Very rarely does a sequel surpass its predecessor. The times this has occurred in recent history can be counted on one hand: The Empire Strikes Back, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan... the list is short, but distinguished. X2: X-Men United joins these auspicious films as a surpassing-sequel by delivering an experience that is dense, stunning, and enjoyable for anyone at any level of fandom. Read on, true believers.
X2 opens by introducing us to a new mutant, then turns back to the Wolverine story, as he continues to search for his past. Combine that with a military mind bent on destroying that which comes from within his own home, and an old adversary coming to the rescue... sort of... and you have an excellent popcorn movie (my wife and I went through a large bucket before the movie was half done). Some of the lesser players get more up-front time, some of the main players from the first film step back a bit, and there are more mutants than ever.
All the old faces are back. Patrick Stewart as Professor Charles Xavier, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, Famke Janssen as Jean Grey, Halle Berry as Storm, Anna Paquin as Rogue, Ian McKellen as Magneto, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos as Mystique, and James Marsden as Cyclops. Also returning is Shawn Ashmore as Iceman.
The newcomers in up-front casting this time around are Aaron Stanford as Pyro and Alan Cumming as Nightcrawler. Also new is Brian Cox, who plays the military genius and mutant progenitor (in more ways than one) General William Stryker. Additionally, there are both subtle and blatant nods to X-Men comic fans throughout the movie. There is a scene with Colossus getting fully armored up. There is scene where we see the name "Remy LeBeau" on a computer screen (better known to fans as Gambit), and a scene where we see Dr. Hank McCoy sounding off on a Sunday morning political round-table-style television program.
Looking at the new faces, Aaron Stanford plays Pyro with just the right amount of attitude and hostility, to give audiences unfamiliar with him the right idea, and to reassure audiences who are. His attitude is enjoyable to inhabit, from the safety of a theatre seat, several times throughout the film. Brian Cox give Stryker more depth than I would have first thought, and through the generous back-story provided him, creates a villain one can understand, almost sympathize with, but still not like one bit. And the revelations towards the film's end make his fate both just and enjoyable.
But the true gem for this film is Alan Cumming as Kurt Wagner, a.k.a. the Nightcrawler. From the first moment we glimpse him, he is captivating. The filmmakers have done an excellent job of keeping his character intact from their comic-origins, while still giving him something new and unique, yet in keeping with the character of one of the most beloved of the X-Men. And Cumming's performance is startling in its sincerity and expressiveness, even though the makeup, which is so all-encompassing it rivals that of Romijn-Stamos' Mystique.
The special effects are top-notch, probably the best I've seen yet. At no time did anything I see jar me out of my willing suspension of disbelief. Nothing reached out, tapped me on the shoulder, and said "Hey, I'm not real. I'm trying to appear real, but I'm not." After getting a glimpse of what to expect from the upcoming Ang Lee "Hulk" film, I appreciate the quality of these special effects all the more.
Apart from that, I can't comment on much else. Unlike normal films, where I can hold a part of myself back to watch things like cinematography, lighting, costuming, and listen to the audio effects, sound quality and score, this film was totally engrossing and a full sensory experience. I'd have to see it a second time to attempt to pull out of the film enough to look at those things, and quite frankly, I'm enjoying having been that immersed again. It doesn't happen often these days, so when it does, I'm happily surprised and pleased.
This film gets an unrestrained, enthusiastic A+. If this can be considered the herald for films to come over the next few months, this is going to be one hell of a summer, so make sure you don't miss this wonderful opening salvo. Excelsior!