The original X-Men ended with Magneto locked away in his plastic prison and the world of man and mutant appearing safe once more. Or so we thought. Since then, America has elected a new president and his policy of ‘shoot first, create a new regime later’ has not been missed by the scribes of what may be one of the summer’s best movies. Bryan Singer’s first entry in the ever-popular comic book genre proved that a coherent and intelligent narrative could co-exist alongside impressively staged action sequences. The sequel builds on this, broadening the scope of the original, developing familiar characters and creating a potent new breed, whilst successfully mixing humour, pathos and drama. Not since Obi-wan lowered his light sabre has blockbuster cinema been so confident in despatching a central character.
The plot once again deals with the mutants searching for a way to co-exist with humans. Thwarting their plans is Stryker (Brian Cox), a covert government operative who has hatched a plan to rid the world of mutants. Following an attempt to assassinate the President – a figure more West Wing than George Dubya – the mutant training school run by Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) comes under attack, and Stryker’s plan is revealed. Only Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) appears to hold the key to the mutant’s survival – but with his memory erased due to an earlier trauma and with more mutant brawn than brain, things don’t look too good for the future of his race.
Opening with a sly reference to Patrick Stewart’s other career as the captain of the Enterprise, X-2 lives up to its hype and the intelligence (for a summer blockbuster, at least) of its predecessor. The premise of the story and the characterisation generate enough metaphorical significance to appeal to a wide audience. It might not be Animal Farm, but the film’s multiple layers of meaning can be applied to the current state of international affairs and western society’s pathological fear of the Other. Of the new characters, Alan Cumming’s Schreck-like Ludwig provides the best example. A religious zealot who owes more to a character from a Victorian freak show than a comic, his melancholic air and humorous asides make him one of the more humane mutants. Even within his own race he is treated as an outsider because of his physical appearance.
Bryan Singer has come a long way since The Usual Suspects (1995), and his work on the X-Men series has thrown the gauntlet down to the more brainless summer releases. Though there will never be an end to true popcorn fodder, this series proved that it was possible to take one of the staple elements of popular culture – the comic – and lose none of its best qualities in its transference to the screen. Singer’s achievement has been to ensure that the drama is never lost amidst the thrills, whilst keeping the pace move at lightning speed.
X-2 is unlikely to disappoint anyone waiting for this summer’s string of event movies. More surprising is that it won’t disappoint cinemagoers normally averse to the notion of ‘high concept’ cinema. Exciting, fun and thought-provoking enough not to bore on repeated screenings, X-2 is unlikely to be bettered by many blockbusters this summer.