Sssssss! Thwok! Bamf! Snikt!
Well, it looks like summer is nearly upon us, bringing with it a virtual cavalcade of sequels and superheroes (many with the letter X in their titles). The first of these is, of course, Bryan Singer's X2 - the sequel to 2000's X-Men. Superhero sequels actually have a pretty good strike rate (I'm thinking here of the second installments of Superman, Batman and Blade, for starters), so surely this one isn't going to be a let down... Certainly they've retained the same impressive cast: Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is still the one with the adamantium claws, skeleton, and quiff, Magneto (Gandalf) is still the mutant master of magnetism, Professor X (Patrick Stewart, taking the weight off) is the one whose superpowers are the least drain on the budget, and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) is still the one with the X-Man codename that the scriptwriters are too embarrassed to use...
Following on reasonably closely from the events of the first film, X2 opens with an attempt on the US President's life by the imp-like teleporter Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), a sequence which plays rather like The West Wing on acid. Army scientist Stryker (Brian Cox) uses this as an excuse to crack down on mutant activity, particularly the Xavier School - an institution he has a special and sinister interest in. Meanwhile, still on the scene are Magneto and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), who have an agenda of their own...
Possibly due to the bigger budget, this is a slightly different film to the first one: where that essentially had a political subtext, this one is more personally and emotionally based. And, for most of the film, the results are spectacularly impressive, as the story alternates between impressive effects sequences and involving personal revelations to utterly engrossing effect.
I have never hidden the fact that I'm a comics fan, and so my approach to a film like this is inevitably slightly different to that of a purely cinematic feature like, ooh, Terminator 3. Most of the niggling gripes I had with the first film are answered, one way or another - this time round there's a lot more action and many more X-Men on display, as Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and Pyro (Aaron Stanford) get beefed-up roles and characters like Colossus, Jubilee, Beast, Shadowcat, and Karma all get cameos or namechecks of various significance. Having said that, Cyclops (James Marsden) is - very nearly unforgivably, given he's a lynchpin of the comic - reduced to not much more than a supporting character, and there's still no sign of the Danger Room.
But on its own terms as a film, X2 is highly impressive in nearly every respect. There's a hugely charismatic performance from Jackman, a funny and sympathetic one from Cumming, and another world-class display of scene-stealing from Ian McKellen - he's helped a lot by the fact that he gets, in his jail-break, arguably the best set-piece of the film. However, what keeps this from transcending X-Men in every single department is the climax. Where, the first time round, it was concise and simple and pacy, this time round it seems to take up about a quarter of the film's running time, with half-a-dozen different plot threads and a succession of fights, crises, reversals and revelations. One of these is not only unnecessary and half-baked, but also a wholly underwhelming appropriation of the Dark Phoenix storyline (one of the most famous and best-loved stories from the comic), and thus promises to irk both the hard-core fans and normal people. The result is that the film loses momentum towards the end, which is a real disappointment - but at least it does provide genuine closure in place of a cliffhanger.
Given some of the groundbreaking pyrotechnics we're promised later this summer (most obviously by the Wachowskis and Ang Lee) it would have been easy for X2 to slip back to being a blockbuster of the second rank. For all that it has its flaws and disappointments, this is an extremely impressive example of the genre, and entertaining from start to finish. Perhaps not the masterpiece that some people were anticipating, but by no means a disappointment: not a truly great movie, but great fun to watch.