X-Men was an indifferent comic book movie: impersonal, cold, surprisingly poignant, but essentially humorless, which is death when we're talking a movie featuring people outfitted in leather jumpers, claws, and Jerry Lee Lewis pompadours. They looked the part but the whooshes around their heads never showed; their exuberance was MIA.
It felt like a warm-up for a better picture, and it was: X2: X-Men United, the opening $120 million-plus spitball of the summer movie jamboree, is a deep-dish slice of unadulterated geek nirvana, as overstuffed as its punctuation-packed title. If only every special effect-bloated studio behemoth were this sharp. And I mean that in the warmest way possible - X2 is the movie the first one should've been. This is a series with the heart of a true fan, a real obsessive who talks a mile a minute but has grown less fussy, more ambitious - and even developed a sense of humor.
That would be director Bryan Singer, the wunderkind behind The Usual Suspects. It's a shame he couldn't have just skipped to the second film - not that his 2000 blockbuster was bad, just stymied compared to the breezy pace he has going for two-thirds of this one. My guess is he succumbed to what I call the Fussy Mafia, that legion of panicky devotees of Harry Potter, Star Wars, or any pop culture institution. Their all-or-nothing expectations froze him up. And so Singer fretted away a solid hour of that first movie setting up the origins of his superheroes, letting them demonstrate their powers, etc. But that is the bane of superheroes: the need for them to pause every few scenes and explain themselves. The jealousies and angst that made the Marvel comic a cosmic soap opera became the stuff that was squeezed in when someone wasn't A. being introduced, or B. kicked in the head.
With X2, all is established. Singer juggles a dozen characters and rivalries with grace. He finds time to surprise us with a bit of bitterness or sympathy where we don't expect it, while still channeling the thrill of the old Stan Lee comic - even if the look of the film is garish, like being locked in an old Aladdin's Castle mall arcade.
What I like about the X-Men and their mutant kind is what I bet Singer likes, and what you probably like about this bickering coalition of freaks and geeks but never recognized: Their power doesn't lie in their ability to teleport themselves, bend steel with their minds, manipulate fire, spring swords out of their knuckles, or, with a Linda Blair eye roll, turn a partly sunny Saturday at the beach into a mostly apocalyptic Doomsday. What I like is, they do all this and type 90 words a minute.
The mutants of the X-Men universe have an odd professional air about them, and there's so many of them you wonder if they come from a temp service. Near the end of X2 - don't worry, no spoilers here - Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) infiltrates the underground bunker of an evil government hawk (Brian Cox) who has personal reasons for wanting to eliminate all mutants. (This is the plot, more or less.) Mystique is blue and naked and changes bodies the way Celine Dion changes costumes. Impersonating one guard after another, she takes down multiple layers of security before reaching the command post hidden deep beneath a dam. Then, all in one motion, she transforms bodies, slides up to a computer, and types away - without ever once glancing at the keyboard. Now that is cool. So is an opening sequence that sets the film's pace: Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), a dark blue demon with a pitchforked tail and covered in stigmata, breaches White House security and makes his way for the Oval Office by disappearing and reappearing in a few blinks.
He brings a message: Mutant Freedom Now! Which was the message of the first X-Men film, only Singer gets it across with less pretension and more shades of gray this time. Besides being an allegory about racism, there's some surprisingly subversive commentary about the war on terrorism, homeland security, and gay rights: when a young mutant “outs” himself as Iceman to his parents (“We still love you, Bobby”), it's a wry don't ask-don't tell moment.
Indeed, mutants are a catty bunch. Together with their leader, Professor X (Patrick Stewart), the X-Men preach unity with man. But Cox's evil general with the fortress has a direct line to the president and plans for a Mutant Registration Act, so the X-Men are forced into an alliance with their archenemy, Magneto, and Mystique, his hench-woman. Magneto is purely an eye-for-an-eye kind of guy (and incidentally, he gets a very cool prison escape). He huddles in the back of the X-Jet and giggles at Rogue (Anna Paquin), the junior mutant with a kiss of death. Ian McKellen has a preening ball as Magneto, playing him like a one-man fashion police. “Love the white streak,” he purrs, and Rogue looks at him like, “What-ever.”
Cumming finds just the right tone, too, with Nightcrawler. He plays the beloved Marvel character as devoutly religious and deeply empathetic, still holding on to an old-fashioned comic book grandiosity. (He introduces himself to everyone with the same line: “My name is Kurt Wagner, but in the Munich Circus I was known as the incredible Nightcrawler.”) And that's not all: Returning is razor-clawed Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), laser-eyed Cyclops (James Marsden), the telekinetic love interest Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), and Halle Berry as platinum-haired Storm, who can control the weather but still can't land a decent scene in this series.
X2, as you probably gathered, is a lot o' stuff. So much that after a while it's not hard to loose track of what's happening, who's blowing fireballs at who, or why everyone is suddenly in Canada trapped beneath a frozen lake. There are times, too, when the movie feels so cut off from actual feeling that you think, no wonder there's tension between humanity and mutants. Dialogue like “Something is happening in the food court!” doesn't help a whole lot. A last act reliance on huge special-effect set pieces feels kind of stale. But pay close attention to the Marvel Entertainment logo that opens the credits: it's a flip book of washed-out, pixilated comic book panels that rush by with the warm noise of fingers skimming a cheap comic. It's an unmistakable sound. X2 captures it too, those whooshes in your head.