Director Bryan Singer has gone on record proudly proclaiming that "X2," the sequel to 2000's flawed-but-honorable "X-Men," is nothing less than "my 'Empire Strikes Back.'" One can only smile at the hubris, given that Singer has also been dogged by rumors -- buttressed by the off-the-record comments of at least one of his stars -- that his control of both films has at times been perilously close to slipping from his grasp.
Whether or not Singer can really claim "X2" as "his" movie, though, the latter half of his claim is joyously correct. As Empire was to "Star Wars," so is this Marvel-ous sequel to its predecessor: a quantum leap forward in depth and sophistication that rockets its colorful cast of characters to the vanguard of their genre.
All but the most anal fanboys and fangirls are going to love it, and the civilians will be sucked in, too -- as long as they've first ingested "X-Men" as a primer. With no breath taken and no quarter given, "X2" picks up the tale right where we left it. Beclawed misanthrope Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is on a lonely quest to discover his long-suppressed origins; meanwhile, the combustible distrust between his fellow mutants and the human race is threatening to explode, thanks to the terrorist activities of a new player: a blue-skinned, vaguely demonic teleporter named Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming, barely recognizable).
Taking advantage of the escalated tension is military scientist William Stryker (the great Brian Cox), who seizes the paranoid moment to launch an assault on the stately home of the X-Men. Stryker's offensive forces our heroes out onto a desperate path, living as fugitives and gradually falling into an uneasy but necessary alliance with their evil-mutant counterparts, led by the Machiavellian Magneto (Ian McKellen).
The lion's share of screen time again goes to Jackman, now cementing his title as the finest-ever portrayer of a four-color hero. Famke Janssen's telekinetic Jean Grey gets more room to flex her muscles; her participation in the first film having been reduced to near-functionality by brutal editing. Though the odious Halle Berry spent the period between "X"-chapters overacting, bare-assing and guilt-tripping her way into ubiquity, her part as the weather witch Storm doesn't feel inflated beyond the needs of the story.
In fact, the greatest achievement of "X2" may be the sheer finesse with which it juggles a mammoth one dozen major roles. Other than James Marsden's Cyclops, whose absence from the meat of the story is sorely felt, all of the X-Men and their adversaries are used to proper effect. The characters with genuine dimension bond, bicker and brood in the foreground; those more notable for their superhuman schticks are employed as dramatic supplements to make the movie's intensely mutated universe feel complete. (And it's complete to a fault: Running past the two-hour mark, the picture is about 10 minutes too much of a good thing.)
Befitting the "Empire" connection, "X2" is a remarkably somber piece of work, given to long stretches of emotional interchange that make the carefully doled out action sequences alight with even greater impact. Also, its liberal heart is in the right place: Stryker's campaign of persecution has the imprimatur of the U.S. government, shown here as (at best) a well-meaning dupe to xenophobic hysteria.
I particularly appreciated one subplot in which Storm and Grey, the two senior female members of the team, are sent on an important assignment without the "protective" accompaniment of a single male partner -- a summer-movie watershed that's all the more revolutionary because the movie bravely elects to treat it as no big deal.
You can feel admiration for the published source material flowing through the script (written by David Hayter, Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, from a story by Hayter and Singer.) Though there are moments of comic relief, the story's fantastic foundations are never the butt of the joke. Instead of camp, we get a rich story environment in which even the most bizarre creatures have convincingly personal agendas, and the line between "good guys" and "bad guys" proves endlessly ... well, mutable.
That complex macrocosm was the crowning glory of the Stan Lee school of comics, and seeing it finally represented in full on the silver screen is reason enough to declare that the Marvel age of cinema has truly arrived. 'Nuff said.