It's Not Easy Being Freaky

by David Wildman & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & ince the debut of the first X-Men film, I've been a sucker for the sensitive superheroes (especially the sensuous female superheroes). Really, it's hard not to like these films -- they manage to have something for everyone. They deliver on a visceral level, the special effects are consistently top-notch, and they always blow up or tear down a lot of impressive stuff. The cast -- boasting top-draw names like Patrick Stewart (Professor Charles Xavier), Anna Paquin (Marie/Rogue), Hugh Jackman (Logan/Wolverine) and Halle Berry (Ororo/Storm) -- delivers reliably solid performances. And the writing is among the strongest of its genre, with each film offering uniquely human stories that function as clever allegories for contemporary issues like homosexuality and terrorism. Unfortunately, this latest installment takes the bleeding-heart stuff a little too far.

The Last Stand suffers from a muddled plot and falls short of the laser focus that X2 had. It's not the fault of director Brett Ratner, who's helming the series for the first time and doing his best to keep everything moving along. The problem is, the proliferation of subplots and internecine soap-opera stuff ends up burying the main thrust of the film underneath a pile of weepy people problems.

The backstory proves to be the most interesting part. Since the first two flicks, that mutant "X" gene -- which supposedly skips evolution forward and turns regular folks into freaks -- has spread faster than airborne AIDS. There's now a Department of Mutant Affairs (headed up by a new character, Dr. Hank McCoy/Beast, played by a purple-hued Kelsey Grammer); and the streets are filled with people who can move at super-fast speeds, crawl up walls or light cigarettes with their eyes. To further complicate matters, scientists have developed a "cure" for the mutant gene, which raises the philosophical question: Are mutants superior to normal folk, or is something actually wrong with them?

As controversy rages, Magneto (Ian McKellan), the all-purpose bad guy of the series, has used the emergence of the new cure as a catalyst to bring together an army of mutants. As the genetic mutations spread, the cities are filling with super-beings, and they're peeved about being seen as freaks who need to be "cured." The charismatic Magneto easily scoops up the disgruntled mutants, convincing them to destroy the facility on Alcatraz Island where the drug is manufactured. (He also has plans to take over the world or some such thing.) Meanwhile, the government is getting more and more aggressive with the mutants and has started to put the cure into darts that instantly cause mutants to revert back to normal. The X-Men have to stop Magneto's renegades from destroying the drug because -- well, here it gets a little murky. If mutants are so great, why are the X-Men so bent on protecting the cure? I guess it's because the masses should have the freedom to choose whether to be normal or remain mutants. (Not that there's anything wrong with that!)

Meanwhile, Jean Grey/Phoenix (Famke Janssen) -- previously presumed dead -- mysteriously rises from the lake she disappeared into at the end of X2. After this resurrection, she finds herself battling the destructive half of her split personality, as it threatens to go wildly out of control. Professor Xavier has been using his vast mind-control abilities to keep her dark side in check, but Wolverine, in trying to get a piece of ass, unwittingly unleashes her inner tsunami.

Throughout all of this, we get the standard terse comic-book banter -- like when Cyclops (James Marsden), badly bummed about losing his girlfriend, turns to Wolverine (who's blessed with flesh that can take a bullet and quickly rejuvenate) and snarls: "Remember, some of us don't heal as fast as you." Or when Xavier says to Storm: "You of all people should know how fast the weather can change."

There are also touches of real inanity (like the fact that the X-Men get all their information about the world through FOX News). Xavier's enclave of mutants seems to have more personal issues than an episode of Eight Is Enough. Rogue's superpower -- which causes her to absorb the energy of anyone she touches -- leaves her unable to make out with her boyfriend, Bobby Drake/Iceman (Shawn Ashmore); in frustration, she contemplates taking the cure so she can ditch the superhero gig altogether and live a normal life. Meanwhile, Iceman starts to take interest in another cute young freak: Kitty Pryde, aka Shadowcat (Ellen Page), who can walk through walls.

But the film also provides developments far more momentous than petty hormonal drama. Storm struggles with the possibility of taking on a leadership role; and some surprisingly central characters die in epic, cataclysmic fashion, leaving the future of the super-mutant organization in doubt.

But in the world of comics, no one is ever really snuffed out for good. (Remember when they killed Superman?) A series this successful will surely find a way to survive -- and hopefully, improve.

X-Men: The Last Stand; Rated: PG-13; Directed by Brett Ratner; Starring Patrick Stewart, Anna Paquin, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry