Good Golly, I love summer! I was getting so freakin’ depressed these past couple of months, what with the cold grayness of everything… I needed a sunny day even more than Igby. This week’s been just right, warm and bright. I’ve been riding my bike through the city, I grooved at the Tam-Tams by the Mont-Royal, I had a few frosted coffee thingies and today, I saw the first bonafide Summer Movie of 2003. Many critics bitch against Hollywood, but while it’s true that plenty of crapola fills the screens (especially during the winter), more often than not blockbuster season fills me with glee. To have one or two new unreasonably hyped popcorn movies opening every week for three-odd months is pretty neat, at least if you’re an impressionable movie geek. I crave it all, sequels, action flicks, high concept comedies… And of course, comic book movies.

The original X-Men wasn’t quite a perfect movie, but it was as perfect a comic book adaptation as I’d ever seen. Bryan Singer treated the material with respect, establishing a convincing world where the rise of Homo Superior is met with fear and intolerance. This is not silly spandex antics but a complex civil rights allegory, with opposing but all defendable viewpoints and real people trying to sort them out. Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is like Dr. Martin Luther King, assured that “the only lasting solution to the tension between mankind and the mutant population is a peaceful one.”* On the other ideological end is Magneto (Sir Ian McKellen), a concentration camp survivor who’s determined to save Mutants from suffering the fate of Polish Jews “by any means necessary”, as Malcolm X would have said.

“X2: X-Men United” introduces a new player in General Stryker (Brian Cox), who would be like the Ku Klux Klan knight who wants to get rid of the Dr. King, the Malcolm X and everything in between. With the implicit help of the US Black Ops, he’s devised a way to control mutants and use them to work at their own doom. I won’t go into details, but Stryker’s plan is a complex and vicious one where ethics have no place. The only chance Xavier’s X-Men and Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants have to survive is to stand united, but even against a common threat they’re in disagreement over the tactics to be used…

From the opening scene, an exhilarating attack on the White House by blue-skinned devilish mutant Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), “X2” outdoes the first film. The teleportation** special effects are stunning and the fight choreography is better than in all of the previous picture. Much credit has to be extended to frequent Singer collaborator John Ottman (who had to sit out “X-Men” to direct “Urban Legends: Final Cut”!), coming on board as composer and editor of this sequel. He contributes an appropriately epic score and more balanced editing, crafting thrilling set pieces while giving the film more room to breathe. This is an impeccably paced film, relentlessly driving forward with non-stop sci-fi spectacle but never short-changing character development. “X-Men United” is as smart as its predecessor, but it’s much more ambitious, suspenseful and action-packed — and bigger-budgeted, obviously!

The returning cast is more comfortable in their parts and it shows. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, more charismatic than ever) is allowed to truly let his badassitude loose, slashing his way through opponents and flirting more boldly with Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), to the great dismay of Cyclops (James Marsden, nailing the character’s nerdy cockiness even more). I love all these soap operaish love jones, that’s so perfectly Chris Claremont***; the hard-to-engineer physical attraction between Rogue (Anna Paquin) and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) is another example of that. Storm (Halle Berry) is still not given much to do, but her weather-controlling powers are certainly spectacular and her interaction with Nightcrawler is interesting. One character that becomes central to this film is Magneto’s sexy but dangerous right-hand woman Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), who provides some of the coolest, most humorous moments.

There are two major additions to the cast, Pyro (Aaron Stanford), a student of the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters who’s tempted by the “dark side” embodied by Magneto’s Brotherhood, and Stryker’s assassin Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu), who doesn’t have any dialogue but matches Wolverine in the slice’n’dice department! Fanboys will also pick up on a bunch of nifty cameos and throwaway references to the likes of Kitty Pryde, Colossus, Beast, Jubilee, Banshee (but as a girl) and even Gambit!

“X2: X-Men United” is first-rate popcorn cinema and a superfly awesome kickoff to the summer movie season. This is building up to be one of the great movie franchises: I wouldn’t dare to spoil it, but “X2” subtly sets up the greatest story arc in the history of the comic book series. I reckon we ain’t seen nothing yet!

* Quote taken from “Ultimate X-Men: The Tomorrow People” by Mark Millar.
** A burst of flame, the stench of brimstone, and Nightcrawler can suddenly vanish and reappear wherever he wants!
*** Claremont is the most influential writer of the “X-Men” comic books, which he’s been involved with for almost three decades.