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X2

X THE VARIABLE

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In X2, the first superpowered "mutant" we see is trying to kill the President. He's an agile humanoid who leaps around like a monkey on speed and avoids bullets by disappearing in a puff of smoke, only to reappear a few feet away an instant later. It's a Secret Service nightmare -- an assassin from some radical fringe group that doesn't need suicide missions because its members can defy the laws of physics. A red ribbon on the would-be assassin's knife reads "Mutant Freedom Now."

And so, charged with a draught of post-9/11 anxieties, begins the sequel to 2000's X-Men, a movie that asked why beings with "gifted" DNA and us normals can't all just get along. Featuring the director and most of the cast from X-Men, it's familiar terrain, a bit more concerned with character and a bit less with the flashy action that dominated the first.

What seems more obvious, though, is the way the X-Men movies differ from other comic-book sagas. With most tights-wearing heroes, origin stories are mere prelude, an excuse to get them battling their respective tights-wearing villains. In the X-Men movies, the focus is on the mere fact of its heroes' existence: The mutants, who can do things like control the weather, change shapes and heal instantaneously, fight for acceptance by society (typically represented by the government) -- and fight each other over whether mutants should work with the humans who hate them or simply brush them aside and conquer the planet.

A wheelchair-bound mutant named Prof. X (Patrick Stewart) mentors the good mutants -- among them Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Storm (Halle Berry) and newcomer Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) -- while the twisted Magneto (Ian McKellen) coaches the power-hungry ones, including Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) and fresh recruit Deathstrike (Kelly Hu). Another new wrinkle is an army general who mistrusts mutants and thinks they should be corralled in a kind of preemptive strike. "It's already a war," he tells a doubting politician.

In X-Men, director Bryan Singer played up (that is, exploited) the Holocaust parallels to mutant repression; in X2 he more strongly suggests other possibilities. Is mutation a metaphor for queerness ("Mutation is not a disease," we're lectured)? "Giftedness?" Adolescence? Or terrorism ("nobody even knows how many exist or where to find them")? For what it's worth, X2 has a strong antiauthoritarian streak, with sympathetic mutant kids panicking during a home invasion by the military, and our heroes killing (or blowing away) lots of menacing soldiers and cops. And ultimately we're warned that the power we turn against the mutants can be used against non-mutants, too.

The film's attractive cast again leads with its cheekbones, playing out growing pains, personal crises and romantic triangles, and it's all agreeable enough, though at two hours somewhat on the sloggy side. Like last year's Lord of the Rings, it feels more like the middle chunk of a saga than a film sufficient unto itself -- good marketing, if questionable storytelling. * * 1/2

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