First thing's first: X2 is better than its predecessor. Although X-Men was enjoyable, it didn't feel fully comfortable with its own paradoxical nature. It wanted us to take a great leap of faith by believing genetic mutations could create beings with ludicrously incredible super-powers -- while also trying to ground the story with social commentary, such as observing the real-life injustice of outcasting people who weren't "normal." X-Men contained a full plate of agendas, introducing character after character, mixing in politics and science, explaining and demonstrating powers that would confuse the unfamiliar -- and it handled this by keeping things black-and-white simple, using a plot in which the fate of the population was in the balance, set in a world where "normal" civilians reacted to the unfamiliar with fear and hate.
X2 shares the first movie's weaknesses -- the paradoxical premise and the overloaded basket of tasks -- but whereas X-Men felt like it was holding back a bit because its focus kept shifting, the sequel leaps forward, full of confidence. Characters and their powers are thrown at the audience with minimal introduction and explanation, showing trust in the built-in fanbase; the action sequences and special effects are much more breathtaking; the amount of violence is generally higher; and the level of attitude rivals that of a Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood western. The movie is in love with itself and in love with showing off -- and for fans, this is exactly the display of assuredness they are looking for.
In a smart move for the sequel, X2 uses a plot pitting all of the mutants, good and bad, against a malevolent human adversary. This time fans can not only root for Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Professor X (Patrick Stewart), and Storm (Halle Berry), they can also cheer on last movie's baddies, Mystique (Rebecca Romjin-Stamos) and Magneto (Ian McKellen). And let's face it -- everyone has always wanted to root for McKellen's majestic Magneto. Some strong casting guarantees audience support for those characters with charisma -- Jackman, Stewart, and McKellen are as good as they were in the last movie, and the most endearing newcomer is Alan Cumming as Nightcrawler, a teleporter who looks as frightening as a gargoyle but whose demeanor resembles a puppy dog's.
However, as in the first movie, casting is a double-edged sword. Berry remains uninspiring as Storm, a character written as blandly as can be; James Marsden is still a rather dimensionless Cyclops; and I continue to believe Anna Paquin seems wrong for the part of Rogue, although here she doesn't do much other than play up the "Dawson's Creek" factor in a teen-romance sub-plot with Shawn Ashmore's Iceman. X2's more glaring problems, though, still mirror those of the first movie. It's hard for me to believe that every person's instant reaction to mutant super-powers is one of hatred rather than awe, but since it serves the purpose of the movie's theme, that's what the audience is served (the scene that strains this the most for me is the result of a visit to Iceman's home). Also, once again, the suspense is generated by a machine which, if used in a certain way, can destroy populations.
But why quibble when you're having so much fun? Every time one of our mutant heroes is threatened, the claws unsheath, or the eyes turn white, or the fireballs fly, and we anticipate, with utter glee, the approaching smackdown. These are genetic mutations? Who can feel pity for such people and their ostracism when their abilities are so awesome? Maybe director Bryan Singer and his crew know viewers are asking themselves these questions, but this time they throw caution to the wind and give us Magneto using iron pellets as bullets, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) holding back attacks with a telepathic shield, and an aerial rescue scene involving Nightcrawler so cool it will take all summer to top it.
(Released by 20th Century Fox and rated "PG-13" for sci-fi action/violence, some sexuality and brief language.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.