Since the events of the last X-Men film, a degree of progress has been made in the stand-off between mutants and humans: the U.S. government now boasts a full-fledged Department of Mutant Affairs, headed by an un-threatening mutant spokesman with Sno-Cone-blue body fur that puffs out of the sleeves of a cheap suit and the sotto voce intonations of Dr. Frasier Crane. In other words, we have the X-Men to thank for a new bloated, do-nothing government bureaucracy. If you've seen the first two X-Men films, you already know that this show of good will on the part of homo sapiens will go unacknowledged by the series' resident malcontent, Magneto (Ian McKellen) who serves as a kind of Malcolm X-Man for discontented mutants, eschewing any cooperation with the majority in favor of muscle-flexing and, if need be, armed resistance. At around the 45-minute mark in each film, you can count on Magneto to suddenly don a curious-looking rugby helmet and begin using his powers of magnetic attraction to lift automobiles and their bewildered occupants off the ground. This is how he signals that the discussions are over. In this latest outing, Magneto is accompanied, as always, by his trophy mutant Mystique, a beguiling shape-shifter with jaundiced eyes who has the power to double any other person, and usually chooses Rebecca Romijn as a go-to body.

p>Despite what you've heard, the biggest deficit of X-Men: The Last Stand is not the switch-out of the gifted Bryan Singer for studio hump Brett Ratner, although that does sting. Instead, it's the decision to keep the weight of the story on the whiny, Xavier-school mutants at the expense of screentime for Magneto's crew. The good guys in the X-world are not nearly as much fun as the bad guys, and that's a drag. Apart from ol' Ginsu Knuckles himself (Hugh Jackman) -- who improbably serves as the leader in a troop that contains weather-manipulators, mind-melders, and an "if I touch you, you just die" girl -- there are hardly any heroes you'd want to see gain screen time as the series marches on. During the course of this film, I finally settled on one good mutant to like: Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page). There's something fetching about Kitty, above and beyond her tubular 80s-kitch moniker. She has one talent and she sticks to it: Kitty runs through walls. See Kitty run through walls in X-Men 1 and 2. See her run through walls in this film. I'm convinced that Kitty has gotten better at running through walls as the series has progressed. On the other hand, the character of Storm, played by Halle Berry, has always been a shrew and a cry-baby, and now she's gotten worse. Storm is the only major female X-Men character who has never had a romantic plot-line, and there's a reason; no guy wants to have tornadoes dispatched to his house because he forgot to send a birthday card.

Storm's purpose in this film is largely to expound upon the latest wrinkle in mutant-human relations: The invention of a so-called 'cure' that can turn mutants back into humans. Some mutants see the cure as the blessing they've been waiting for. Other mutants think those mutants can shove it. Some mutants are flat-out revolutionaries -- one informs a police interrogator that she will no longer answer to "my slave name," by which she means her human name. The debate degenerates into demonstrations in the streets, with placard-wielding partisans shouting each other down. (I don't recall the slogans painted on the signs, but I bet they were unintentionally funny.)

Meanwhile, as the cure battle rages, the film develops a second main story arc involving the return of a not-dead Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), the pistol-hot telepath who could read and manipulate the thoughts of others, and who was supposedly buried under a million tons of water in Alkali Lake at the conclusion of X-Men 2. Jean is back, and she seems to have picked up some kind of unwanted mental stowaway: A malevolent entity that calls itself Phoenix. Or was this part of her personality all along? In one of the better effects sequences I've seen in a long time, the film takes us back twenty years to Jean being visited and examined as a child by a convincingly 40-something Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan. (These new special effects, which apparently involve the digital grafting of young, wrinkle-free skin onto an actor's face, should do wonders for Sandra Bullock's career.)

Every X-Men film occasions the arrival of some new characters from the comic's B-list, and the latest crop is ho-hum at best. There's Angel, who has giant bird wings and can fly. Despite a promising pre-teen years introductory sequence that frames his ghastly discovery of wing nubs growing out of his back as a pubescent nightmare moment -- the one genuinely Singer-like scene in the film -- his story goes nowhere. There's also Multiple Man, who I liked. This fellow can Xerox himself into a ready-made army, which makes for a few good laughs, but it seems like his character would have been a better fit for the second film, with its military-mutant-industrial complex plot line. A noticeably stupid new character named Juggernaut stinks up the proceedings tremendously with his lame "power" that involves ramming himself into walls and speaking in barely intelligible English soccer-fan slurry-speech, which I guess is supposed to confuse his enemies. (Also, while we're on the subject of disappointment, a big component of the film's pre-release hype revolved around a supposed dual of fire and ice between the bad character, Pyro, and the good character, Iceman. Did someone forget to pay their bill to the special effects shop? When the big fight sequence finally arrives, it seems to jump immediately to conclusion without an iota of interesting interplay or a single snippet of memorable dialogue or anything approaching good fight choreography.)

Without Bryan Singer around to press forward with his twisted, superhero-as-oppressed-minority vision -- Magneto flashes his cool Holocaust tattoo once in this film, but his heart just isn't in it -- the demerits of the X-Men franchise will continue to loom large. The too-many-characters malaise, the perfunctory romances, and the soap opera-style deaths and re-births that plague the series will weigh it down whether or not there's a world-champion hack like Brett Ratner holding the baton. The word on the street is that this will certainly be the last gathering of the now prohibitively expensive X-troop that originated in 2000's X-Men, which is probably a good thing. Three times with these characters is plenty. Should the producers be already scrounging for spin-off ideas to foist on us in the near future, I suggest the following: Dispense with all of the series' primary good guy characters and produce two projects. First, a stand-alone feature film that follows Mystique on a much-needed vacation to a tropical island, where she meets and doubles as various supermodels before getting into some adventure involving buried treasure; second, a weekly television show starring Kitty Pryde as a young, talented police hostage negotiator who, in addition to her natural policing skills, has the added advantage of being able to peep through walls to get a fix on the movements of the perps inside.

Kim's alternate take on the movie is here.