If X-Men changed the game for superhero movies (and it did), X2 changed it again in a different, more important way. With X2, it was suddenly possible for the genre to deliver real, actual good movies. Hell, it was expected. X-Men paved the way for superhero movies to take our money every summer. X2 let them do more than just take our money every summer. It raised the bar.
So it's a little disappointing to revisit this movie and see it hasn't entirely held up. Some parts of the film are downright painful (such as Pyro attacking the police offers outside of Bobby's house). Too many of the characters are still handled poorly. For example, Cyclops gets to exchange quips with Wolverine at the beginning before immediately being captured. He doesn't appear again until the climax when, under brainwashing, he attacks Jean briefly. And I do mean “briefly,” as he quickly overcomes his brainwashing to help Jean limp around for a few minutes.
But X2 is just such a vast improvement over its predecessor on almost every level imaginable. Wolverine is much better and far more consistent, even with the presence of a botched love subplot with Jean (Wolverine telling Cyclops “Jean chose you” at the end of the movie is so ridiculous, because it's never made apparent that Jean or even Cyclops take Wolverine's love interest seriously; the whole thing seems to be made up in Wolverine's head. Barely any screen time is devoted to the love story and it only serves to further a really annoying trend in superhero films, where the main character has to have a love interest, regardless of how it fits into the story. But I digress...)
Rogue is both better and less important than in X-Men, relegated to the B-squad with Iceman and Pyro. Professor X gets kidnapped and taken out of the picture yet again, which is a little frustrating, but his captive scenes are riveting (the little girl in these scenes is excellent). Mystique is worlds better in X2, a well-rounded villain showing both creativity and cunning. Magneto isn't the main villain, but by siding with the heroes we get to see his point and motivation. He's handled a lot better this time out, too.
Even the action is improved. The assault on the school is stunning, as is the climatic battle at the military base. Lady Deathstrike is really only here so that Wolverine can have an adamantium-based villain to fight and thus is a lame duck character (oh come on, who do you really think is going to win that fight?), but the effect of liquid metal pouring out of her eyes is chilling. And the opening scene with Nightcrawler attacking the White House both impressive and a great way to introduce a new character. Nightcrawler is a really nice surprise here, a tortured character that draws the audience's sympathy. Wolverine may be the star, but Nightcrawler is undoubtedly the movie's heart.
Brian Cox's performance as Col. Striker is absolutely show-stealing. He's the most hateable villain in an X-Men film yet. Striker is so evil, hypocritical and outright wrong that even Magneto plays hero to stop him. He even looks like my jerk of an ex-boss! The best part is Striker doesn't get to repent, he doesn't show remorse and he's so absolutely convinced that he's right, the only fitting end to his arc is being left to die by literally everyone.
X2 isn't perfect, but its ending just might be. After Jean sacrifices herself to save the others, an emotionally-destroyed Cyclops, with a pained look on his face that makes you wonder why they didn't bother using him more in the rest of the movie, stands alongside his teammates as Professor X explains to the president the importance of humans and mutants working together. It's a poignant and fitting end to a really, really good movie.