'X2: X-Men United' is the 'Empire Strikes Back' of the 'X-Men' trilogy. It's the one where they got it right -- the story, the characters, the look, the feel, the tone and the texture. The right balance of light and dark is in place, there is a wide (but not overstuffed) spectrum of classic X-Men heroes and villains on display, and the emotional notes the narrative hits are the right mix of the interpersonal and the political. 'X2' functions simultaneously as fine comic book melodrama, cultural allegory, and great pop entertainment.
The plot of 'X2' is complex, but not convoluted. Since the events of the first 'X-Men,' Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) has opened his secret school for gifted mutants, which attracts X-friends both old and new. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) still have the hots for each other, Storm (Halle Berry) is boogying down with the mysterious new mutant Nightcrawler (Alan Cummings) and Cyclops (James Marsden) still stands around looking pretty. Meanwhile, some evil guy named Stryker (Brian Cox) tries to blow everyone up, his assassin Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu) boasts one very fierce manicure, and a major X-Person eventually bites the dust. What will those crazy mutants think of next?
I found the first 'X-Men' to be a better-than-average comic book adaptation, but still somehow restrained... meek even. It never hit any real lows, but failed to reach any highs, either. With 'X2,' it seemed as if returning director Bryan Singer was finally unleashed from any tentativeness he may have felt tackling such a beloved comic book property the first time around. Assembling all of the same major cast, and working with many of the same production crew, his team was firing on all cylinders. 'X2' moves quickly but doesn't rush -- it's 134-minute runtime allows for visual scope and plenty of action, but also depth of character and an ambitious, multi-layered story. This is a fully-formed universe, brimming with creativity and emboldened by a singular, confident vision.
If some of the X-Men are still underused (Storm comes to mind), 'X2' still feels satisfying because it balances its mutants with a cohesive, inclusive narrative. Each of the characters has a defined arc that is completed by the end of the film, but their stories also interlock snuggly, so it doesn't feel as if we're watching one of those old TV disaster movies, only with mutants. The script, by Mike Dougherty and Dan Harris, is adept in the way it uses the individual struggles of the X-Men to make broader, universal truths about human nature. Much has been made, for example, about the mutant "coming out" scene in the picture. It's an obvious parallel for the current state of gay rights in our world, but regardless where one falls on such an issue, it's exciting to see a pop entertainment tackle challenging political themes. 'X2' interweaves such lofty thematics throughout -- from human rights to gender politics to genocide, and even an eerily prescient subplot, pre-Bush's war on terror, questioning what role our military should even play in such matters.
Take away any deeper leanings, however, and 'X2' still holds up as great popcorn cinema. It looks terrific, is paced perfectly, and has tons of cool mutant action. The diversity of each 'X'-person's power means we never tire of watching them do battle, and the intricate plot gives real weight to the outcome -- we care what happens, and to whom. If the 'X'-trilogy ended with a whimper, not a bang (thanks to the disappointing, Singer-less 'X-Men: The Last Stand'), we will always have 'X2' to remind us how good a mutant movie can be. If fans continue to (rightly) praise 'The Dark Knight' as the greatest comic book movie ever, it's good to revisit 'X2' and remember this one ain't no slouch, either.
'X2: X-Men United' gets a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (2.35:1) and it looks pretty spiffy. This is the best of 'X-Men' Blu-ray releases, boasting a bold, bright, clean and detailed transfer that can be quite grand.
Overcoming the dour blandness of the first 'X-Men' and the Brett Ratner visual-isms of the dreaded 'X-Men: The Last Stand,' 'X2' is polished, slick and classy. I love the steely color palette, which looks shiny but not washed out or overly-contrasted. Hues are rich and striking. Detail is excellent, with only slightly crushed shadow delineation to rub out some of the finest textures in the shadows. The image is always sharp, and depth is among the best I've seen on any recent Blu-ray catalog release. There are no encode issues, either, with excellent reproduction of fine color gradations and no posterization or motion artifacts. There is a bit of fine noise visible, usually on large patches of solid color, and slight grain to the print, but this is indicative of the source. 'X2' is sure to please.
Fox also rocks 'X2: X-Men United' with a DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/24-bit). All of the 'X-Men' movies sound good on Blu-ray, and this is easily on par with the other installments.
'X2' blasts off from the beginning, with wonderfully-engaged surrounds. Particularly impressive are scenes with Nightcrawler, with great uses of discrete effects as he materializes in and out. Transparency is first-rate, and the full "wall of sound" feel is frequently in effect. Dynamics are likewise reference quality, with the highest peaks and lowest valleys always tightly rendered. The subwoofer never fails to deliver, and dialogue is balanced just fine. No complaints here -- 'X2' is a five-star audio winner.
'X2: X-Men United' gets the full two-disc special edition treatment on Blu-ray (with a third Digital Copy disc thrown in for good measure, see next section below). I still like it when older bonus features are at least upconverted to 1080, but in terms of sheer content, there's nothing not to like here.
For my money, 'X2: X-Men United' is the best of the 'X-Men' bunch. The series was really firing on all cylinders here, with an engaging storyline, just the right balance of characters and villains, and terrific production values and pacing. It's great pop entertainment. This Blu-ray is likewise, with top-tier video and audio, and tons of extras. This is a no-brainer -- 'X-Men' fans and casual viewers alike can pick this one up with confidence.