Let's begin by exhausting the puns.

X-2 is eX-cellent, eX-ceptional, eX-emplary, eX-citing, eX-hilerating, eX-plosive, and just overall eX-traordinary.

And now with the above digression out of the way, I find that my job is nearly done. What, after all, could I say that wasn't already obvious?

X-2 - or X-Men: United, if you prefer the slapdash subtitle - is in every respect a better film than the first, and for a series so focused on the concept of evolution, it comes as no surprise that the second chapter in the X-Men saga takes a giant leap forward on the evolutionary scale. Everything here is larger, broader, more developed and complex, mutated beyond all expectations.

On the surface, the story itself is rather simple, and best explained in my colleague's neighboring X-2 review. The villain, Stryker (played masterfully by Brian Cox), intends to use Cerebro to facilitate the genocide of mutants everywhere. Thus, through the events of the film, the X-Men must team with Magneto and Mystique in the greater interest of mutantkind.

Make no mistake, however, this is a far riskier film, densely packed with character, plot, and action, and always depending on director Bryan Singer to keep the balance -- which, in this case, proves to be a dangerous job. A high-wire act without the wire.

And if X-2 is encumbered by anything, it's ambition. From the development and conclusion of the film's main storyline, to the addition of a new villain, to the growth among the "junior" X-Men, to the introduction of three new mutants (Nightcrawler, Pyro and Deathstrike), to the half-hearted alliance between Magneto and the X-Men, to the semi-resolution of Wolverine's arc, and to the seeds of what is sure to be X-3, this is a film that could easily collapse under the pressure of its own weight. Thankfully, however, X-2 flies instead of falls, resting its burden on the steady shoulders of Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Jean Grey and Stryker, who forward the story's most important points beautifully. And while the ending makes an exciting promise, it's an ending best understood by the fans, leaving the casual viewer unsure of what they've seen - a small problem, though perhaps the film's largest.

The film finds strength in its greatest success, in the overwhelming presence of theme and subtext, never bogged down by the burden of fantasy. The issues of racism and tolerance, the good-and-evil nature of comic book conflict, are never so far away from our issues of racism and tolerance, never so far beyond our experience of good and evil. And X-2 - like Superman or Spiderman before it - finds footing in our present society, taking place in a world that is very much our own, never so stylized as to sell a superhero short - like one in a thousand flying the midnight skies, or prowling the rooftops of towering, gothic cathedrals.

X-2, while an engrossing, effects-laden thrill ride, is also about something, and something to which we can all relate. It's fantasy disguised in reality, or the other way around.

Either way, the franchise is certainly evolving, step by wonderful step, and with each new link in the steadily growing chain, we ask just one intriguing question:

Into what?

X2: X-Men United is out April 24, 2003.

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