Pumping Up For The Sequel

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For a marvel comics hero, a special gift is also a curse. He didn't ask for the ability to soar, to have his senses tuned to an impossible acuity, to be a hulk or a vampire; it just came over him, like the surge of puberty. His gift isolates him from society, bruises and confuses him. And since he is not always in control of his power, it becomes an addiction in need of medication. If only there were a therapy group for his kind — a Superheroes Anonymous.

That was the notion behind X-Men: a school for mutants, run by Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), mind bender and father figure. Director Bryan Singer's first XMen, a hit from summer 2000, was basically Men in Black from the point of view of the humanly challenged: sure, the earth is overrun by odd creatures, but we must nurture them and harness their strengths, not send out the feds on an ethnic-cleansing orgy.

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Having served its dual function of introducing the X-folk — saber-clawed Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), telekinetic Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), weatherwoman Storm (Halle Berry), etc.--and earned $300 million worldwide, X-Men has spawned the requisite sequel. Singer saw the first film as a primer; now he has eyes for an epic. X2 is half an hour longer, miles more ambitious and a bit better than the wowless original.

This time the sacred monsters must battle not only their fellow-mutant nemesis Magneto (Ian McKellen) and the morph-o-matic Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) but also a figure familiar from a quillion adventure movies — the steely sicko military renegade. Stryker (Brian Cox) is an ex-Army conniver who would use X powers to evil ends and has a kung-fu cutie named Oyama (Kelly Hu) to kick start any fight. Stryker must contend with a late recruit to the coalition of the thrilling: Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), whose powers include walking through walls, vanishing in a plume of fume and reciting the 23rd Psalm in a German accent.

The only cunning wrinkle in this series is the collective hero: a dozen or more supernal types, each bending the laws of physics in a peculiar fashion, each trying not to obstruct the others while implicitly angling for a spin-off series of his or her own. Though this tactic offers a pleasing congestion, it risks piling on — cluttering the narrative with myriad subplots. Singer figures the audience won't mind as long as the actors have the requisite dishiness. As they do. Janssen can look into our minds anytime. Jackman, on the verge of stardom for three years, grows ever more appealing. The yummy Romijn-Stamos could start her own Las Vegas mime act: Blue Man Boobs.

To lend a whiff of aristocracy to his enterprise, Singer relies on the orotund majesty of British thesping. Stewart and McKellen give heft to their respective patriarch and pariah. They make each debate on the shaky future of mankind sound as if it were taking place in the House of Lords — even if they are both forced to sport the goofiest headgear in fantasy-film history.

X2 wants to contain multitudes — high ideals and high tech, the poignant and the silly. Doing so, it becomes a lexicon of modern filmmaking. It could be its own creature: Super-Generico. That's not the worst thing for a movie to be, but it's not quite Marvel-ous either.