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Non-Review Review: X-Men II

I wrote in my review of the original X-Men that the first film in the saga still holds up quite well, even after a decade of superhero movies built off the back of it. It is by no means as spectacular as some of those that followed, nor is it as bad as some of those that followed. X-Men II is something similar. It wasn’t quite as revolutionary, but it did jumpstart another style of summer blockbuster, arguably a subgenre of the type sparked by the original film: the bigger and better superhero sequel.

No need to get your claws out...

No need to get your claws out...

Indeed, it’s quite noticeable that everyhting has gotten bigger in the sequel. The rolecall of characters has expanded (though not too far; unlike the films that would follow this picture seems relatively balanced), as has the runtime, the scale of the action and the complexity of the plot. That’s not to say that we’re dealing with a Coen Brothers film, or something on the scale of Singer’s The Usual Suspects, as the narrative is still fairly straightforward, but the introduction of a decidedly human threat serves the franchise well.

Indeed it’s worth observing that – barring Lex Luthor (and low-rent substitutes) and Superman, or cameos from Willem Dafoe in every Spider-Man film – that the entire X-Men trilogy features the same compelling antagonist in a leading role. Ian McKellen’s Magneto is a major foil throughout the original three movies, but never really seems tired because the character is fascinating, but also because McKellen is fantastic and the dynamic is kept… well, dynamic. Magneto isn’t a cardboard villain. Sure, he’s bitchy and occasionally cruel, but he has a genuine warmth for Charles Xavier and his mistrust of humanity is at the least understandable.

The relationship arguably works better here than in the third part because the third factor in this relationship is so well put together. Brian Cox earned a career revival off the back of this film, and it stands to him. His William Stryker is a complex, cowardly and insideous creation – a pencil-pucher pursuing his own private obsession. He is admittedly a hypocrite, but he steadfastly refuses to acknowledge it, which makes him an ideal foil for the similarly more-flawed-than-they’d-like to-admit Xavier and Magneto. Cox sparkles in his scenes and gives us a stunning antagonist that really makes the movie mush better than its rather formulaic plot should allow.

Ross from over at Ross v. Ross pointed out that the movies in the trilogy are heavily formulaic, and there’s no denying it. And there are moments when it seems the plot is on autopilot. Singer would ultimately be revealed to be a bigger asset to the production than the script writers, perhaps because he can raise the material above those formulas. It’s a loss keenly felt on the next installment in the franchise. Singer is much mor confident directing action sequences this time around, and he gives us a set that punctuate the film with more than a little creativity. The opening attack on the White House is jaw-droppingly rendered, as is the attack on the mansion. It’s refreshing to see an actually aggressive superhero fight provided by Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and the scene is one of the few in the franchise that hammers home his animality.

Alan Cumming is superb as the new mutant Kurt Wagner, or -as he was known in the Munich circus – the Amazing Nightcrawler. Cumming is an actor who can get quite irritating if not properly controlled by a director, but he manages to make the character somewhat sweet and probably the most interesting one-film mutant the franchise has produced. Indeed, character is very much to the fore here. Virtually ever character gets some growth and development – most notably Storm gets a slight, but fulfilling, subplot based off a tiny scene from way back in the first film. Except, of course (in what is becoming a trend), Cyclops, who gets his ass handed to him again – becoming the franchise’s whipping boy.

The actors who had been hit-or-miss in the earlier film slowly gain their footing. Halle Berry mysteriously loses her accent, but the audience doesn’t care. Anna Paquin is better, but still a long way from being good.

Sure, the film has its flaws – it is predictable and hints at the character bloating that would become chronic in the films to follow – but it is also a superbly entertaining and well-realised ride. It is the high-point of the original trilogy and still holds up very well today.

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