'X' marks the spotty sequel

"X-Men: The Last Stand" is billed as the climax of the trilogy but, of course, that will be entirely up to you. If the movie is a big hit - not a certainty in a summer of underperforming blockbusters like "Poseidon" and "Mission: Impossible III" - you can be sure there will be spinoffs like "Wolverine: The Prequel" or "Magneto: The Early Years."

Not being an "X-Men" freak, I'm probably not in the best position to determine whether the franchise deserves another go-round. I enjoyed the first film in the series, tolerated the second - both were directed by Bryan Singer - and had a reasonably good time at the third, which was directed by Brett Ratner ("Rush Hour").

Singer was supposed to direct it, but then - horrors! - he defected to the new "Superman." At one time Ratner was going to direct Superman, so I guess he and Singer have each other to thank for their current predicament. Ratner is a much more by-the-book director than Singer. Things grind to a screeching halt whenever the action slows and the actors expostulate the exposition.

All the usual suspects reappear. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is still having a bad hair day; Storm (Halle Berry) gets to fly this time; Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) sits enthroned in his wheelchair; Magneto (Ian McKellen) continues to wear that really silly Captain Video helmet; Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) is alluring in metamorphic basic blue. Rogue (Anna Paquin) is still stuck in a rut - she's a touchy-feely girl who can neither touch nor feel without lethal consequence. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) has come back from the dead a changed - i.e., really, really bad - woman.

A few new faces turn up, among them Juggernaut (footballer Vinnie Jones), a human boulder-in-motion; and Beast (Kelsey Grammer), the big, blue furball hulk who serves the president as secretary of mutant affairs.

In the case of the X-Men, it's not true to say that if you've seen one mutant you've seen them all. The one abiding pleasure of the series is seeing a lot of mutants strut their stuff. The more the merrier. Not to get too high-toned here, but I think one reason the film series, as well as the "X-Men" Marvel Comics, are so popular with young people is because of its central metaphor. From Superman and Batman on down, quite a few superhero or antihero comic figures have led double lives, and this split appeals particularly to teenagers still experimenting with who they are. The mutants in "X-Men" are an exaggerated version of this split: Not only do they have superhuman powers, but they are vilified by humans for having them.

In "The Last Stand," the metaphor is intensified because a cure has been developed for mutancy and suddenly a decision must be made: stay as you are or become "normal." Magneto leads the charge against the powers of normalcy by annexing the Mutant Brotherhood and intoning, in his plummiest Shakespearean tones: "Nobody is going to cure us. We are the cure." He even goes as far as to hijack the Golden Gate Bridge and literally stretch it across the bay to Alcatraz Island where the cure is being held. He does all this, however, while still wearing that silly headpiece.

I suppose it's asking too much of Ratner to impart some kind of visionary flourish to the proceedings. But without it, these comic-book movies all tend to look the same. The "heart" of the story - the choice these mutants must make about their mutancy - rarely comes into play.

Except for Rogue, of course, who wants to be human so she can win over Iceman and make out with him. Seems like a good enough reason to me. Grade: B-

Rated PG-13 for sequences of action violence, sexual content, and language.

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