1 It's superheroic eye candy, sure, but the real pull of the X-Men movies lies in their taffylike metaphors. The good guys, hyper-talented freaks, are "born that way," and with storylines focusing on their misfit status and government repression, the "mutant" X-folk can represent any persecuted group you like: ethnic, religious or sexual ... even sufferers of simple adolescent angst. X-Men: The Last Stand, the entertaining third in the series of Marvel Comics adaptations that began in 2000, continues to refer either earnestly or winkingly to the Holocaust, gay rights and civil rights in general. But intriguingly, the series' central conflict is not between mutants and nonmutant oppressors, but rather between "good" mutants, led by Prof. X (Patrick Stewart), and those seeking world domination, led by X's former colleague, Magneto (Ian McKellan). The climactic battle includes an elemental showdown between cold (Iceman, at left, played by Shawn Ashmore) and heat (Magneto henchman Pyro, played by Aaron Stanford).
2 The new film's plot revolves around a "cure" for mutantism, developed by a pharmaceutical lab occupying a heavily fortified Alcatraz, the famous island prison and site of the showdown. Prof. X has previously charged the good mutants, led by Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Storm (Halle Berry), with protecting from Magneto a government that would repress them. X-Men climaxed on the Statue of Liberty; Last Stand finds the heroes not only aligned with the government, but in it. An older mutant, the furry blue Hank "Beast" McCoy (Kelsey Gramner), heads the Bureau of Indian Affairs-like Department of Mutant Affairs, though he resigns in protest when the government starts pushing the cure on fellow mutants.
3 The mutants' intramural warfare dramatizes a larger debate on identity politics. Good mutants, under the tutelage of saintly Prof. X, are assimilationists; they'd like to join a society that hates and fears them (but which, curiously, never seems to offer them their own reality shows). And while the X-Men might evince distinctive powers, each proudly wears a uniform, complete with logo, when they line up with the military to protect the drug lab from Magneto's horde. Some X-Men, in fact, eschew even business-casual: Beast wears a tailored suit, as does Prof. X.
4 Though they address human (or superhuman) rights, the X-Men films display curiously reactionary gender politics. In Last Stand, one serial cat-fight notwithstanding, the boys get names such as Colossus and Juggernaut, while the girls shape-shift, walk through walls and kill with a touch. Iceman and Pyro wield phallic columns of ice and fire; female mutants seldom enjoy hands-on ass-kicking privileges, and some of the most powerful end up regretting it. One female mutant chooses the cure; another (a back-from-the-dead Jean Grey, played by Famke Jannsen) has limitless psychic power but can't control it, and even asks to die to protect everyone else (or maybe it's because her face turns so unattractively veinous when her power is fully exercised). Some superpowers, apparently, are more desirable than others.
5 With Magneto playing Malcolm to X's Martin, the discontented mutants want the world and they want it now. One mutant even refuses to be called by her "slave name." In contrast to the X-Men's uniforms ... and the All-American Schoolkid look of teen-aged Xs-in-training at Prof. X's sylvan academy ... Magneto's mob rolls goth/punk/urban-tribal, with tattoos, piercings and heavy makeup. (Magneto himself styles in supervillain camp, with tunic, cape and helmet.) To a society that views mutantism as a disease, these guys snarl, "We don't need a cure." When one mutant is accidentally cured, then rejected by Magneto, she turns state's evidence ... wearing a business suit.
A key moment finds some ragtag nonaligned mutants meeting in an abandoned cathedral to debate confronting the cure. Magneto, a skilled demagogue, co-opts the gathering to recruit terrorists. The X-Men extol "teamwork," but solidarity among mutants who self-identify too strongly as such is akin to lawlessness. Director Brett Ratner and screenwriters Simon Kinberg and Zakk Penn give militancy its due: The cure, after all, is usually delivered at gunpoint. But Magneto implicitly eschews Prof. X's teachings on the responsible use of mutant powers. And while one future X-Man rejects a coerced cure, all the cures that take place in The Last Stand are positive plot developments.