A lot of superhero comic books operate on the principle that their readers will identify passionately with freaky misfits—which won't be a surprise if you've been to any comic-book conventions. In the pages of these comics, the bizarre abilities that get you jeered in straight society make you a hero—someone with the power to save the world that shuns you. Nowhere is this theme more explicit than in Marvel's X-Men comics, which take off from the idea that evolution has produced a class of special people. They might be telepaths or shape-shifters; they might raise storms or punch holes through things with their eyes. But they've all embraced the label "mutants," which is like gays embracing the label "queers." And like gay people, they're fighting for their right to be who they are instead of being forced to blend in. If the mutants in this universe are lucky, they get whisked away at an early age by Professor Xavier. He takes them to his mutant academy, where they learn to use their powers responsibly—and where they can bask in the glow of mutant fellowship. Say it loud: Mutant and Proud.
The first X-Men (1999), directed by Bryan Singer, was surprisingly decent. It was a shade stodgy in spots—it didn't have the grand-opera charge of the first Batman (1989). But it was rooted in that agony of other-ness, and it had gravitas. The bigger fight, it turned out, was not against the humans but the lunatic fringe of the mutant class—against Magneto (Ian McKellen), the most powerful mutant of all, and his sidekick, a slinky metamorph called Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos). These two were tired of being mistreated by humans; they wanted to dominate them, maybe even wipe them out. It fell to Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and his band of raging moderates to keep Magneto in line, and their triumph atop the Statue of Liberty implied that humans and mutants might one day happily coexist: Give us your poor, your weird, your fire-hurling, your life-sucking …
The X-Men are back in the busier, funnier, and more involving sequel X2: X-Men United (20th Century Fox)—in which the perils of being an outsider are even more dire. The big new baddie is not a mutant: He's a military guy named Stryker, who's like a fanatical Cold Warrior. Played by the great Scottish actor Brian Cox, Stryker wants to wipe out the mutant race. He already has Magneto as a prisoner in a fantastic, no-metal cage (a walking supermagnet has a way with metal), and his sights are set on Professor X and the mutant kids in the academy. He also has a working model of the professor's planetariumlike machine called Cerebro, which can put Xavier in telepathic touch with every living creature on the planet: You can see how this could be turned into a weapon of mass mutant destruction.
Things are no happier for the mutants on the domestic-drama front. Hugh Jackman's sideburned Wolverine, with his retractable adamantium talons, is still peering balefully into his fog-shrouded past. Anna Paquin's tremulous Rogue, the post-pubescent mutant who kisses the boys and inadvertently sucks the life out of them, has an earnest would-be lover in the frost-bearing Iceman (Shawn Ashmore)—but how do they do it? In the film's wittiest and most suggestive scene, Iceman "comes out" as a mutant to his mutantphobic family: His parents question his choices ("Have you tried not being a mutant?") and take turns blaming each other while his little brother calls the police.
The movie has a spectacular new wild card in Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), a blue-skinned German teleporter with hooves, pointy ears, and stigmata. Before he joins the X-Men and begins to pose religious questions about the higher purpose of mutants, he launches a tornadolike attack on the White House, materializing and dematerializing in a cackling dervish blur. It's too bad that not all the returning mutants are as lively. Cyclops (James Marsden), who's on the dull side of a romantic triangle, has become a stick-in-the-mud while those sleek hottie mutants, Storm (Halle Berry) and the disappointingly no-cool-nicknamed Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), have new 'dos (platinum blond and red, respectively) but not, alas, new personalities.
What makes the architecture of X2 so much more fascinating than that of its predecessor is that Xavier's and Magneto's teams are on the same side now. But is the enemy of my enemy my friend? That's one of the movie's big teases. You get a clue which way it's heading from a scene in which Magneto meets one of X's students, who's played by the hero of last year's Tadpole, Aaron Stanford. Unlike the more temperate mutants, this teenage fire-wielder—known as Pyro—is just a little too in love with his power to singe. The other junior X-Men, Rogue and Iceman, are always having to muzzle his anti-human impulses, but Magneto purrs that the lad is a "god among insects."
McKellen plays Magneto as royally bored, the major questions of his existence having long been settled. In the movie's most elegant action scene, he insouciantly pulls the iron out of the blood of a hapless guard, then sails imperiously out of his cell on something like an iron carpet. The bit is even more glorious than Hannibal Lecter's escape in Silence of the Lambs (1991)—and McKellen's Magneto actually fits my conception of Lecter more than Anthony Hopkins does. He and Romijn-Stamos' polymorphous (and perverse) Mystique make a marvelous tag team: She gets a charge out of turning into women and men, and Lord knows what he's into. They're a much more likable pair than Stewart, who somehow seems more priggish here than as Jean-Luc Picard, and his dull sidekick, Jean.
Singer, who directed The Usual Suspects (1995), packs a mean comic-book frame, but he's not a comic-book director: The tone is stately, deliberate, "adult." He makes major strides in the action scenes, but he's still a little cerebral for my taste. There's a terrific kung-fu-with-talons fight between Wolverine and a new, improved adamantium-infused mutant played by Kelly Hu, but it doesn't have a rabble-rousing "button." And the big Cerebro climax doesn't end with the oomph! you'd get from a more vulgar thriller director. But the movie is in a different league from the standard Hollywood comic-book blockbuster. It's never as simple as good versus evil: The three male titans—X, Magneto, and Stryker—are each convinced his way is right, and Singer turns the movie into an epic chess match. Only here the knights shoot lightning bolts, and the queens raise storms.
My chief complaint is that these mutants are a little—well, vanilla. I wish the X-Men had a touch of kinkiness to go with their weird abilities. As it stands, they're like Eagle Scouts with merit badges in telekinesis and energy-sucking and flash-freezing. I guess that's the difference between comic books and hundred-million-dollar movies, which are pitched at the mainstream straights. The real deviants we save for indie movies and late-night cable.