#4 in my ranking of the X-Men franchise.
Actually finding a way to anchor this sequel’s story in a single main character’s journey was a smart move. The first film was weighed down by a certain directionlessness that made it feel like a random series of events before pulling most of it together for a decent climax. The sequel, not needing to explain nearly as much to its audience or characters, is able to find surer footing from which to tell its story. It’s definitely a step up in storytelling with the spectacle gaining an appreciable budget increase as well, which was nice of Fox to provide.
Some time after the events of the first film, the mutant problem has gotten more tense. Magneto may be under lock and key in his custom plastic prison, but the effort to spark the war between human and mutant still lives. This starts with the first scene, an absolutely bravura sequence of the teleporting mutant Nightcrawler attacking the White House set to the “Deis Irae” from Mozart’s Requiem. The use of stunts, special effects, and editing makes this a great opening to the film, establishing the conflict and fear of the overall situation far better than Senator Kelly explaining that there’s a girl who can walk through walls in the first film. This is the difference between exposition and using the tools of cinema to tell a story, and this is far more effective.
Essentially, Colonel William Stryker is using the mutant situation to spark the war in a similar way as Magneto has always been expecting. Stryker is the ideal antagonist for this film. He’s written as having direct ties to two main characters (Wolverine and Professor X), his plan is integrated in the base philosophy of the previous film’s main antagonist, and he’s played by Brian Cox. Cox, a Shakespearean trained English actor who has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, brings the exact right kind of presence to Stryker. He’s maniacal, intelligent, driven, and vicious all at once. His manipulation of his own son for his own ideological gains is precise and focused in a way that sells the idea that Xavier killed his son in his mind, justifying the actions he takes. He’s a well-written antagonist to begin with, but hiring an actor of Cox’s caliber just made it better.
However, the movie does still suffer from a certain directionlessness to a lesser degree that holds it back. There’s a standout scene near the middle of the movie. Stryker has attacked Xavier’s mansion (another very good action scene, by the way), driven out Wolverine, Rogue, Iceman, and Pyro who decide to go to Iceman’s parents’ house outside of Boston. There, Iceman has to come out to his parents that he’s not just going to a gifted kid’s school, but he’s a mutant. It’s an entertaining little scene, gets turned into a police standoff by his younger brother’s call to emergency services for reasons that are unclear (probably prejudice), they all get away, and then, well, Iceman largely disappears from the movie. Oh, he’s there in the jet as the group flies to the third act, but he does virtually nothing for the rest of the film. The scene does have something to do with the central theme of finding a home, but because Iceman gets pushed so far for the rest of the movie and that scene was so specific to him, it ends up feeling like a weird extra scene rather than something integral. Nothing about the scene is particularly bad, but it just ends up feeling like it doesn’t fit.
Another thing that doesn’t fit is the romance between Wolverine and Jean Grey. I’ve read that during filming of a key scene between the two the director, Bryan Singer, realized that it wasn’t working so he had Wolverine just kiss Jean. I think the problem really is Wolverine himself. He’s not wrong, but his sudden affection for a single woman feels out of character considering what’s come before. The Wolverine who, until a few weeks before, was a loner wandering the wilds of Northwestern Canada refusing any kind of personal connection is suddenly completely smitten by Jean Grey for reasons. It just doesn’t really work.
Those are really the extent of my complaints, though. Centering the film so fully on Wolverine seems to retroactively justify his central presence in the first one to a degree. His past, enshrouded in mystery, gets answered to a certain amount through the plot mechanics involving Stryker. Stryker, who feels that mutation is a disease and is mad at Professor X for not saving his son from mutation, plans on using Professor X’s mental abilities, enhanced by the large room Cerebro, to kill all the mutants on the planet. This is the kind of threat that brings together the old enemies of the past, uniting the X-Men with Magneto, but Magneto also has his own plan to turn the situation to his own advantage. This is all well laid out and executed stuff.
What really makes it work, though, is Wolverine. He is our main window into this world, and his discovery is ours. Tying the whole plot to his emotional arc was smart. We are digging into his past, finding out that its filled with dark secrets and that he’s a new man with the ability to move on. Stryker is a key to that past. The action takes place at the old location where Wolverine lost his past, but it also works as the kind of place that Stryker would take his off the books operation. It all fits together just so well.
So, it’s an imperfect film that delivers on its main promise while feeling oddly incomplete and unmerited in other, smaller ways. Perfectly well acted by everyone, in particular Brian Cox as Stryker, it’s a fun adventure movie with a strong central throughline to hang most of the movie off of. A smaller cast of characters might have helped regain some focus in the middle section, though.