And thank goodness. Alan Cumming's Nightcrawler is a demonic-looking, German-born beast with hoof-like feet, dark blue skin, and a prehensile tail. He teleports, leaving a wispy cloud in his wake, and when we are introduced to him, he's trying to kill the President.

That's not his fault, though - Nightcrawler, aka Kurt Wagner, is the victim of a mind-controlling serum injected

Hugh Jackman reprises his role as Wolverine in X2.
by mutant-hunting military man William Stryker (Brian Cox), who wants to manufacture an event so shocking it will trigger all-out war against mutants. He and his syringe are getting around; in the course of the film, the most trusted heroes and most iron-willed villains come under his sway. Like Mystique's ability to turn into anybody else at will, mind control is a dusty old gimmick that is slightly overused in X2, but that's about the worst there is to say about this film, which is richer, darker, and more thrilling than the first.

All the exposition Singer did last time around pays off here, as anyone who cares about characters more than fireballs might have guessed: There is still more for Wolverine to learn about his past, for instance, but we know enough that the film needn't spell everything out when it has new tidbits to reveal. Instead we get what the fanboys have been drooling to see - the adamantium-clawed Canuck goes into full slice-and-dice mode twice, in fight scenes that come about as close as any could to the action fans have imagined between the frames of his four-color adventures.

Wolverine aside, there's more action here than in the last film, both of the soldiers-and-helicopters and the acts-of-God varieties. Early on, the teammates are forced to split up, which both gives them a chance to shine individually and emphasizes the extent to which Professor Xavier's students have become a family. Singer has figured out how to balance the volatile elements in a superhero team, which is harder than it sounds; witness the abortive efforts to make a coherent film about the Fantastic Four.

He is also dexterous enough to bring serious moral weight to the film without deflating its popcorny thrills: The difficulties mutants have gaining acceptance in the eyes of homo sapiens are meant to resonate with those faced by ethnic minorities or homosexuals in the real world. The first film hammered the point home, flashing back to Magneto's survival of the Holocaust; this one is more subtle. When Xavier's school is attacked, mutants flee through secret corridors that are claustrophobic and crude,

Dir. Bryan Singer; writ. Michael Dougherty, Daniel P. Harris; feat. Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Brian Cox, Alan Cumming, Halle Berry, James Marsden, Anna Paquin (PG-13)
like something out of Anne Frank's diary; when a handful seek refuge at Iceman's home, he is forced to admit his genetic aberration to his family in a scene that mirrors a gay teenager's coming out. ("Have you ever tried not being a mutant?" his anxious mother asks.)

In between supercharged fisticuffs and allegory, the filmmakers deliver some of the transcendent imagery that science fiction was born to deliver: Just as Wolverine prepares to meet his maker - in both senses of the word - a younger mutant creates a thick, translucent wall of ice in front of him, putting a caesura of wonder in the midst of danger; elsewhere, Magneto breaks free of his Plexiglas prison in a flash of gore and magic, flying through space like a mutant messiah. Soon, he will play villain and hero at the same time, dangerously seductive even when he is saving the day.

X2 is everything die-hards could hope for, and smart enough to attract the unconverted - a rollicking, eye-tickling good time in which Shakespearean actors join supermodels to give life to pop culture mythology. Summer is here, and for once that's an exclamation instead of a lament. •

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