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Hooked On Phoenix

May 28th, 2006

I cannot take claim for the title of this post, though I would dearly love to do so. That honor goes to my lovely wife, who came up with it after we got out of an afternoon screening of X-Men: The Last Stand.

I’ve been a fan of the X-Men flicks, particularly the second one, which I feel is second only to Spider-Man 2 in the ranks of superhero films. Thus I was dismayed–as were many comics geeks–when direction Brett Ratner took the reins for the so-called “final chapter” of the trilogy. Not that Ratner’s the Antichrist of Hollywood–Michael Bay retains that title–but he struck me as someone who would remove the thoughtfulness of the franchise and replace it with more shit blowing up. (Not that I don’t want shit to blow up–in fact, I just remarked to Vic today that I think there should be a movie titled Shit Blows Up–but that I want feces to explode meaningfully.)

As it turned out, it was a non-issue. If nothing else, Ratner is all but anonymous in the final release. Actually, I found the first half of the movie to be somewhat lacking in the explosion department, with nothing to match the harrowing Blackbird crash sequence of X2.

While the film didn’t get below the surface of the homosexuality metaphor that drives the X-trilogy–and honestly, even Chris Claremont rarely got deeper than the “world that hates and fears them” stuff during his seminal run writing the comics–it certainly didn’t ignore the issue. The concept of finding a “cure” for the disease of being different is a powerful idea, and it was nice to see a bit of thought put into the ramifications, as well as the disagreements amongst the mutant community. Certainly, if I could shoot ice blasts from my fingers or levitate skyscrapers with my mind, I wouldn’t be keen to give up my mutantdom. But if I was Rogue, whose “power” is the inability to touch people without sucking their lives dry? Sign me up for the shot, doc.

Unfortunately, what should have been a storyline in itself–the recently deceased telepath Jean Grey being resurrected as the all-powerful Phoenix–was shunted into the sidelines. The “Phoenix Saga” as told in the pages of the comics was THE great superhero story of its day. Jean’s fatal self-sacrifice to save the universe from herself was a great shock to the readership. It was the sort of thing that simply didn’t happen back then, and it had a huge impact on all subsequent comics, if only to prove that nothing attracts fanboys like the smell of carrion. Many suspected that the Jean Grey of the movies might be headed toward her own dark apotheosis given some subtle hints in X2, but in The Last Stand, Phoenix’s origin comes in an expository dialogue scene and suggests a backstory for Jean and Professor X that isn’t at all suggested in the previous installments. I think that it could’ve used more setup.

Still, what is there is handled well. Unlike the earthbound X-flicks, the Phoenix storyline of the comics played out as a space epic, with the power-mad mutant annihilating an entire planet. No room for that here, and in one sense the script improves on things by making the Jean’s actions stepping over the line much, much more personal.

There are some surprisingly significant deaths in this movie. The first–which, to my chagrin, had been spoiled for me by blabby moviegoers–happens mostly off-screen. It really shouldn’t have. The second I knew nothing about in advance, and it was indeed a shock. Certainly, this movie feels like the final act of a trilogy, and it does not take prisoners. While I have no doubt that there’ll be future X-pics, they’ll need to round up some more mutants for the next one.

In the end–and, by the way, be sure to stay to the end of the credits–X-Men: The Last Stand isn’t the best of the lot, but it is nowhere near the disaster that was feared. I’m surprised to see it pulling only 50% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Oh, and during the umpteen minutes of commercials and trailers that preceded the film, the one that got the biggest reaction from me was for Snakes on a Plane. A very effective use of the theater’s stereo system!

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