Like the first Tim Burton-directed Batman movie, the original X-Men was the rare comic-book adaptation that satisfied the needs of both summer-movie audiences and all but the most Mylar-addled comic-book fans. Directed with depth, efficiency, and wit by Bryan Singer, the film suffered only from a tendency to seem like a setup for an even bigger movie. And here it is. Significantly longer and stuffed with new mutants, unresolved old business, new subplots, and many more fights, X2: X-Men United suggests that Singer's gaggle of screenwriters received script notes reading "More, more, more." Fortunately, bigger usually equals better here, and when it doesn't, it equals just as good. The film opens with the kind of breathless setpiece most action movies would save for a climax: an assassination attempt on the U.S. president by teleporting mutant Nightcrawler (a well-cast Alan Cumming, who finds the right balance of scariness and helplessness). What looks like a terrorist act is eventually revealed as a broader conspiracy to crack down on mutant freedoms, a plot spearheaded by hateful general Brian Cox, who uses the attack as an excuse to go after the residents of the school run by Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). With their expansive casts, tangled plotlines, and overheated passions, the X-Men comic books have always been as much about soap operatics as laser beams. So far, the film series has not just understood that notion, but run with it. Singer sandwiches melodrama within eye-catching, comics-inspired compositions, allows time for characters to interact with (and often annoy) one another, and, whenever the situation gets too grim, lets Hugh Jackman's anti-heroic Wolverine or some other witty business deflate any pretensions. Aside from a couple of duds in the ensemble, the film also benefits from its gifted cast, with Ian McKellen once again standing out as Magneto, the pitiless, radical mutant whose escape from prison leads to the uneasy alliance suggested by the film's subtitle. With all the talk of government crackdowns in the name of national security–the president even shares George W. Bush's habit of wearing an American-flag pin, lest anyone question his patriotism–the story also boasts a muted contemporary resonance. Only in the finale do the special effects start to overwhelm the plot and characters, but by that point, the film has long since begun to coast on its own momentum toward the inevitable, and welcome, setup for the presumably even bigger X3.
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