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Yeah, I'm a mutant. Problem with that?

Action and issues pack the newest `X-Men' as a misunderstood minority marshals its power.

May 26, 2006|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

Of the many things I have enjoyed over the course of the "X-Men" franchise, the regular, dead-serious use of the word "mutant" has been my favorite. "Mutant" is the champagne of teen insults, and "X-Men" holds a special place as the paragon of teen misfit angst dramas. To hear Patrick Stewart purr the handle in his velvety tones is especially satisfying; here, finally, is an oppressed minority that doesn't bother fiddling with politically correct terms when it has bigger things to worry about.

In "X-Men: The Last Stand," which delivers on all the momentum and pathos of the first two installments, mutants have made significant political strides, even gaining official representation in the form of the blue, furry Dr. Henry McCoy (Kelsey Grammer), who has been named secretary of Mutant Affairs. What they don't have yet is a cringe-inducing PC name -- but give them time.

Political strides notwithstanding, the anxious standoff between humans and mutants has reached a crisis point, and the slow-building momentum of the last two installments finally reaches escape velocity. The mutants, as ever, are divided between two camps. On the one hand, there are the militant followers of Magneto (Ian McKellen), who see a war between humans and mutants as the inevitable conclusion to their uneasy draw. On the other, the reform-minded followers of Dr. Charles Xavier (Stewart), who believe in working within the system (hence the hairy representative). But they now face a new, tenebrous evil whose potential for harm is cloaked in good intentions. A "cure" has been developed by a pharmaceutical company that can divest the mutants of their special powers. It's the anti-weirdo vaccine, basically. Welcome to straight camp.

Wouldn't you know it, the scientist who developed the cure, Dr. Worthington (Michael Murphy), has a mutant son himself. His name is Warren (Ben Foster), and he's a sulky, effeminate boy whom we first meet while he's locked in a bathroom trying to saw his own wings off. The boy has the span of an archangel, but dad fails to see the advantages. "Not you too!" has to be one of the last phrases a kid wants to hear coming from Papa's mouth; right up there with, "Your mother and I have something to tell you" and "We sent your college fund to the reverend."

Anyway, that's the issue at large. The issue at home is more personal, stemming from the loss of Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), the cucumber-cool smarty-pants who sacrificed herself for the good of the team at the end of the last episode -- sorry, film. At Xavier's Academy for Gifted Youngsters, there are some pretty devastated middle-age-sters skulking around, namely Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), grumpier than ever, and Cyclops (James Marsden), who can't stop crying. He also can't get Jean out of his head. Literally. She calls to him incessantly, until he treks back to Alkali Lake and conjures a very dramatic reunion.

But before that happens, "X3" kicks off with an origin story of sorts for Jean. Twenty years earlier, back when they were still palling around, Xavier and Magneto personally recruited the world's only known Class-5 mutant to their school, like a couple of Duke basketball coaches. Wooing the precocious 10-year-old in her parents' living room at the end of a suburban cul-de-sac, they watched in amazement as she levitated every car in the neighborhood. Not trusting even someone as brainy and self-possessed as Jean to control her own abilities, Xavier devised a system to keep them under his control. In a rather paternalistic maneuver, he has diverted them to her subconscious, where they remain latent. The Jean we've come to know and love, in other words, turns out to be kind of like one of those newfangled stay-at-home moms who wax elegiac about hot meals -- only not quite as regressive. The new Jean, now called "Dark Phoenix," is a pale, black-eyed libidinous type whose fits of temper tend to result in the instant pulverization of men who try to stop her. Magneto, it turns out, is more of an enlightened type than Xavier. He'd like to see his girl gone wild -- and on his payroll.

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