X2: X-Men United

My midnight showing of X2 (a must for X-Men faithful) has left me sleep deprived, slovenly dressed, and supremely satisfied. So satisfied that when my head finally did reach a pillow at three a.m., I found myself laying awake thinking about ways to see it all over again.

The big time sequel to 2000's Bryan Singer super hero epic X-Men, X2: X-Men United, surpasses the already good original in every possible way, except perhaps in the hastily tacked on "United" title which fortunately doesn't seem to actually appear at any point during the film. Hence, I will from this moment forward ignore what the official X-crappular press literature says and refer to it as the much more comfortable X2. Try and stop me.

Second time X-director Bryan Singer has created an absolute masterpiece. A consummate blending of deep delving character exploration, team oriented action, amazing set pieces, and PERFECTLY done mind blowing, super-powered, special effects that rip the roof off of any previous effects efforts in the genre. What makes this effects magic so wonderful is that it isn't noticeable as Hollywood trickery. Everything blends together seamlessly. Nowhere does anything in the film look any less than completely and utterly real. At no point does bad cgi creep in, nor overambitious action directing, resulting in such unrealistic karate moves that the audience can no longer buy in. It's an absolutely slick and positively beautiful presentation. From Nightcrawler's trademark BAMF! as he teleports into battle, to the insane weather effects of Storm finally and fully unleashed, each moment of movie misdirection works to fullest efficiency.

Now, I've already heard a couple of people running around calling this movie "slow". These people are mistaking good story development for lulls, in what they think is some testosterone pumped action movie, but is in its own way really a much more heady trip into a mutant driven drama. This is a thought provoking and intelligent story with something important to say. Yes, X2 has a message to go along with its ass kicking, and the message to movie-goers is that CHARACTERS MATTER. Who and what these people are is ultimately much more important to making you care about what happens to them over the course of the film than squeezing in an extra second of Jean Grey's (Famke Janssen) psychic blast. Instead of sending us on Mr. Toad's wild kung-fu ride, Singer makes the focal point of his movie the people within it, and the things that lead up to the battles and trials they all face. So, when Bobby Drake (Shawn Ashmore) and Rogue (Anna Paquin) start to fall in love, it isn't some momentary thing Singer throws in as an aside during some massive battle. Rather, it's a slowly blooming flower we follow over the course of the film, as the pair try to deal with their unique abilities and how that will affect their relationship, as well as their hormone pounding need to satiate teenage driven lust.

For the first time, it feels like the X-Men truly work as a Team. Everyone, even when apart, moves in concert leaving time for all to have their own moments in the sun. Unlike the previous movie, where the focus was mostly on Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Rogue, the sequel spreads its attention evenly over all its characters, heaping them with depth defining moments of persona and individuality.

Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) is the new guy, a flawless addition to an already superior cast. Cumming inhabits his role the way Jackman does Wolverine, capturing him totally and stealing scenes from even the movie's biggest heavyweights. Past X-Men experience never made me a huge Nightcrawler fan, but Cumming has made Kurt Wagner and instant favorite. He adds a sublimely balanced dynamic to the team, with his sometimes awkward bits of humor and deep abiding faith in God and life. Cumming steals the show in much the same way Jackman did with his uncanny portrayal of Wolverine in the first film.

Returning characters, like Wolverine, have lost none of their luster, and in fact, seem much more comfortable in their roles as part of the X-Men team. Wolverine searches for answers regarding his past struggling with eternal rage as if to prove that Jackman hasn't lost his touch. I can only hope Hugh goes right on playing Wolvy forever. Do we really need a Kate & Leopold 2? The love triangle between Logan, Jean, and Scott (James Marsden) finally comes to a head, and though Cyclops himself is probably the most underdeveloped character this time around, what we are given of him is emotionally deadly. Marsden handles it surprisingly well, his eyes eternally hidden behind immovable shades.

The real growth comes from Jean and Storm (Halle Berry). Storm finally steps into her own to firmly take a leadership role in the X-Men, and Halle Berry wises up enough to abandon that weird accent she attempted in the first movie. Storm is no longer the weakest link, nor is she underdeveloped. Best of all, they fixed that stupid wig. Jean too has steadily ripened into something better, dealing with changes in her powers that foreshadow more deadly things to come, hopefully in X-Men 3. My love for Famke Janssen burns on with her continuing growth in this character.

Most expanded are the X-kids: Iceman, Pyro (Aaron Stanford), and Rogue who have finally started to grow up. In fact, both Iceman and Pyro have dramatically expanded parts in this sequel, and both young actors playing them do a wonderful job of fleshing their previously cameo-limited characters out. Iceman was always my favorite super hero as a kid, and to see the wonderful way Shawn Ashmore brings out the quiet personality of Bobby Drake is a privileged joy. It's nearly impossible to wait for them to give us more of him, to let him develop and grow as he should. I want him iced up and sliding down the street! I'm not sure I can bear the years of X-Men 3 wait.

Do I even have to comment on the expectedly stellar work of McKellan and Stewart? Perfection is a given from these two veterans and they hit it again and again and again. The real change is in the more clearly defined relationship between Magneto (Ian McKellan) and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos). You have to love the way McKellan and Romijn-Stamos have begun to play off of one another. In Mystique, Romijin-Stamos has carved out a breathtakingly villainous seductress, who even behind her blue prosthesis oozes sexual attraction and danger. A little more time snuggled next to Rebecca and maybe we'll convince Sir Ian to go straight.

At least this time out Magneto got a little break from playing bad guy, taking a back seat to Brian Cox's Stryker as the madman bent on world domination. Stryker hates mutants, and uses them to achieve his goals of mutant eradication. It is he who tears the X-Men's world apart and it is he who taunts and tests Wolverine to the limit. Cox proves himself a versatile actor as a truly disturbed, yet real villain lashing out at the world for his own private pain.

However, this is still a Super hero movie, and that still means loads of mutant power-driven action mixed in with all these wonderfully massive operatic themes and gooey globs of character goodness. Nightcrawler's attack on the Whitehouse is particularly memorable, for if nothing else being an eye-popping combat-ballet unlike anything you've ever seen on screen before. Wolverine tears it up, for the first time REALLY going berserk in battle. His fights are brutal, as you'd expect from a guy with knives on his hands. Wolverine's scenes alone could have easily made this thing rated R, had not Singer taken such great care when walking that gorey Logan line, something I think wholly appropriate for this type of film. Everything is a killer mix of amazing, fast paced mutant fighting and hard hitting drama wrapped up into what is perhaps the most complete super hero movie package ever made.

The really beautiful thing about all of this is that Singer's crew managed to work in lots of goodies for the X-Men faithful, without bothering any of the non-fans with things they don't understand. Worked in are great cameos by fan favorites like Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), Beast (Steve Bacic), and Jubilee (Kea Wong). Colossus in particular benefits from a genius moment of exchange with Wolverine and confrontation with invading soldiers. Other familiar names pop up as well and that's comforting for the X-Fan. Its good to know that even if Gambit isn't in this film, he's still a part of this film universe somewhere. There's a huge mutant world out there and these X-movies are just giving us a tasty slice of it.

X2 is a king among sequels. One of those rare gifts that completely eclipses its predecessor, building on it to create a perfect and wonderful cinematic experience. More than that, it is one of the best super hero films ever made, outshining everything in my mind, except perhaps last year's Spider-Man which stays stronger simply because of the emotionalistic joy that movie managed to convey. Not only does X2 continue and improve this already good franchise, it sets us up for something even better, with an ending faintly reminiscent of the best traditions of brilliant sequels like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. My fondest wish is that someone locks this cast and crew up forever. Forget other projects, devote your careers and lives to making X-Men flicks. The quality is there to stay, and nothing would please me more than years from now to be staring X10 square in the face.