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Bryan Singer may never work in Hollywood again. X2, the director’s sequel to the flawed but popular X-Men, begins with a spectacular attack on the White House by one politically dissatisfied mutant. The blue-skinned, yellow-eyed Nightcrawler, he of hooved feet and prehensile tail, furiously plows his way through all the president’s men en route to the big guy himself, doing much more damage than the Dixie Chicks.

But hey, it’s summer in Tinseltown, and would-be boycott bellowers will likely be too busy popping Goobers to protest much. X2, like last year’s Spider-Man, is a glorious kickoff to the popcorn season, a tightly assembled, Stan Lee-derived battle between good and evil full of wit and swagger. Whereas the first installment was meek by superhero standards—and, at 104 minutes, too concerned with character introduction to gather momentum for a rip-roarin’ yarn—the longer X2 luxuriates in its sequelness. With the main players already in place, a smattering of new villains, and a richer story line, the film presents a confident, in-depth rendering of the near-future mutant universe. Oh, and Wolverine kicks more ass.

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Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), the world’s most powerful telepath, offers both a safe haven and tutelage for young mutants at his School for Gifted Children in upstate New York. The “next link in the evolutionary chain,” these genetic aberrations are feared for their differences and looked upon as unfit to walk among humans. As X2’s Star Wars-like intro intones, “sharing the world has never been humanity’s defining attribute.”

After the Oval Office invasion, renewed outcries in support of the Mutant Registration Act put adversaries Xavier and imprisoned bad-guy mutant Magneto (Ian McKellen) on alert for trouble, which comes soon enough in the form of Gen. William Stryker (Brian Cox). Seeking vengeance for an unexplained mutant slight against his family, Stryker launches an assault on the school. Magneto, who has always believed that a war between mutants and mankind was imminent, escapes from his plastic prison and, along with his sidekick, Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), joins forces against Stryker with the heretofore peaceful Xavier and his crew: Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Storm (Halle Berry), Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Cyclops (James Marsden), Rogue (Anna Paquin), X-sprouts Bobby “Iceman” Drake (Shawn Ashmore) and John “Pyro” Allerdyce (Aaron Stanford), and good-guy-after-all Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming).

Singer presents the wall-to-wall action in clear, surprisingly artful scenes that never allow the audience to get confused or—the worse summertime sin—bored. Nightcrawler’s first-act hell-raising is breathtaking in its suddenness and often beautiful, his teleportation rendered as wisps of blue smoke as he zaps from room to room administering balletic wallops. And the invasion of Xavier’s school is well-orchestrated chaos, with nimble cutting between the enclosing troops and panicked students making the spacious building feel suffocating.

The special effects, meanwhile, deliver plenty of satisfying big-bang moments that evolve naturally from the script. Pyro’s destruction of the police vehicles surrounding Bobby’s home with sky-reaching explosions is a triumph of both CGI and righteous indignation. But more impressive are the seamless, Terminator 2-like ways many of the mutants exercise their powers. Mystique, who has the ability to morph into anyone she touches, may have been the big challenge, but details as small as an Iceman-solidified cup of coffee are handled with sleight-of-hand finesse.

When X2 isn’t full of sound and fury, it’s romantic and funny, improving on the first movie’s greatest strength: the charm and humanity of its mutant characters. The actors are clearly more comfortable in their roles, especially Jackman, whose Wolverine drips with fuck-off bravado, and McKellen, who embraces his senior-mutant dark side with Gandalf-worthy grace.

Even the minor characters gain a bit of depth this time around. A grown-up Rogue is paired off with youthful Bobby, in a small but satisfying development that allows for tender puppy-love moments as well as ribbing from younger schoolmates. (A passed-around doodle shows Rogue kissing her literally electrified paramour.) Hotheaded Pyro in particular is a compelling bit player to watch. Clearly struggling with his inner demons yet one of only a handful of Xavier’s students with some control over his or her power, Pyro seems to have the potential to become the next Wolverine. Newcomer Stanford (late of Tadpole) plays him with appealing directness, as a moody loner who sometimes lets his immaturity get the better of him: “That’s a dorky-looking helmet,” he says to the intimidating Magneto.

Nudge-nudge lines like that should do a lot to draw even superhero-shy skeptics into Singer’s sharp new X-Men world. But it’s a brief conversation between wizened Magneto and whippersnapper Pyro that yields the sort of proclamation the film’s core audience yearns to hear: “You are a god among insects,” Magneto says. “Never let anyone tell you different.” CP