At some fast-approaching point in pop-culture evolution, we're due to hit Total Outsider Saturation, wherein everybody is an outsider and therefore there is no longer an outside. In the fleeting meantime we have scintillating reminders of the struggle, such as X2: X-Men United, the latest bid from comic-book land to increase the already peaking respectability of geek life. A paean to emotional liberation disguised as a high-tech action romp, the huge-budget endeavor offers a diverting mix of insight and spectacle, human and superhuman. This machine is built for kids, but rarely do words such as "noble," "Hollywood" and "rawkin'" all apply to one movie.
Not so much a sequel as the continuation of a mucho-lucrative franchise, X2 returns us to the world of "gifted" mutants established three years ago in X-Men and four decades ago in the charmingly antiquated comic by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Kicking things off, a blue-skinned teleporting demon crashes the White House, intent on stabbing the president. Despite their heroics in the first film, saving New York and the Statue of Liberty, mutants everywhere find their hard-won freedoms in jeopardy again. As the patriarchal and woefully mispronounced Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) puts it, "Sharing the planet has never been humanity's defining attribute." (And kids, enough of this "Ex-AY-vee-er" crap; the name's "Zah-vee-ay," OK?)
This time, because Gandalf -- oops, make that metal-warpin' meanie Magneto (Ian McKellen) -- is securely stowed in his plastic prison (or is he?), we need a new heavy, ably supplied by the original cinematic Hannibal Lecter himself, Brian Cox. As the cunning and fascistic General William Stryker, Cox seeks to rid the world of all those nonhuman weirdos who are having a hard enough time just coming out to their horrified middle-American families. This forces an uneasy alliance between Xavier's mostly benevolent mutants and Magneto's ranks of baddies, dwindled now to one. But at least that one's the shapely azure shape-shifter Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), who's not only a peck of fun but also guarantees an outbreak of MTBS (multiple teenage boner syndrome) every time she sashays into battle. We're talking return box-office.
The crux is, back when even-tempered Xavier and pouty Magneto were kids, calling each other Baldy and Bulb-Nose, they built this really huge round room called Cerebro that Xavier can use to amplify his brainwaves and affect anyone, anywhere. Striker, with his distasteful might-makes-right philosophy, decides to harness Cerebro to destroy all mutants. Helping put the damage on is his assistant Yuriko Oyama (a.k.a. Deathstrike, played by Kelly Hu, already something of an institution but so generic she might as well be called Kelly Who?). They quickly get the upper hand, especially because Deathstrike's fingers extend into lengthy, Freddy Krueger-like adamantium blades, which prove pretty nifty in a third-act confrontation with the similarly clawed Logan (a.k.a. Wolverine, played by Hugh Jackman).
Oh yeah -- Wolverine. The one who puts all the kids in the seats. In a way, the continuing tale of this popular scientific experiment cum rockabilly caricature shows how skillfully director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men) is able to bring narrative coherence to a story with so many mutant characters vying for screen time. We've got an awkward surplus of them coming out of Xavier's School for the Gifted: blaster-eyed Cyclops (James Marsden), weather-controllin' Storm (Halle Berry, a squeaky liability), brainiac Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and superpower-copycattin' Rogue (Anna Paquin), just to scratch the surface (with a surprise or two for the pulp faithful). But somehow Singer and screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Daniel P. Harris neatly interweave the threads. This time, their characters breathe a little more, with Wolverine in the middle, ripping up bad guys when he's not suffering the somewhat trite nightmares of his dubious origin.
It's a geek-realm cliché for "darker" to equal "better," but X2 is indeed darker and better than its predecessor. It's also moodier; we're reminded almost nonstop that it's a hard-knock life for mutants. Not unlike The Ring, there's a sad and creepy little girl involved in the suffering here, but it's not much of a stretch to see all these characters as sad and slightly creepy little girls. Some of the yuckier imagery here reeks of Clive Barker lite -- which is adequate; Barker's bombast is tedious -- but the underlying moroseness works well, and there's a palpable release when these male and female "sad girls" transform into outrageous fighting machines.
The movie's attractions are manifold. As Kurt Wagner (a.k.a. the "blue demon" Nightcrawler), Alan Cumming defies the odds to become both German and Christian but for once not annoying. The editing and suitably heavy-handed score by John Ottman are both top-notch. There's even a pussycat for the girls and Cyclops' Mazda RX-8 for the guys (or is that vice versa?). But above all, as with that other X-named Fox franchise The X-Files, the main attraction seems to be this: Who wouldn't want to hang around in Canada for months on end, pretending every day is Halloween?