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In a time when race and religion don't separate people, but extra powers and mutated characteristics do, two longtime friends, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) part ways, only to become rivals over the issue of how much patience they should have with "normal" people. Living lives that scare most humans lacking the "X-factor" (a special power such as telekinesis), they fight over changing the general population into mutants. Xavier decides to help mutants in a special school while waiting for humanity to be more accepting, while Magneto opts to change all "normal" people into mutants in order to create a mutant-only world. Leading a group of four powerful X-Men (and women) to rescue one lost girl (the mutant Rogue, played by Anna Paquin)--and the entire population of New York--Xavier recruits a new member to their group: Logan (Hugh Jackman), better known as Wolverine, joins the team with much reluctance, only to prove very valuable to the rescue effort. Each member of the X-Men has mastered their special gift--the ability to create a storm (Storm, played by Halle Berry), telekinesis (Dr. Jean Grey, played by Famke Janssen), eyesight carrying laserlike destructive power (Cyclops, played by James Marsden), the ability to heal nearly any wound he sustains (Wolverine, played by Hugh Jackman). The chemistry among these four sets the stage for some expert teamwork--and some hidden romance. The mutants' ensemble work drives the action sequences, such as in a train station battle with Magneto's crew--including Sabertooth (Tyler Mane), Toad (Ray Park), and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos)--that unleashes a lot of destruction, thanks to the striking special effects. You don't have to be a fan of the hugely popular X-Men comic books to enjoy Bryan Singer's film, which is loaded with creativity, cool effects, and characters complex enough to lift it above run-of-the-mill action films. And Singer sets the stage admirably for the sequels that could turn X-Men into the strongest comic-book franchise since Batman. --Sandra Levin