dir. Bryan Singer

Opens Fri May 2 at various theaters.

By mining the X-Men comics, Hollywood has carved an unlikely yet necessary niche: action films with equal amounts estrogen and testosterone. X-Men translates into high-adrenaline action films that aren't oozing with man-sweat and subtext that screams, "Beware the virile cock of the dude saving the universe!" They're a rare breed; even Halle Berry's forthcoming "Lady Bond" films promise to be tailored more for male hormones than female empowerment. But X-Men presents lady heroes with motivations just as complicated as those of their male peers (barring James Marsden as Cyclops, whose bratty little mouth and Vin Diesel steez deserve the smackdown). Every mutant is developed with an emotional flaw to counteract his or her exceptional physicality. Because of these gender-balanced complexities, X2's tagline, "The time has come for those who are different to stand united," doesn't come off like BS.

In fact, X-Men is the most equal-opportunity employer of all the comic books. In The Uncanny X-Men, humans have begun to evolve into what are known as mutants--human mutations with superhuman powers. The comic series' thesis of understanding and accepting all peoples (and the struggle required therein) has appealed to even the canny for 30 years, however. The first X-Men comic was penned by Stan Lee at the cusp of the civil rights movement in 1963. (Contextually, this manifests itself in the Malcolm X/Martin Luther King Jr.-like tactics of the comics' two main leaders, Magneto and Professor X, who quote the leaders liberally.)

The premise of the first X-Men movie pitted the X-Men, an organization and academy of good-hearted mutants led by the peaceful Professor X (Patrick Stewart), against the Brotherhood of Mutants, whose Reich-like notion of eliminating humans and establishing mutant rule threatened all of the world. X-Men did an excellent job providing necessary backstory and introducing characters such as Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), the amnesiac loner with steel knives in his knuckles; Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), the X-Men den mother with vast telepathic and telekinetic powers; Storm (Halle Berry), who is able to generate and control weather; and Rogue (Anna Paquin), the tragic young woman who can suck the life from a person with a mere touch. X-Men part one was brimming with action, though it emphasized character development over fancy fistfights. Besides, when your characters can shoot laser beams from their eyes (the aforementioned Cyclops) and shape-shift into any other person on earth (Mystique, played by Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), you don't have to dream up much more in the way of razzle-dazzle. This allows room for the film's story line. X2 follows the same path, forgoing excessive sweaty violence for richly imaginative narrative. And the screenplay, by Michael Dougherty and Daniel Harris, is great; it would have been disastrous for the filmmakers not to rely on it.

X2 opens with the mutant Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) deftly invading the White House. He's a teleporter, evading throngs of gun-wielding CIA agents by disappearing in a dark mist, achieved with a tasteful dollop of CGI. After summarily drop-kicking the government thugs in the Oval Office, Nightcrawler ends up pinning the president on his desk and stabbing something into its walnut veneer. It is a knife with a red ribbon attached. The ribbon reads, "Mutant Freedom Now."

After this scene, X2's plot is quickly revealed. Stunned by what he now perceives as an imminent mutant threat, the president grants a powerful military scientist, General William Stryker, permission to invade the X-Men compound--a school for young mutants--and simply question them. Thanks to a reactionary media, America is turning against and protesting mutants, making the country ripe for an all-out mutant/human war. This is good news to Stryker, who has some mutant bones to pick, so to speak, and is in the process of facilitating the mutants' total annihilation.

Meanwhile, the evil Magneto (Ian McKellen) is being held in a high-tech prison of plastic. (After all, considering Magneto's power to telekinetically manipulate metals, today's primitive iron jails wouldn't hold him.) Stryker himself is the mastermind behind the plastic--and as we soon see, he's the mastermind behind a lot more of the X-Men's impending foibles, subsequently forcing them to band with the Brotherhood of Mutants.

Though Halle Berry's blondeness is wrought by the worst-looking wig Hollywood has ever conjured, X-Men's computer graphics are superb. Minimal effects are blended with the natural scenery, and the makeup art is beyond phenomenal (Nightcrawler's archangel markings are both believable and beautiful), imbuing this very unrealistic tale with an element of realism. When you factor in the very human elements of persecution, morality, and acceptance, X2's world is brought to life even more spectacularly than the first X-Men film.

NOTE FOR NERDS: Inexplicably, the highly anticipated Gambit makes no appearance in this film. What the fuck?!