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While not "X"-ceptional, "X-Men" offers top-notch, summer-style entertainment.

Superior Sapiens

When Marvel's "X-Men" comic book series first appeared in 1963, creator Stan Lee used the characters and panels as an allegory to the ongoing civil rights movement. Its not-so subtle cries for tolerance of those different from us may not have been what kids initially found so entertaining within the sci-fi fantasy on its pages, but the subliminal effect cannot be overlooked.

Over the years, "X-Men's" popularity has continued to soar, making it a much-discussed, highly anticipated movie project. Like "Spiderman," it's been on Hollywood's "To Do" list for years, with die-hard fans debating casting and directors as if they were embracing a new religion. Well, the wait is over.

"X-Men" the movie is here, and it gets off to a terrific start. For the first 20 minutes, the movie promises to be one of the best-ever adaptations of a comic book. It keeps you guessing what's next and wondering which of the comic-book mutants made the cut. Bryan Singer, who helmed 1995's impressive "The Usual Suspects" directs, and ex-Trekker Patrick Stewart is Professor X, the mutants' benign mentor.

For those unfamiliar with the X-Men phenomenon, the premise goes something like this: In the not-so distant future, the natural evolution of "the fittest" will lead to superior homo sapiens. But as is sadly always the case, they will at first be outnumbered and cast out for being different. Those enlightened few will call these higher-evolved beings "gifted"; the rest of the species will label them "mutants."

In this outing, rabble-rousing politician Sen. Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison doing a McCarthyesque turn) wants a national registry of all mutants and their particular "power." Understandably, this causes concern in two separate mutant camps. Professor Xavier (Stewart), a powerful telepath, believes that humans and mutants can learn to understand and respect each other.

Xavier's former friend Erik Lehnsherr (Sir Ian McKellen), a Nazi death-camp survivor known as Magneto (he moves metal with his mind), believes humans are the enemy and must be conquered. He competes with Professor X to recruit mutants to their respective camps.

Two such mutants are Rogue (Anna Paquin), a teen-age girl with the power to suck the life force out of anyone she touches, and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who has astonishing recuperative powers. Wolverine also has an underlying dual skeletal system made of admantium steel which manifests itself as either incredible strength or retractable 12-inch razor-sharp claws.

On the good-mutant team are Storm (Halle Berry), a beauty who corrals the forces of nature; Cyclops (James Marsden), whose eyes are lasers; and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), an M.D. with both telekinetic and telepathic powers.

Magneto's posse includes Toad (Ray "Darth Maul" Park), who comes equipped with a whiplike tongue and the ability to leap huge distances; the gigantic Sabretooth (wrestler Tyler Mane); and the shape-shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romjin-Stamos).

I'm not giving anything away by telling you that once the movie establishes the identities and gifts of the individuals in these two groups, all that's left is the big showdown of good mutant powers vs. evil mutant powers. My one complaint about "X-Men" is that once those thinly sketched characters are in place, the pace slows and you're left with little to do other than munch on some popcorn until that final confrontation.

While hardcore "X-Men" fans no doubt will have plenty to debate on the Internet when it comes to casting, this mutant-neophyte found a lot to enjoy. First and foremost, Australian actor Jackman is nothing short of lupine perfection as Wolverine. He doesn't seem to be acting as much as inhabiting the role. At times sounding — and resembling — Clint Eastwood, Jackman succeeds in making Wolverine's pain and confusion real. Stewart and McKellen bring an effortless credibility to characters that could so easily slip into caricature, and offer a nice balance to the underwritten roles handed to Berry and Marsden.

Singer, who also co-wrote the screenplay, succeeds at keeping the gee-whiz ratio high and the laughably silly, campy moments low. The result is something of a rare mutation itself: admittedly juvenile source material transformed into an entertaining summer

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