With the impending release of X-Men: Apocalypse, I've decided to look back on the X-Men movies up to this point, going in order of release. And now continuing with what is arguably the best movie in the series—X2: X-Men United.
When looking back on most of the X-Men films, particularly the original trilogy, they don't hold up so well. They look very dated with effects that feel unfinished given what we've become accustomed to. The exception to this is X2.
This movie is basically a how-to guide on making sequels. At this point in time, it was the early 2000s and most sequels were pretty much just rehashes of the original story's plot. But X2 actually tried to do something different. It didn't just give us another X-Men vs. the Brotherhood battle, instead it built up on the foundation laid in the first movie.
Most of the characters in this movie get some chance to shine, however small it may be. Of course, there are exceptions to this. Cyclops, ever the underdog of the X-films, gets shafted once more and is given even less to do this time around. There were apparently a few more scenes with James Marsden but Fox cut them. Seriously, Fox, what do you have against Cyclops?
Kelly Hu's Lady Deathstrike also has very little to do other than standing in the background, cracking her knuckles, and then giving Wolverine something to fight at the end. She's basically Sabretooth from the first X-Men, but better looking and with fewer lines (no lines, actually—except for one said by Mystique when impersonating her).
On the characters who get bigger roles, we've got Halle Berry's Storm. Her wig has gotten slightly better and her awful accent from the first movie has mercifully been dropped. And while I love the idea of more Storm in the movies, Berry's not really playing that character. She's basically playing Halle Berry in a white wig. The way Storm talks, the way she acts, her personality—that is not Storm, it's 100% Halle Berry.
Jean Grey really shines in this movie. Famke Janssen is back again (with a shorter hairstyle) and this may be her best performance in the entire series. After staying at a pretty low level of power in the first film, Jean gets a massive upgrade in this film, with her powers flaring up. Being a classic X-Men fan, words cannot express how giddy I got when I saw that flash of the Phoenix effect in Jean's eyes when she diverted the missile.
I wasn't expecting Rebecca Romijn's Mystique to get as much spotlight as she does in this film. And I wasn't expecting her to be capable of such a great performance. Far more than just being a special effect to be trotted out for fight scenes in the first film, here she gets to do much more. She's much more manipulative and crafty, more like the Mystique from the comics. Sadly, she's still basically Magneto's Girl Friday, which is disappointing as she's so much more independent in the comics.
Rounding out the upgrades in this film are Iceman, Rogue, and Pyro. Shawn Ashmore does a decent job as Iceman, but he's certainly not the wisecracker I love from the comics. Anna Paquin finally doesn't have to act like a damsel in distress and she gets to take some agency in the movie. The problem here continues to be that she is not really Rogue. She's more like Kitty Pryde was in the early years.
Aaron Stanford takes over the role of Pyro (Alex Burton played him in a cameo in X-Men) and he does a great job. Pyro as a student at the Xavier School who is on the verge of turning to the dark side was a great idea and it helps to show that there are truly some mutants who are caught in the middle between Professor X and Magneto. This was an idea that the producers said X-Men was going to convey with Wolverine, but it never really came across in that movie.
And of course, both Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan are back. They have less to do than in the first movie, which is actually a good thing because this movie isn't supposed to be about Professor X and Magneto. Particularly great is their first scene together when Xavier goes to visit Magneto in his cell and Magneto asks if the Charles is here to break him out and Charles just replies with a simple, "Sorry, Erik. Not today." It's a quick line, but it does a lot to show the friendship that still exists between these two men.
I haven't said anything about Hugh Jackman yet. He once again brings his A-game as Wolverine. The scene when he confronts Stryker's soldiers in the mansion was unlike anything we'd seen in a superhero movie up to that point and it was absolutely glorious. Plus, it gave us an awesome Colossus cameo. But one of the great things about X2 is that it feels more like an ensemble movie and less like it should be called Wolverine and the X-Men.
Even with all the existing characters who get upgraded roles, we also get new characters. Back when this movie was released, there was so much praise heaped on Alan Cumming's Nightcrawler, and that praise is so, so well-deserved. It's a real shame that Cumming didn't return for any future outings. Although there is a bit too much focus on the Catholicism side of Nightcrawler and not enough on his happy-go-lucky, swashbuckling persona, we still do get hints of that. I love how animated he gets whenever he tells people, "My name is Kurt Wagner. But in the Munich Circus, I was known as the Incredible Nightcrawler!" And I love how absolutely no one else is impressed by this.
Brian Cox was a great choice to take over the role of the main villain. This is one of the few films that doesn't cast Magneto as the major antagonist and instead goes a different route with William Stryker. I do kind of regret that we didn't get Stryker as he is in the comics, a bigoted reverend who thinks mutants are godless abominations. Especially in the modern day, that's a story that can resonate a lot.
But that being said, making Stryker into a military scientist who was behind the Weapon X Program also really works in this film. I'm still a little divided on the idea of making Mastermind his son, but it works for this movie. Stryker's overall plan feels a little silly, but not as goofy as Magneto's plan in the first film. And everything else in the movie is so good that it doesn't allow you to dwell on that.
As an adaptation of Chris Claremont's classic X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills graphic novel, it's pretty weak. But as its own movie, it's really, really strong. Particularly great is the end. Jean sacrifices herself to save the rest of the team and the camera pans over Alkali Lake. Just below the surface of the water, we see the rough outline of what could be the Phoenix avatar and then—boom! Credits. As a fan of the X-Men, I went nuts at that scene. This was before Iron Man and the post-credits stingers that have become so commonplace in comic book movies, so it was completely unexpected.
As far as I'm concerned, X2 holds the record of being the greatest X-Men film yet made. It's still a lot of fun and it holds up extremely well. There are still issues I have with it, but they're mostly minor nitpicks.