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For a lot of reasons, the second film in a superhero movie franchise has it easy. The first film has the tough job of establishing who the characters are, and convincing a non-comics reading public that these guys are worth their time.

Actual plot almost becomes secondary, especially as superhero origin stories often seem similar. It's not until the sequel that you get to really explain what makes Daredevil different from Batman, for instance.

Some filmmakers might take it easy on that second shot. Cruise through a plot, maybe show off a few extra effects because you have a bigger budget, and cash the check at the end of the day. But not Bryan Singer.

With X2, the director has often said he's making the movie he should have done first. But of course he couldn't. He had to establish the mutants' world. He had to bow to commerce and pull back on really showing what these characters could do because there simply wasn't money.

This time around, he pulls out all the stops. While X-Men held back a little and serves as background for the sequel, this one is the film we were waiting for. Forget Spider-Man (for now). X2 is everything fans could hope it would be, and more.

Taking place just a few months after the events of the first film, it wastes no time in giving us the goods. In a dazzling and ominous opening, Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) makes a seeming terrorist attack on the President (Cotter Smith) before teleporting away utterly.

Such action brings in General William Stryker (Brian Cox), a government man that clearly has an agenda of his own. From the way he cajoles the President, it's obvious this attack was a moment he had been awaiting for quite a while.

Stryker's solution? A military attack on Xavier's School For Gifted Children in Westchester. Get them before they can get us. Any resemblance to real life events must be purely accidental; after all, this is just a comic book movie, right?

As for the X-Men we know, all are off on field trips of one kind or another. The students have gone to a natural history museum, where Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) reveals to Scott/Cyclops (James Marsden) that she has a feeling of impending doom. Ordinarily this wouldn't be a problem, but with that doom comes a huge leap in her power level without a firm grasp on how to control it.

And up in the north on his own field trip, the man known as Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) discovers that the answers he seeks to his origins are not where he thought they would be.

Or are they? For both Magneto (Sir Ian McKellen) and Stryker seem to know far more about Wolverine than they should. Worse, Magneto hints that Professor X (Patrick Stewart) also knows more than he's telling.

This is still far less complicated than the comics actually were in the eighties.

The complexity, however, is merely a sign that Singer and his screenwriters (including David Hayter back from the first) trust that audiences are smart and can follow it all. And it's not just the plotting that has depth.

Singer takes the core theme of being different and subtly weaves it throughout the film. It's not just a metaphor for race in this country; there are also clever jabs at homophobia, some more overt than others.

Moreover, the script illustrates the need people have to identify with a larger group. When Magneto asks Pyro his name, the youth answers, "John." With the slight sneer that McKellen pulls off better than anyone, Magneto retorts, "What's your real name?" It's a definite reversal of Wolverine's cynicism about codenames from the first, and further establishes mutants as having their own little society. Or gang.

Like in the first film, Singer uses a character to voice our own objections to the more out there goings-on. Instead of Wolverine, Nightcrawler now fulfills that role. Though the connection between him and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) remains unexplored (for now), he does ask her why, if she can look like a normal person, she doesn't.

Her retort: "Because we shouldn't have to."

All the actors get moments such as that in order to shine, even Halle Berry as Storm, who probably had the least to do in the first film. Singer pairs her with Nightcrawler, first in getting his trust, then in realizing that this deeply spiritual man has something to teach her about Xavier's dream.

Of course, such lofty philosophical moments still end up in slam-bang action. This time around, Singer has a real budget to play with, so everybody gets pushed to the limit. Even though only a few months are to have passed, most of the characters have far more control over their abilities. At last, Storm is really worthy of the name. As the world's most powerful telekinetic, Jean Grey proves it.

Unfortunately, the effects for Colossus must be too expensive to add to the mix for more than one scene, but at least we get a decent explanation as to why he disappears from the film. In that explanation, too, we get character growth for Wolverine.

Though Wolverine's powers were the best explored and used in the first film, he still felt restrained. In X2, though, we get the sense of the animal barely held in check, the berserker warrior in the flesh. To preserve the PG-13, you won't see a lot of blood, but it's very easy to imagine.

So it's satisfying for the fans. But will the average moviegoer respond? It helps that once again, Singer has gathered some of the best actors working in film. Scenes between Cox and McKellen crackle with menace. And though being Nightcrawler probably won't make Cumming into a star under all the make-up, in a perfect world it would.

And then there's Jackman, the bona fide unknown before the first film who convinced fans all over the world that he's short enough (actually six feet tall), strong enough, and manly enough to be Wolverine. He still is, and better yet, he's also the only guy on film who can get away with ending every other sentence with "bub."

Movie fans are buzzing over The Matrix Reloaded, but really, X2 looks like the film to beat. Not only did I walk out wanting to immediately watch it again, I find myself eagerly anticipating the non-existent X3, clues for which are strewn throughout the film. If you know where to look. And if you don't, it still rocks.

What's It Worth? $10

Other X-Men articles:

Interview with Tom DeSanto (the first film)

Interview with Bryan Singer (X2)


Derek McCaw

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