Whilst 1998's "Blade" may have started the trend, and the box-office smash success of 2002's "Spider-Man" rocketed the superhero genre forward to become THE thing to do, it was 2000's "X-Men" which proved the first big success story in terms of quality in the superhero arena in a decade.
Not since the decreasingly interesting "Batman" live-action films had there really been a movie of the type that not only pleased fans & critics alike but also achieved such financial success (with the exception of "Spider-Man", its opening is still the biggest of any film in the genre). "X-Men" became the new benchmark with which to compare all comic book movies too, and even though there were some nagging problems it was still a solid ensemble piece which overall worked better than many of its predecessors and succesors.
Now as we come into 2003, the first signs that this genre is weakening began to show with the release earlier this year of the woeful "Daredevil" which aside from some nice production design and a hell of a good short performance by Colin Farrell, was nevertheless a complete waste. Likewise as much as there was anticipation for "X2", there was also concern as sequels in this genre aren't exactly known for being up to the quality of the original.
Well the verdict is now in and the good word is that this is a sequel which lives up to and in a few ways exceeds its predecessor. Without the necessity of character introduction exposition and with a much bigger budget on hand, the filmmakers have still taken great care and produced a shining example of blockbuster entertainment at its best - certainly its most rewarding and entertaining since "LOTR: The Two Towers" almost half a year ago.
Trying to make a comparison, the one that comes to mind is the first two "Superman" films - both are adored by the fans and whilst the first one had the bigger burden and is generally considered the better 'quality' film, the second has way more action, FX, humour and overall crowd pleasing aspects which make it better in the minds of some.
Same goes here, although "X2" benefits from Mike Dougherty & Dan Harris' solid script work which whilst not faultless is still more impressive than pretty much anything in "Superman II". As a result I think there'll be a lot of debate over which one people prefer better, honestly I like 'em both pretty much equally though each has certain elements that outdoes the other.
Lets get onto the characters and like any ensemble there's some which will stick with you, others which are for the most part ignored. On the upside Mystique gets a lot more screentime and plot points whilst Ian McKellan shines with delectable evil as Magneto - both these two seem to be having great fun with their parts and their scenes ranging from a jail bust to a bar scene are amongst the film's quirky highlights.
Both are begging for more screen time and I seriously hope an "X3" gets a go-ahead just so we can get to see both at work again. Shawn Ashmore (Iceman), Patrick Stewart (Prof. X) and Famke Janssen (Jean Grey) get their roles expanded and fill them out very well - Janssen especially gets her own subplot which fans of the comic will be very happy with how it is handled.
Newcomers to this film Alan Cumming (Nightcrawler), Brian Cox (Stryker) and Aaron Stanford (Pyro) do superb work with their time even if elements of their subplots feel hollow - Cumming's religious rantings and Stanford's "slip into the dark side" talk get too much and not enough airtime respectively. James Marsden (Cyclops) is barely used and is missing for most of the movie, Hugh Jackman (Wolverine) does solid and certainly darker work but this isn't as big a breakthrough for him as the first movie proved, Halle Berry (Storm) and Anna Paquin (Rogue) may as well not have appeared (a shame as Paquin was the first film's strongest character) and despite a cool fight Kelly Hu (Deathstrike) has nothing to do even if her very first scene is a great laugh.
Action though is great - kicking off with a spectacular opening attack in the hallways of the White House - the sheer energy, use of FX, music, etc. all combine to come up with the film's most distinctive fight scene which even the much touted but ultimately disappointing Wolverine/Deathstrike fight can't live up to.
The first half is quieter than the second naturally but even the first half still contains a school raid sequence and aforementioned 'jailbreak' scene which is just spectacular and surprisingly bloody. The effects are slightly better and certainly more numerous than in the first although some scenes definitely still need work. Production design, music, costumes, etc. are all at a very high standard and the humour is far more prevalent and in all but one case (a bad N'Sync joke) its worked extremely well into the story.
Downsides? Well there's a few. As mentioned before with so many characters, its only natural that of course not enough time is spent on some (most notably Deathstrike, Pyro & Cyclops) whilst other elements such as the not so great 'Jason 143' subplot aren't exactly the most creative of 'villain scheming'. Like it or not this is made for fans and so newcomers, especially those who missed the first movie, will get lost quickly as much like "LOTR: The Two Towers" your thrown into the action with no real introductions.
The whole film itself feels like a chapter somewhere in the early part of a major saga so those hoping everything will be tied up neatly will be somewhat disappointed - likewise those keen on seeing the Sentinels or the big 'war against humanity' so hinted at in the first film aren't going to find their questions or desires shown here - this expands the playing field and scope of the first film's story but never really pushes it into a new direction.
In the end the only faults are more what chances it didn't take rather than what it did. Your not going to find a deftly original or innovative film ala "The Matrix" or to some extent the first "X-Men", what you will find though is a movie crafted around the basis of solid storytelling and cool visuals - Singer, DeSanto, Schuler-Donner, Dougherty, Harris, etc. realise the difficulty of pulling off a successful attempt in this genre and so don't overstep their bounds.
They don't try to do something risky or edgy, instead opting for getting the best out of what they have - its a slightly old fashioned approach to filmmaking but as "X2" shows its definitely what works. If only all big-budget movies were of this calibre, it would make filmgoing such a more exciting experience. This has set the standard very high for this Summer and it will be interesting to see what, if any films, can match its calibre.