As "trailers" go, X-Men made quite an impression. The original, which director Bryan Singer refers to as "just a prelude to X-Men 2", took $300 million worldwide and shocked new life into the superhero genre. Without it, there'd be no Spider-Man, no Daredevil, no Hulk. There was another upside to its unexpected success, of course: a follow-up was a foregone conclusion. And the downside? Expectations have been raised to impossible levels. But while X-Men 2 doesn't quite achieve the impossible, it comes pretty damn close.
With more money to play with this time, Singer has been unleashed. He has, to put it simply, been allowed to go to town. In this case Vancouver, where the production team built stunning sets to support the equally impressive effects. The increased budget (and running time) also mean he's been able to round up all the usual mutant suspects from the first movie, while having plenty of scope to add a few new ones to keep things fresh.
X-Men finished with the imprisoned Magneto (Ian McKellen) playing his adversary Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) at chess and posing the cliff-hanging question: ""What will happen if they pass that stupid law [the Mutant Registration Act] and they come to your mansion to take your children?"" X-Men 2 sets out to provide the answer - - but not in the way that you'd imagine.
The action begins with a new face: a blue one, with yellow eyes and pointy ears. It belongs to Nightcrawler, aka Kurt Wagner (Alan Cumming), who uses his circus background, combined with teleporting skills, to break into the White House and threaten the President. Wagner's uncharacteristically violent behaviour naturally riles the US government, which has been known to retaliate with far less provocation.
While the authorities present a faceless enemy, the mutants at least have an identifiable opponent in the formidable form of William Stryker (Brian Cox). He's a military scientist and anti-mutant crusader, whose connection with Wolverine's (Hugh Jackman) past is one of the plot's central threads. It is Stryker, along with sidekick/back-kick/front-kick martial artist Yuriko Oyama, known more menacingly as Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu), who leads a military assault on the X-Mansion, having manipulated Magneto to reveal Xavier's whereabouts.
As promised by Jackman, there are far more opportunities for Wolverine to kick arse, with our hirsute hero's new aggressiveness being fully showcased as he defends the mansion from Stryker and his terrifying strike force. It is Wolverine who rescues the Junior X-Men from the enemies' clutches, the clawed one saving his young admirer Rogue (Anna Paquin), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and Pyro (Aaron Stanford).
Freed from the constraints of having to introduce all the characters and their various gifts, X2 has more time to delve into personalities and relationships. Romances hinted at in the first film - - the love triangle between Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Cyclops (James Marsden) and Wolverine, and Rogue and Iceman's cautious alliance - - are all explored more fully, giving this sequel more emotional depth.
More of Wolverine's backstory is also revealed, his search for his past haunting him in a series of flashbacks. This quest for self-understanding takes on fresh clarity when he encounters Stryker in a bunker underneath a dam at Alkali Lake. It is here that the movie attains a surprising poignancy, and it is here that Wolverine undergoes a rip-roaring showdown with Lady Deathstrike, whose powers are not only the equal of his, but provide further proof of Wolverine's origins.
So we have new depth, new props (the redesigned X-Jet), new villains and new mutants, all married to the ingredients that made the original so engaging - - humour, sharp intelligence and surprising gravitas. Not to mention rousing set-pieces. In fact, the only things X2 lacks in comparison to its predecessor are the element of surprise and a cliffhanger, this follow-up choosing to tie up all loose ends. Which poses the question: will there be an X-Men 3? Well, what do you think?