(For a spoiler-free review, go check out this one, by the Saruman to my Gandalf. I have no compunctions about discussing spoilers when I do reviews here. You all know the drill.)
In a lot of ways I'm still a comic-book geek at heart, despite the fact that I am no longer a regular reader of the medium. Even though I have no idea what's going on with Marvel Comics these days (How many Spiderman titles are there, anyway? What's with all these "Ultimate" lines of classic Marvel characters? ), I remember with fondness the years I spent following all the events in the Marvel Universe. I never tried much to get into the DC Universe, even when they decided to blow it all up and start over in the classic Crisis on Infinite Earths series. Marvel was my thing, and while Spiderman was my favorite, I also faithfully followed the adventures of the team of mutants created by Professor Charles Xavier.
So, I'm pretty much the intended audience of the X-Men movies.
I liked the first one, but I found it too short when it came out three years ago. Entire bits of plot exposition were omitted, and the characters were drawn in something like shorthand. The film started with a lot of the X-Men mythology already in place, which disappointed me a bit; one of the charms of my favorite comic-book movies has been the visualization of the character origins. Yeah, the last forty-five minutes or so of Superman is kind of pedestrian, but all the stuff leading up to that is so good that I'm OK with coasting the last act of the film. Ditto Spiderman, with its wonderful first two-thirds and nearly disastrous conclusion. This may be why I've never totally warmed to the Batman movies; the one that comes closest to really addressing the formative experiences of Bruce Wayne happens to be my favorite of the series, Batman Forever (the third one, when Val Kilmer played the Caped Crusader). But still, X-Men was still very good, even if I believed at the time (and still do) that if only they'd fleshed out their story a bit more with an addition half-hour or so, it could very well have been the best comic-book movie ever made.
Well, I guess the powers-that-be liked what they saw in that first movie, because in the sequel, X2 (lame title, that), the budget appears to have been expanded and the reins loosened. The result is, for me, the second-best comic-book movie I've ever seen. This movie is just pure, comic-book fun from the first scene to the last. I felt like I was actually reading one of those old Chris Claremont issues of The Uncanny X-Men.
In fact, if there's a problem with this movie, that might be it. I suspect that someone who doesn't know the X-Men from the Power Pack (look them up yourself, I'm not explaining them!) might have some problems following what goes on here. But then, maybe not. I really can't say, but the movie does assume familiarity with the first movie, and when the characters made passing references to those events, I fondly recalled the helpful little corner-boxes in the pages of the comic when someone would refer to a past happening, like if the current issue was #231, the box would read "That happened in #217. -Ed." The X-Men comics told stand-alone stories with less frequency than just about any other series that I could recall; instead, every story would usually end up playing some role in continuity somewhere, even if you couldn't initially tell how. Some reviews of this film that I've seen complain that the film spends too much time setting up the inevitable X3, and while I can see the complaint, I also think this is one of those "That's not a bug, it's a feature" moments. Anyone familiar with the comics knows that setting up future events is always a big part of what's going on, what with the always-shadowy origin of Wolverine (which I'm not sure was ever revealed in its entirety), the constant arrival of new and young mutants on the scene, the constant escape of some villains and the deaths of others, and the film's very last shot.
(You can tell who read the comic and who didn't just by observing their reaction to this shot. The ones who read the comic are the ones going, "Oh, WOW! How soon 'til the next movie! Holy crap!!", while the ones who didn't read the comic are going, "Gee, what's that thing? Huh? What's going on?")
So, while I can see that people unfamiliar to the X-Men mythos might have trouble grokking what's going on, well…I also have to note that I'm not one of them, and I write reviews based on my experience in a movie, not in terms of someone else. (Which is probably why I can get so very long-winded.)
I won't go into separate praisings of all the actors, because the afore-mentioned, above-linked Demon From DC pretty much nails all that. I will note that Hugh Jackman can have the Wolverine part until he no longer wants it; Famke Jannsen is wondrous as Jean Grey; and that I actually liked Nightcrawler, for once. (He was never my favorite X-Man, but this film pushed me quite a ways toward his corner.) I found Storm a bit lame in the first movie, but here, she was awesome. She was probably the X-Man most short-changed by the first film's lack of running-time. And I'm not sure which great actor I am more jealous of: Christopher Lee (who gets to play the villains in the LOTR and Star Wars movies), or Ian McKellen (who is Gandalf in LOTR and Magneto here).
A few final, random musings on X2:
:: When I stopped reading the comics (when I went off to college, and money for things like comics became a memory as distant as the dinosaurs), Magneto had actually "rehabilitated" and taken Professor X's place as the head of the Xavier School. So, I'm having a little trouble recalibrating for "evil" Magneto.
:: But then, I love how this film brought up an old plot-device that Chris Claremont often used in the comics: forcing the X-Men to team up with one of their usual enemies to combat a far worse one. The blurring of the lines between the good guys and the bad guys was a staple of the comics.
:: OK, time to admit a little ignorance…I never read anything featuring Lady Deathstrike. I get that she's a "follow-up" project to Wolverine, so she has the same adamantium skeleton and claws like his, but where did she get the same healing ability? That's Wolverine's actual mutant-power; everything else of his is "man-made". Does the fact that she has the same power mean that mutant powers can be replicated?
:: Magneto's escape may be the best bad-guy-escaping-the-inescapable-prison scene ever.
:: Bring on Dark Phoenix and the Hellfire Club for the third movie.
:: Cyclops could use something to do next time.