Watch enough movies and the temptation will arise to revile everything that appears crass, commercial, big, and dumb-especially the typical summer blockbuster. But then there's a peculiar pleasure in seeing a summer blockbuster that isn't so easily dismissed: commercially viable but not (too) crass, suitably "big" but not (too) dumb.
Last summer's pleasurable surprise was Spider-Man, and this year another comic-book adaptation, X2: X-Men United, comes close to filling its shoes. Last week, X2 set a worldwide box-office record for a single weekend, taking in $154.8 million. (It earned $85.6 million in the United States.)
X2 (rated PG-13 for sci-fi action/violence, some sexuality, and brief bad language) is, by far, bigger than its predecessor, 2000's X-Men. It has more characters, more special effects, and much, much more of a plot. And for the most part, it works. (On the downside, it also has more violence, more sensuality, and more screen time for a female mutant named Mystique, who is covered only by her scaly blue skin.)
For some, X2's beefed-up plot, involving shifting allegiances, unlikely alliances, and more subplots than probably necessary, may seem a barely comprehensible mess. But there are fascinating themes here, and a few characters developed well enough to make the expertly executed action scenes enthralling.
In the "not too distant future" mutants have begun to pop up in the human race, the supposed next step in the evolutionary process. These super-powered, sometimes odd-looking creatures generate fear and distrust among much of the general populace.
Two rival mutant movements arise: One, led by the venerable Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), seeks to educate and hone the skills of "special" kids at a private school in upstate New York; the other, led by Magneto (Ian McKellen), forms a rebel force intent on achieving equality (or is it superiority?) for mutants. An effort by Gen. William Stryker (Brian Cox) to stamp out the mutant race forces an alliance between the two groups.
Some characters, like Halle Berry's Storm, barely register, but others, like Hugh Jackman's Wolverine and Alan Cumming's Nightcrawler, are a delight. Mr. Cumming's character also offers a Christian subtext: Nightcrawler is a devout Catholic motivated by his beliefs, while other mutants feed off of anger and hatred. It's not terribly profound, but it's interesting nonetheless. (A scene cut from the first film but available on DVD and video linked discrimination against mutants to the persecution of early Christians.)
The violence in X2 is mostly of the bloodless, comic-book variety. And the evolutionary themes can be as easily dismissed as the comic bookÐlevel plot. More troubling to parents is the stepped up (although not dominant) sensuality of X2. However, the comparatively smart, well-developed X2 joins other recent comic-book adaptations in nudging the standard for summer blockbusters slightly higher.