Down to business: X-2 an X-cellent adventure

We had to endure X-Men so X2 (the subtitle X-Men United was added to the advertising as an afterthought, perhaps a subtle suggestion of patriotism) could happen.

There was too much background to explain– and there were too many characters to introduce, each with two names and a distinctive superpower– for the first film to tell much of a story. Made on a somewhat limited budget for a designated blockbuster, it was X-Men 1.0 and a trailer for the series.

With most of the exposition out of the way and a bigger budget allowing for a longer (by half an hour) film, director Bryan Singer gets down to business in X2– and it's a pleasure.

The X-Men (and -Women) represent any oppressed minority you care to associate with them. The first film set up a Martin vs. Malcolm philosophical dispute between peaceful Prof. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and militant Eric Lensherr, known as Magneto (Ian McKellen). In the second there's an equally obvious parallel to gays, especially in a scene where an X-Boy "comes out" as a mutant to his family.

Mutants or metaphors, they're not very popular. As Magneto says in the introduction, his voice dripping with irony, "Sharing the world has never been humanity's defining attribute." Sen. Kelly (Bruce Davison) has softened his views (become a "compassionate conservative"?) since he introduced the Mutant Registration Act, but there's always someone to take up the fight.

The latest is Col. William Stryker (Brian Cox), whose own son is a mutant. Xavier is on Stryker's hit list because he once failed to help the boy "in the way his father wanted." This comes up when they meet again and Xavier says, "You wanted me to cure your son, but mutantism isn't a disease." Stryker has some mysterious history with Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), whose attempts to remember his past form one story thread.

As before, there are too many characters for each to be developed sufficiently, but even with more of them this is handled far better than in the first film. One of the new ones is Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), who's at the center of the first big action/effects sequence as he bounces around the White House trying to assassinate the president. He's a German (wi' a wee bit o' Scot in him) circus acrobat who can fade into a blue blur and reappear somewhere else.

The closet is referenced when Nightcrawler asks shape-shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), "Why not stay in disguise all the time, look like everyone else?" and she replies, "Because I shouldn't have to." It may remind you of Bringing Down the House, when Steve Martin asks Queen Latifah why she doesn't, in effect, speak more white, and she says it's not who she is.

Wolverine returns to Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters after a scouting mission (which he's botched, as it turns out) to find himself the third point of two romantic triangles. He was already over Rogue (Anna Paquin), so he'll leave her to Bobby Drake/Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), if they can ever figure out how to do anything without killing each other. (How do mutants make love? Very carefully.)

Still drawn to Wolverine is telepathic Jean Gray (Famke Janssen), the only mutant without a nickname, who has taken up with Cyclops (James Marsden).

Storm (Halle Berry), the weather wench, is back too, and the latest addition is Pyro (Aaron Stanford), who "can manipulate fire (but not) create it."

Xavier is able to keep track of all the world's mutants through a machine called Cerebro, which looks like a planetarium projecting people instead of stars. This is what Stryker is after, with the help of his mutant assistant, Yuriko Oyama/Deathstrike (Kelly Hu). He overpowers Magneto in his plastic cell (which makes Hannibal Lecter's look like an egg crate) and gets information from him.

Magneto escapes his prison and hooks up temporarily with Xavier and his mutants against the threat Stryker represents to all of them. Stryker's forces launch an all-out assault on Xavier's school but are only able to round up half a dozen kids. Everyone else escapes and returns the visit, attacking Stryker's underground headquarters in an overlong, unfocused climax in which, as they say during sweeps, "One of their own will die."

X2 isn't perfect, but it gets so much more right than X-Men did I'm already looking forward to–- what will it be? Someone's already done XXX.