part embracing a number of sub sections. Part one is "The History of the X-Men." It contains "The Secret Origin of X-Men," a fifteen-minute segment on the comic-book characters, utilizing interviews with their creators; and "The Nightcrawler Reborn," a seven-minute piece on the film's most gallant character. Part two is "Pre-Production." It contains "Nightcrawler Attack," a two-minute multi-angle feature; "Evolution in the Details, the Design of X2," about eighteen minutes worth of matter on set and creature designs; and "United Colors of X," about nine minutes on costumes and color. Part three is "Production." It contains the longest and most complete documentaries on the film's making. It starts with a "Wolverine/Deathstrike Fight Rehearsal," about a minute and a half; "The Second Uncanny Issue of X-Men: The Making of X2," at a full hour the most extensive treatment of the subject; "Introducing the Incredible Nightcrawler," nine minutes; a "Nightcrawler Stunt Rehearsal," two minutes; a "Nightcrawler Time Lapse" sequence, three minutes; and "FX2: Visual Effects," all about the special computer graphics and such, which goes on for about twenty-five minutes. Part three alone may keep you up all night.
Part four is "Post Production." It contains "Requiem for Mutants: The Score of X2," an eleven-minute segment on the music of the film; and "X2 Global Webcast Highlights," about seventeen-minutes worth of interviews with the stars. Part five contains eleven deleted or extended scenes in widescreen. Part six contains a number of still galleries that cover such areas as locations, sets, mutant x-rays, Nightcrawler circus posters, on-camera graphics, and the "Unseen X2," more stuff that never made it into the completed film. Finally, Part seven contains three widescreen theatrical trailers, a public service announcement about drugs, and access to "X-Men" Web sites via the DVD-ROM player in one's personal computer.
When the original "X-Men" was released, I was accused by several readers of not liking it as much as I should have because I was not a fan of the comic book. This is a common complaint made against reviewers who do not share in a fan's enthusiasm for almost any movie translation of a book, comic or not. I can only repeat what every reviewer has probably said in response to this charge: I judge films, not books. Bad books have been known to make good films and good books to make bad films. The movie critic's job is to look at the film, the finished product, and judge its merits with as objective an eye as possible, unclouded by any previous bias for or against something because of liking or not liking what it's based on. Reviewers must evaluate what they see on the screen at the moment, not what could have been, might have been, or should have been.
Anyway, almost everything I found annoying about the first "X-Men" movie has been improved in this second installment. In the case of "X-Men," I found it a near miss. In the case of "X2," I loved it. In short, "X2" is a strong, summertime-style, blockbuster action hit that I can stand behind without reservation.