he Last Stand
20th Century Fox
Directed by Brett Ratner
Starring Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Patrick Stewart, and Famke Janssen
Rated PG-13

You can take the measure of an X-Men movie by its attitude toward Ian McKellen’s helmet.

As Magneto, Master of Magnetism, McKellen usually looks pretty silly with the chess-piece-shaped headwear wrapped around his noggin, no matter how faithfully it echoes the design from X-Men comic books. In the first two X-Men films, director Bryan Singer kept the helmet to a minimum, displaying shrewd judgment for the aspects of superhero mythology that play well on the big screen and the ones that just look stupid.

For the final film in the trilogy, X-Men: The Last Stand, director Brett Ratner takes the helm and shows no such instincts. Magneto wears that helmet all the time, and in trying to juggle a sloppy, frantic, overcrowded story, Ratner loses track of most of the archetypal elements that made X-Men soar in both comics and the cineplex.

Compared to other comic book movies, the X-Men trilogy puts its social politics on its leather sleeves. No matter whether they’re “good” X-Men, led by civilized Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), or the more militant “evil” mutants led by Magneto, the franchise’s minority population of super-powered genetic aberrations stands in for any despised underclass.

The Last Stand‘s plot hinges on a drug that can turn mutants into normal people, setting off the kind of ethical debates and public protests you’d probably see if a real-world “cure” for, say, homosexuality were announced. In the film’s biggest set piece, Magneto (who happens to be played by an openly gay Oscar nominee) leads his followers across San Francisco’s most prominent landmark. You half expect them to chant, “We’re here! Our powers cause fear! Get used to it!” The metaphors work.

It would be great if all films lived up to their relevant themes or operatic aspirations. But The Last Stand features enough subplots for a bookcase full of graphic novels, including a teenage love triangle and the resurrection of a character from the previous film. With so many heroes, villains, henchmen, and political figures jockeying for screen time, everyone gets short shrift except for overreaching Magneto and anguished Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, the series’ MVP). Major characters die in radical departures from comic book continuity.

I’m a comic book fan, but I don’t have knee-jerk objections to the film’s changes in superhero canon. (It’s not like they’re sacred texts like the Bible, say, or Harry Potter.) But The Last Stand doesn’t earn its sacrifices or murders, which seem dictated by whose contracts are up. The film’s multiple plots have great potential, but it leaves all the soul-searching off-camera. Instead, it emphasizes special effects and sensation, with admittedly rousing battle scenes. If you like to argue about whether it would be better to be intangible or indestructible in a fight, The Last Stand is made for you.

It’s still flat and cheap-looking, even though The Wall Street Journal estimated its budget at $210 million. Perhaps the film’s notoriously tight production deadline got the better of it; a greater issue is that Ratner lacks the artistry to disguise its artificiality. Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones) makes an entertaining bruiser but appears to have a giant popcorn kernel on his head. When Angel (Ben Foster) spreads his white wings, the fanfare plays like he’s the new mascot for a patriotic insurance company. At a key point, night seems to fall in seconds, a continuity glitch worthy of Ed Wood. It becomes all but impossible to lose yourself in the film’s fantasy world, something that should be effortless. While Ratner doesn’t have visual or verbal wit, he compensates with a nasty, borderline sexist tone that feels jarring in a comic book setting. In one scene, a male guard holds a can of Mace to the imprisoned shape-shifter Mystique (Rebecca Romjin) and snarls, “I’ll spray you in the face, bitch!” I doubt The Last Stand would be approved by the Comics Code Authority.

Certainly worse superhero flicks have been made than this one, and the X-Men will survive to fight another day, no matter how much The Last Stand falls short of its cinematic predecessors. But it doesn’t give comic books a particularly good name, either.