It can’t be underestimated the impact that has been left by the X-Men characters in the super hero genre of film. The powerful team of mutant beings that have long been a favorite of comic book fans across the world finally made their way to the big screen for the first time in 2000 to wide critical praise. The Bryan Singer directed film came at a crucial time for the genre, which had fallen on hard times largely due to the failure of DC’s Batman and Robin (1997), which turned the genre into a laughing stock. Not only did X-Men bring back respectability to the genre, but it also gave it greater purpose than just entertainment. For the first time, we saw a super hero film tackle heavy issues like social prejudice and personal identity in a serious fashion, while at the same time never loosing track of it’s comic book roots. In many ways, this was the movie that laid the groundwork for the super hero genre to mature into a leading force within Hollywood as both a dynamic box office powerhouse, but also as a platform for dramatic social commentary. Without the X-Men, we probably wouldn’t have seen the mature takes on other super hero mythos that have come to define the genre like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, or Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), or even the Oscar worthy themes of Black Panther (2018). In addition, the movie also did a number of other things. It made an A-list star out of Hugh Jackman, and turned his character Wolverine into an instant icon. It was also Marvel Comic’s first serious foray into film-making, which has created massive dividends to this day for the brand. But, what is most remarkable about the X-Men movie is that it ended up spawning a franchise that has remarkably remained unbroken for nearly twenty years; more or less. Sure the timelines are ludicrously held together, but the narrative of the series that started with the 2000 film has managed to continue on up to today, which is an enviable run for any franchise, especially in the super hero genre. But, as it happens with all things, this too has come to an end.
For the majority of it’s time on the big screen, the X-Men franchise has been under the banner of 20th Century Fox, and not by Marvel itself. Marvel, in it’s earliest days in Hollywood, licensed their characters out to multiple studios, hoping to fast track their brand presence in the industry at a time when it was mostly the characters from their competitor, DC Comics, that dominated the box office. Multiple studios over time had their hands on at least one Marvel character, but no singular studio had them all. For Fox, they came into possession of the X-Men, as well as the Fantastic Four and Deadpool. Out of these, the X-Men looked to be the most viable choice to build a strong franchise around, and Fox for a time did very well with the characters. The franchise spawned two successful sequels, but as the genre began to change during the mid-2000’s, the franchise began to show signs of fatigue. At the same time, Marvel, which had began to take more charge with how their characters were portrayed on screen, launched their own studio and soon after were bought by Disney, who were intent on consolidating all the Marvel characters back under one roof. Many studios relinquished their control over the characters, like Paramount and Universal, but Fox was less compliant. As Marvel Studios began to rise, the X-Men franchise began a bit of a Renaissance as they successfully relaunched the franchise with X-Men: First Class (2011). Followed up with acclaimed films like X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) and Deadpool (2016) and Fox believed they could form a cinematic universe with their own X-Men characters that they still owned the rights to. However, the disappointing returns for X-Men: Apocalypse (2017) dampened those expectations, and soon after, Disney ended up buying Fox completely in a landmark acquisition, further spelling out the end of the line for the X-Men franchise. Only one movie was left over in development that could give closure to this long running franchise, and the question remains; does Dark Phoenix send off these X-Men with a bang or a whimper?
The movie carries over the consistent gimmick of the past three X-Men movies, in that it jumps ahead ten years to use another decade as it’s setting. First Class started of in the psychedelic 60’s, then Days of Future Past jumped to the turbulent 70’s, and Apocalypse brought us up to the colorful 80’s. Dark Phoenix now sets the story in the early 90’s, with the X-Men firmly established as a beloved crime fighting force, using their powers for a good purpose. Led by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), the headmaster at a special school for mutant children, the X-Men are sent on a special mission to space to save a stranded crew of astronauts who were attacked in orbit by an unknown, alien force. The recovery team, led by team leaders Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank “Beast” McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), take the X-Men’s jet to orbit and have the teleportation powered Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) bring the astronauts safely out of the damaged ship. Meanwhile, telekinetic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) tries to buy time, using her powers to hold the ship together, but while the astronauts are saved, it ends up being too late for her. The mysterious cloud that attacked the ship suddenly rushes to her and absorbs itself completely into her body. Worried that she’s been killed the other X-Men retrieve her from space, and to their surprise, she is not only alive but seemingly unharmed. Back on earth, Jean starts to experience strange changes to her body. Her powers are enhanced and uncontrollable, turning her into a menace wherever she goes. She leaves the X-Men, seeking refuge with former X-Men foe Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who also casts her out when her new powers begin to wreck havoc. Xavier and Jean’s boyfriend Scott Summers aka Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) hope to find and comfort the troubled Jean, but things are complicated once an alien race of shape-shifters, led by the power hungry Vuk (Jessica Chastain) have their eye on gaining Jean’s Phoenix force for themselves.
If you have been following the X-Men franchise up to this point, you are probably already familiar with the Phoenix Force story-line, as it also provided the plot inspiration for the problematic X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), the not so loved third film in the series. Last Stand was rightly condemned for it’s mishandling of the beloved story-line from the comics, both in straying too far from the actual origins of Jean Grey’s transformation and for mishandling all the careful character development that had gone into establishing the X-Men over the last two films. Knowing fully well that fans were upset with how this was handled before, Fox planted the seeds for a do-over in their relaunch of the X-Men franchise with their new cast, especially with the obvious hints shown in the movie X-Men: Apocalypse. However, with the off-set turmoil going on behind the scenes, with director Bryan Singer no longer acceptable to helm the picture because of his alleged sexual misconduct and the upcoming Disney/Fox merger further complicating matters, Dark Phoenix’s road to the big screen was very troubled. Delayed multiple times, this film has finally made it to theaters, and the off screen problems are very apparent. Not only did Fox not get the Phoenix saga right the second time around, they somehow made it even worse. I’m sorry to say that this is not the ideal closing chapter for this long-running series, and in fact, it may be one of the worst super hero movies ever made period. This is nearly Fant4stic (2015) bad, and is worse in some ways to that rightfully malinged cinematic travesty. While Fant4stic was a horribly made movie for a franchise that never was going to exist at all anyway, Dark Phoenix is sadly built upon a franchise that has created some of the best super hero movies of all time. It’s tragic in a way that a franchise like this, which did a lot of stuff right up to now, especially with the characters, fails so badly at the end, with no way of redeeming itself, now that this is the end of the line for good.
Here’s where the problem lies. Because original helmer Bryan Singer is out of the question, and standby director Brett Ratner who took over for The Last Stand is finding himself in a near similar situation, Fox left the entire project into to the hands of series writer Simon Kinberg. Kinberg is a fine screenwriter, having penned most of the films in the series, as well as acting as a producer for the franchise as a whole. It’s clear that he loves the characters, but he also sadly lacks any cinematic vision. This movie is clearly directed by someone who doesn’t feel comfortable behind the camera, and that becomes apparent in the pacing, the blocking of shots, and most sad of all, in the performances of the actors. I watched this movie just absolutely baffled at how amateurish it felt. I know that much of the blame for movies like these fall on the director, but at the same time, I feel bad for Kinberg, because he only acted as director because nobody else would step up. And to me, it became less of a cinematic exercise over time and more of a studio mandate, as Fox was forcing more and more out of this franchise just so they could hold onto the rights and spite Marvel. Those circumstances don’t always translate into a cohesive film, and that’s apparent with Dark Phoenix. The strange thing is that Kinberg, who has set up the arrival of the Phoenix Force in previous movies, completely disposes of it, instead taking his cue from the comic books, which in this version of the story, makes no sense. In the cinematic timeline for Dark Phoenix, which remember is still connected to The Last Stand, it should’ve been shown that the Phoenix Force was always a part of Jean Grey this whole time, fueling her telekinetic powers. But even despite that already having been established before in Last Stand, the movie dismisses this right away and explains that the Phoenix came from outer space, which yes is closer to the comic, but is completely contradictory to what’s been established up to now in the films. Maybe Kinberg was told to change course, but if not, this is yet another example of the movie just becoming careless about what it wants to be.
Kinberg’s severe lack of experience in the director’s chair is most apparent when it comes to the actors performances. The thing that will stand out to most people who watch the movie is just how out of it the actors are in this movie. Their performances feel emotionless and inconsistent, like their just reading off their line for the camera, which is pretty much exactly what’s going on onscreen. An experienced director’s job includes helping the actors find their right head space, in order to make them feel the moment they are in and think like the character they are portraying. The right kind of director can do this with just about anybody, no matter what their experience is, and the great thing about the super hero genre is that the choice of performer and the quality of their performance has helped to bring these super heroes triumphantly off the page. In Dark Phoenix, you have this incredibly talented cast of performers who are just lost, because they are clearly just not being directed, leaving them to rely upon their own instincts, which are sadly not all aligned together. It’s also apparent that some of them are already checked out, having moved on to bigger and better things and are just here as an obligation as part of their contract. Jennifer Lawrence clearly wanted to have this over and done with quickly, which is apparent based on the reduced make-up job done to turn her into Mystique. I don’t blame any of the bad performances here on the actors, because I’ve seen them all do better in other films as these characters; some of which were powerfully delivered. But, when they have nothing to work with, you can see just how much that hurts the actors’ abilities to perform. Sophie Turner, who has to do much of the heavy lifting of this movie, is sadly reduced to repeating the same character beats throughout the movie as Jean Grey, mainly just being reduced to “I’m scared. I can’t control it.” Jessica Chastain is especially wasted, playing one of the blandest villainesses in recent memory, which is profoundly disappointing for an actress of her talent and prestige. James McAvoy’s image obsessed Charles Xavier is especially out of character, and more than anything represents how these characters became less important as individuals and more as functions of a plot.
An even bigger problem arises from the film’s peculiar adherence to the convoluted rules of the franchise. I still don’t know why the movies continue to leap ahead in time, just so that it can represent another decade. The rule worked out for First Class and Days of Future Past, which were narratively very much tied to the years that they were set. But, with Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix, you begin to encounter more problems. One, those movies don’t really need the time period to give flavor to the story they’re telling. Dark Phoenix in fact treats it’s setting as so inconsequential that you wouldn’t even realize it’s set in the 90’s unless you were told. Second, the leap forwards run into the problem of having actors who look too young to play the same parts. Remember, 10 years have passed between Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix, and yet all the actors look about the same age. Jennifer Lawrence and Nicolas Hoult haven’t even turned 30 yet as of this writing, and yet their characters should be pushing 50 in the timeline of this movie; yet they still look like they haven’t aged a day. At least McAvoy’s Charles Xavier has gone bald over the course of the movies. It all makes the decade changing motif feel like it’s working against the progression of these characters; especially when characters like Jean, Cyclops, and Nightcrawler should all be in their mid-20’s at this point, and yet are still acting like teenagers. And third, skipping 10 years at a time also robs the story of significant character development. What has exactly been going on over 10 years, because the movie still treats these characters like nothing has changed since Apocalypse. I would think that some major things would have happened to these characters during that time, but none of it is ever addressed. So for all the things that Dark Phoenix sought to do differently in the story-line, namely the origin of the Phoenix Force, why did they still feel like they needed to jump ahead in time like the previous films had. It’s another baffling choice that ultimately contributes to the laundry list of problems that this movie has.
The one good thing that I can say about this movie is that they wisely left Wolverine out of it. Hugh Jackman thankfully got to hang up the claws in the far superior Logan (2017), leaving the character he played for over 17 years on a graceful note. Sadly, for the actors involved here, some of whom have played these roles for the last 8 years, this is a less than ideal exit. Dark Phoenix is a depressing end to a franchise that, while not always perfect, still managed to leave a positive impact on the genre as a whole. For the most part, it’s most disappointing in the way that it once again squanders the opportunity to do the Phoenix Saga story-line once again, making it feel small and inconsequential. But what I hated most about it was the amateurish way that it was constructed, failing in almost every department of film-making. The camera work is uninspired, the musical score (surprisingly from the usually reliable Hans Zimmer) is a dreary bore, the visual effects are incomprehensible, and the actors performances are lazy and completely out of character. The movie isn’t even bad in an entertaining way; it’s just a sad waste of very talented people. Dark Phoenix, more than anything shows why this version of the series needed to come to an end. It just became a tool of the ever defiant Fox studio to deny rival Disney a chance to take ownership of these once powerful franchise characters; a tact that also resulted in the disastrous Fant4stic. Now that Disney and Fox have merged into one, Marvel Studios now has creative control once again of the X-Men, and no one doubts that we’ll see these characters once again. The sad part is that the failure of Dark Phoenix all but ensures that none of the same team will carry over into the future X-Men movies, which is a shame because some of these actors have been quite good in the roles. But, just like the ancient legend of the Phoenix bird, it has to die in order to be reborn, and that is what ultimately has to happen to this version of the X-Men. The original X-Men deserved better closure than what we got with Dark Phoenix, but their legacy as a part of the super hero genre will always be remembered, especially when it was at it’s height. And hopefully, what ends up being reborn after this will be the best we’ve seen yet.