'X-Men 2': And now for the main course

Warning: Do not even consider going to this sequel until you have seen the first X-Men movie. "X2: X-Men United" picks up as if you just ran to the fridge for a soda.

Comic-book pages flip across the screen and then whammo! - all kinds of cool stuff starts happening. Don't count on any fans sitting near you to fill in the back stories. They'll all be too busy deciphering occasionally confusing new plot developments.

For those fans eagerly awaiting director Bryan Singer's follow-up, this fun popcorn flick is the main course, for which the first brief film (a tad over 90 minutes) was merely the appetizer.

The second installment has a (gasp!) slightly more serious tone and a broader canvas. The growing strains between mutants and humans are pulling families apart, society at large is getting downright vicious toward them, and politicians are being forced to take positions on the "mutant issue."

This attempt to give a bit of ballast to a comic-book premise is no surprise. Mr. Singer is, after all, the director of the noir thriller, "The Usual Suspects," a film that is routinely studied by young screenwriters for its skillful combination of explosive action with weighty themes such as the search for one's identity.

Since the very notion of mutation suggests some concept of normalcy run amok, just about everything the X-Men do allows somebody in the movie to wax eloquent about how hard it is to be different. Oh, yeah, and have a forked tongue or lizard scales or yellow eyes. But Singer doesn't let the pop psychology get too heavy-handed.

This is, after all, based on a comic book. He even turns the angst over the who-am-I question into the setup for a "really big insult." Close to the end, after our favorite X-hunk, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), has found out a bit more about his origin, one particularly nasty human cuts him down to size when he tells him that he used to think Wolverine was one-of-a-kind. "Turns out, I was wrong." Those who've seen the trailers know what comes next - Wolverine meets his match.

Franchise movies like this are nearly critic-proof, but still it's nice to be able to say more positive than nasty things about a film aimed at mainstream America.

There are several memorable bits and genuinely affecting performances. My own favorite was the Night Crawler, a new kid on the block played rather bizarrely by Alan Cummings. He is a teleporter with important powers, not the least of which is the ability to evaporate in a poof of swirling black powder.

I also really liked the interplay between Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart). These two offer the subtlest suggestions about the difficulty of understanding one's identity. They are old friends who are now foes, not because one is good and the other evil, but because they have different concepts of who they are in relation to society.

The characters elevate the cartoon melodrama not through any superpower or special effect, of which this movie is chock full, but on the basis of sheer talent. What a concept!

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