X2: X-Men United

“X2: X-Men United” is such an entertaining, action-packed film that you almost forget it’s about tolerance and political activism. Maybe “Malcolm X” would have been more interesting if it had had a few mutants in it.

“X-Men” (2000) was fine, but was clearly setting itself up for a slamming sequel. “X2” makes good on that promise. It boasts seamless special effects and cool characters wrapped in a film that is exhilarating without being absurd. It treats its subject matter seriously, but not too seriously. It’s a popcorn flick that makes popcorn flicks seem respectable.

As the subtitle suggests, the mutants — normally divided into Professor X’s (Patrick Stewart) peaceful do-gooders and Magneto’s (Ian McKellen) renegade troublemakers — must unite briefly against a common enemy. He is Gen. Stryker (Brian Cox), a military scientist and mutantphobe who once sent his son to Professor X in the hopes of “curing” him of his mutant powers. Now he seeks to destroy all mutants, first politically — he has the ear of the president (Cotter Smith) — and then literally.

Meanwhile, in this very busy movie, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) continues to search for keys to his past — something Stryker seems to have knowledge of — while pining for Jean Gray (Famke Janssen), who is married to Cyclops (James Marsden). Teenage Rogue (Anna Paquin) has taken up with Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), whose main skill at this point is chilling bottles of Dr. Pepper with one breath. Their friend and third wheel, Pyro (Aaron Stanford), experiences teen angst. And so on.

Fans of the comic book will be thrilled at the inclusion of so many of their favorite mutants (I have not even begun to mention them all). However, the impartial observers among us may note, and not unfairly, that there are perhaps TOO many characters, mutant or otherwise. Written by Michael Dougherty and Daniel P. Harris and directed again by Bryan Singer, “X2” tries to cram too many people and stories into one film, and as a result loses some of its humanity. Where, say, “Spider-Man” allowed us to feel some genuine compassion for a small group of characters, “X2” wants us to care about dozens of them. We can’t.

Brian Cox, a compelling actor, is no less so as Stryker. The teens all do well, and Alan Cumming is sweetly, amusingly awkward as newcomer Nightcrawler. Ian McKellen’s Magneto grows more casually malevolent with each scene.

Though the film works as a straight-ahead superhero flick, it will be most rewarding to those already familiar with the material. The final shot, of a large body of water, will be downright confusing unless you know the eventual fate of the character last seen in it. Details like that suggest Singer has made this movie for the fans, not for the masses — but the masses will, and should, eat it up, too. It is an appropriately dazzling opening shot in the war of the summer blockbusters.

B+ (2 hrs., 4 min.; PG-13, a couple mild profanities and some vulgarity, a lot of action-related violence, some mild sexuality.)