"X2: X-Men United" is sure to satisfy most fans of the first "X-Men" movie, including the zealous devotees of the comic books that spawned the flicks.
With his new installment, director Bryan Singer is able to leap in without the cumbersome character and situation setups needed for the initial film. So "X2" rips along at a faster pace, pulsing with wilder action sequences and more dazzling visual effects.
Comic fans miffed at the first movie's exclusion of some favorite superhero mutants from the crowded "X-Men" pantheon will be happy to see a handful of fresh genetic freaks on hand for "X2."
All that said, the inherent goofiness of leather-clad adults with weird hairdos and skin pigmentation using their special powers to zap one another is somehow more pronounced this time.
Maybe it's the drastic geopolitical shifts since summer 2000, when "X-Men" came out - Sept. 11, conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, continued fears of terrorism worldwide. While the "X-Men" notions of tolerance vs. unreasoning hatred are more relevant than ever, the silly superpowers, dorky costumes and other pubescent trappings of "X2" trivialize those serious themes.
In combination with that, generally more commonplace villainy is afoot in the sequel than in the original. Ian McKellen's Magneto, who made for a richly conflicted bad guy in the first film, is declawed for much of "X2," in which he becomes an unlikely ally for the benevolent mutants against a human foe.
Brian Cox is the main antagonist in "X2" - William Stryker, who heads a renegade military unit that assaults the school for young mutants run by Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) in a plot to rid the world of these genetic mutations. Rather than mutant Magneto's nuanced enmity toward humans, Stryker is motivated by a rather shallow personal hatred of mutants.
All the mutant heroes of the first movie suit up against Stryker: Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), with super-healing abilities, metal claws and a hair style somewhere between Elvis and Lon Chaney Jr.'s Wolf Man; Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who, like Xavier, possesses telepathic and telekinetic powers; Storm (Halle Berry), able to whip up climatic disturbances on a whim; Cyclops (James Marsden), whose eyes blast deadly energy beams; and Rogue (Anna Paquin), a junior X-Person who can fatally swipe others' life essences with a touch.
Joining the veterans are Alan Cumming as the blue-skinned Nightcrawler, an ex-circus freak able to teleport himself from place to place; Shawn Ashmore, reprising his bit role in "X-Men" as teen mutant Iceman, who can put the deep freeze on anything; and Aaron Stanford as Pyro, who can control fire. A handful of other teen "X-Men" make cameos.
Also back is Rebecca Romijn-Stamos as cinema's hottest blue-tinted femme fatale, Magneto's shape-shifting Gal Friday, Mystique.
Kelly Hu plays Deathstrike, Stryker's bad-girl flunky who possesses Wolverine's healing powers and a variation on his retractable claws.
With so many characters, "X2" suffers from big, fat, ensemble-cast syndrome: Perils and obstacles sometimes are awkwardly presented so the mutants' various skills can be showcased.
Performances are solid throughout, with the actors managing to straight-face their way through some truly inane dialogue ("The last thing we need to see is the body of a mutant kid on the 6 o'clock news," the stern-faced president tells advisers).
The first film intellectualized and moralized more about human bigotry, whereas "X2" is the cinematic equivalent of a comic, thin on the sociological conflict, heavy on gunplay and hand-to-hand combat.
Granted, this is comic-book violence, executed with superb skill by Singer and company. But there's still cause for uneasy reflection when an audience of peaceable people at a critics screening breaks into cheers and applause when Wolverine extends his claws to skewer the torso of a bad guy as though he were a cocktail wiener.
"X2: X-Men United," a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG-13 for sci-fi-action violence, some sexuality and brief language. Running time: 134 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.