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Dark Phoenix

The X-Men franchise is the longest-running continuous (read: not rebooted) superhero series in film history. A lofty distinction, undercut by the metanarrative clusterfuck behind it.

Yes, X-Men (2000) was a watershed accomplishment in superhero cinema and Hollywood filmmaking as a whole. The movie and its direct sequel are routinely listed among the best and greatest superhero films of all time. Yet they were still the product of that awkward era in between Batman and Robin and Batman Begins, when nobody had quite figured out how silly to get with comic book adaptations. The first X-Men movie was an indispensable first step in building the modern superhero genre, but it’s a step we’ve ultimately outgrown.

To wit: There’s a reason why bright and colorful costumes have never been replaced by black leather outfits in the past ten years, and never will be again.

Back to the point, the franchise has never been rebooted because nobody at Fox had any idea what to do with it. The franchise could’ve easily wiped the slate clean with X-Men: First Class, starting over with a new cast and crew and new ideas, without any of the dated baggage of the previous iteration. It could’ve been the Holy Grail of blockbuster cinema: A superfranchise to rival the MCU.

But NOOO, Fox just couldn’t commit to that. They couldn’t let go of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and what successes the previous trilogy earned. So the filmmakers had to scrabble together some Frankenstein continuity, too far removed from the original movies to be connected and yet not removed enough to be its own thing. Sure, the filmmakers promised that all of this would be rectified in Days of Future Past, and it easily could’ve been. But then the movie came out and the timeline somehow got even more convoluted. Compounded by the ten-year time jump between each of the most recent entries, though all of the characters age like nothing’s happened, and the franchise timeline is now thoroughly fucked beyond any hope of repair.

Though to be fair, of course anything will have its ups and downs when it’s been running for so long. Which brings me to my next point.

The franchise has been running for two decades for no better reason than because Fox had to keep churning out movies and maintaining hold of the rights. Indeed, there were times when it seemed like the filmmakers were more concerned with making a release date (X-Men: The Last Stand) and sometimes they were making a film just out of spite (X-Men Origins: Wolverine). Yes, the franchise had its fans, mostly because they responded to the passion of Bryan Singer, Hugh Jackman, and others who’ve long since moved on. And with the exception of Ryan Reynolds (off doing his own thing with Deadpool), there’s nobody left in the cast or crew so iconic and loyal to the franchise.

While the films continue to make money, it bears asking how many franchise fans are simply hoping that the next film will bring back the glory days of those first two movies. Moreover, I guarantee you that at least half of those fans would’ve traded the past decade of X-Men films if it meant getting the rights back to Marvel.

Yet here we are, with 20th Century Fox gone bankrupt and sold to Disney, finally reuniting the X-Men and the Fantastic Four with Marvel for good and all.

(Side note: If Fox needed the money that badly, couldn’t they have sold the Marvel rights back for a couple billion bucks? I wonder if anyone had ever considered that. Then again, it probably would’ve ended up another sticky shared-rights mess like with Spider-Man, and nobody wants that. Additionally, I expect that Fox and Marvel are both so spiteful towards one another by now that any offer between them would’ve likely been refused.)

The pre-acquisition period was naturally an awkward time of maybe-transition in the X-Men franchise, not helped by the public and humiliating downfall of Bryan Singer. We’ve got Once Upon a Deadpool, thought to be a trial run for Disney’s benefit to see how a PG-13 Deadpool would fly. We’ve also got New Mutants, which is finally set to come out next year after shooting was completed in freaking September of 2017.

And now here we are with Dark Phoenix, the directing debut of longtime X-Men screenwriter/producer Simon Kinberg. After X-Men: The Last Stand shunted the classic Dark Phoenix comic storyline into a crappy subplot, this film was made and marketed as a proper adaptation of Jean Grey’s cataclysmic rise and fall. And after an additional year of reshoots and post-production work (the film was originally set for release in March 2018), we had been led to believe that this would be a worthy send-off for the franchise.

And what we got was a beautiful, ambitious, hot maudlin mess.

After the obligatory prologue in which a young Jean Grey (played as a kid by Summer Fontana, and by Sophie Turner as a teenager) demonstrates her terrifying psychic abilities and gets taken in by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy again), we cut to the ’90s. Not that anyone could tell, since there’s no trace of ’90s nostalgia anywhere and the setting is bland enough to have taken place anywhere in the past three decades, but it’s the ’90s.

In the years after X-Men: Apocalypse, it appears that the X-Men have grown into everything Xavier could have wanted. They’re a bona fide superhero team, called in to help human governments with extraordinary problems. On the one hand, this means that a bunch of teenagers go out putting their necks on the line while Xavier — the guy in the chair who never even leaves the mansion — gets magazine covers, medals from the president, and all the rest of the credit. On the other hand, the X-Men have clearly been a net positive for the global mutant population, as their superheroic good deeds have quieted down a lot of bigoted anti-mutant legislation and rhetoric.
So when the X-Men are called upon to save more lives from increasingly dangerous scenarios, are they doing it for the greater good or for Xavier’s ego? Maybe both?

Getting back to the premise, the X-Men are called upon to rescue a crew of astronauts on board a malfunctioning space shuttle. I should add that the Blackbird has only just been modified and its ability to fly into orbit is purely theoretical. Also, the Blackbird has been outfitted with a special cannon powered by Cyclops’ laser vision, so that’s kind of stupidly awesome.

Long story short (Too late!), the space shuttle is being set upon by some cloud of cosmic energy. The astronauts are hit by the energy, so one of the pilots turns into a rock thing while the other bursts into flame, and a scientist on board turns invisible… I’m kidding, of course. No, the cloud of energy is absorbed into Jean Grey’s body, elevating her psychic abilities to bona fide godlike status while wreaking havoc on her psyche. Which means discovering and undoing a lot of psychological tampering that Xavier had done over the years.

Yes, it appears that Xavier had been manipulating Jean Grey since childhood, lying to her and blocking out all sorts of mental trauma. This greatly benefitted Jean’s mental health while also keeping her abilities from accidentally going haywire. On the other hand, it doesn’t make Jean any happier, more trusting, or more stable when she finally finds out. And it sure as hell doesn’t give Xavier the moral high ground when he’s been doing something so ethically unsound for so many years.

What’s potentially even worse, Jean has now grown too powerful for anyone to control. Her powers have grown to such an unprecedented level that there’s nobody who can possibly teach her how to use them wisely, and no place where she truly feels safe. The X-Mansion is no longer an option, and even Magneto (Michael Fassbender again) wants nothing to do with her.

Basically put, you know how Homo sapiens reacted when Homo superior showed up? Well, that’s how Homo superior is reacting to Jean. And you can imagine how freaked out Homo sapiens is by all of this.

Even worse — as the trailers have already spoiled — Jean kills Mystique early on. Which is probably the reason why Jennifer Lawrence is finally acting like she gives a shit for the first time since First Class, but I digress. The point is, Jean has done this terrible awful thing and nobody knows who’s to blame. Is it Jean’s fault, or is it the weird cosmic entity that took over her body? And what of Charles Xavier, twisting around Jean’s mind and pushing these kids into life-threatening situations, how is he culpable?

That said, it bears mentioning that Mystique’s death has an outsized effect on the male characters and serves primarily to give them motivation going forward. I’m not happy with Mystique getting fridged like that, but the way her character was mishandled in the previous films made that kind of inevitable. While casting Jennifer Lawrence in the role certainly looked good on paper, casting an A-list actor to play a supporting character, and then elevating the character to a prominence she was never built for to capitalize on the lead actor’s fame, was arguably the biggest mistake this franchise ever made. (Second only to making Wolverine the protagonist of the first three movies, but we’ll come back to that.)

Sophie Turner turns in extraordinary work here, and Michael Fassbender continues to play Magneto as a straight-up stone-cold badass motherfucker. That said, I think the MVP here is James McAvoy. With all respect to the inestimable Sir Patrick Stewart, I much prefer McAvoy’s take on Xavier because — as he is in the comics — this Xavier was never a saint. He’s a pacifist and a great man, he can see the best in people and he knows how to bring it out of them. And yet precisely because he is such an incredibly powerful genius, he knows how to talk himself into making terrible, awful, catastrophic mistakes. That makes for compelling character drama, and McAvoy works it beautifully.

That said, while I appreciate pathos and thematic development as much as the next guy, there’s just so damn much of it here. The characters keep debating and retreading the same philosophical arguments, grieving for those who’ve been killed or injured, and it’s just not any fun.

Remember that? Fun? You know, the main reason why we have big-budget blockbusters like these?

For a movie with global stakes, superpowered beings, cosmic forces, and space aliens (more on them later), the action sequences feel terribly small. There are two fight scenes limited to a street corner apiece, and the climax takes place on a fucking train. All of the action sequences are kept within very limited quarters, and even the opening space rescue feels claustrophobic. How in the nine hells do you make goddamn outer space feel small?!

That said, I’m happy to report that this isn’t like Apocalypse, in which the characters solve everything by throwing different-colored light beams at each other. The action scenes — most especially the climax — are built around the characters expertly using their powers, complementing, countering, and counter-countering each other in new and unexpected ways. That’s all I ever asked of a superpowered fight sequence and this movie beautifully delivers.

If only the characters themselves had been better handled. Quicksilver (Evan Peters) is basically a non-entity outside of two action sequences, and he disappears from the film entirely about halfway through. That’s not even getting started on Selene, played by Kota Eberhardt. In the comics, Selene was an immortal, quite possibly the oldest mutant on record and one of the most powerful. Here, she’s a disposable foot soldier who barely gets a name. Disgraceful.

I’m happy to report that we do get Dazzler (Halston Sage) in a prominent cameo appearance. Major bonus points for that. Bonus points that I have to take right back for totally wasting Olivia Munn as fan-favorite Psylocke in the previous movie, left as a great big glaring loose end that’s never even mentioned here.

The X-Men themselves get it far worse, I’m sorry to say. Alexandra Shipp and Kodi Smit-McPhee are both clearly giving their all, but they’ve got nothing to work with. Nicholas Hoult fares marginally better, but all the characters’ pathos still doesn’t work because whatever chemistry he had with Jennifer Lawrence was never enough to make the Beast/Mystique romance a good idea. Likewise, Tye Sheridan’s trying as hard as he can to sell his character’s anguish, and it might have worked if the franchise hadn’t so thoroughly rushed the Cyclops/Jean Grey romance and mishandled Cyclops in general.

(Side note: As my friend and X-Men fanfic co-writer Joseph Sheldahl recently observed, imagine if The Avengers had focused entirely on Hawkeye and didn’t even remember to mention Captain America until the climax. That’s how badly Cyclops got fucked over in X-Men to the benefit of Wolverine, and how much damage it’s done to the franchise ever since.)

In the third act, Jean Grey tries to invoke the theme of family, and it flat doesn’t work. It probably would have worked if the franchise had been designed as an ensemble piece like the comics property always was, but that’s not how the film franchise was ever built. From Day One, the filmmakers have always placed an outsized importance on Wolverine, Xavier, Mystique, or whomever. The emphasis has only ever been on one or two characters at a time, and there hasn’t been any real attempt at a group dynamic before or since First Class!

Moreover, pretty much all of the group that Jean is referring to was only introduced in the chaos of Apocalypse, and the X-Men as we know them didn’t come together until the very end of that movie. Which means that most of the bonding between them happened offscreen, in that goddamn ten-year time jump between movies. And that’s supposed to be enough for us to emotionally invest in this surrogate family and Jean’s place in it? Yeah, right.

Now we come at last to our antagonists: A near-extinct alien race of shapeshifters come to take the cosmic energy so they can use it to destroy all life on Earth and repopulate their species. Which means that mutants — historically a metaphor for persecuted minorities, and have also represented endangered species at various times in the comics’ history — are now killing the last of an endangered species. That’s a lot to unpack and of course the movie doesn’t have time. Anyways, the whole thing was so badly rushed and disconnected from the rest of the film, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if it was shoehorned in during reshoots.

Their leader (played by Jessica Chastain), befriends Jean, trying to coerce Jean into serving her own agenda and possibly handing over the cosmic energy itself wholesale. Basically, she’s playing the devil on Jean’s shoulder, providing Jean with friendship and encouragement when she has literally nowhere else to go. Not a bad angle. Unfortunately, Chastain was apparently directed to play the character as blank and monotone as possible, an appalling and frankly outrageous waste of a powerhouse actor. And again, it doesn’t help that the villain has a slapdash motivation cobbled together in post.

Oh, and the climax throws in a line right out of nowhere, in which Chastain’s character states that Jean’s emotions make her weak. It’s a quarter-assed attempt at riding the coattails of Captain Marvel, and it has nothing to do with anything at all.

(Side note: Given recent comments from the filmmakers — stating that the whole climax had to be completely thrown out and replaced with something that didn’t resemble the climax of an unnamed other superhero film — it sounds like a pretty safe bet that the original climax coincidentally resembled that of Captain Marvel and the line is an artifact from that sequence.)

Then we have the matter of the ending. Any halfway decent adaptation of the Dark Phoenix Saga absolutely has to end with Jean Grey sacrificing herself to atone for the damage she’s done, save the world and her loved ones, and end her own pain all on one swoop. Alas (without getting into spoilers), the movie is elusive as to what really happens to Jean at the end. I find this frustrating, but let’s be real — how many times has Jean Grey died and come back in the comics? For all I know, the next movie could’ve brought back Sophie Turner as Madelyne Pryor or some shit.

Which brings us, at long last, to the elephant in the room. Because of the Fox/Disney merger, this is destined to be the last movie in the primary X-Men film franchise as we know it. And the wide-open ending clearly shows it was not made as such. Given that the deal was officially closed on March 20th of 2019, of course nobody behind the scenes had time to shoot a revised ending, much less figure out where the X-Men will fit into the MCU.

The filmmakers clearly set out to craft a game-changer, something that would take the next few movies in a totally different direction. This was a necessary step, and the ending takes bold actions toward that end. Unfortunately, because no further sequels will be made, this is all rendered moot. It’s not fair to judge the movie on this, as the filmmakers could’ve have known about this or planned for it, but here we are.

Dark Phoenix isn’t the ending that this franchise needs, but it’s probably the ending that this franchise deserves. It’s well-intentioned and messy, ambitious and rushed. The previous films’ failings — most especially the chronic lack of long-term planning and the misguided focus on individual characters rather than the ensemble — come back to bite this movie in a big way. Then again, there are so many fascinating themes and debates in here, all of which expand on the premise of the franchise in fascinating ways that I’m sure the fans will love. Alas, between the characters’ constant moping, the limited action sequences, and the pitifully weak antagonists, this movie just isn’t a lot of fun to sit through. Though at least the action sequences were inventive, that counts for a lot.

I have so many mixed feelings about this movie that I have a hard time recommending this one way or another, and I have a hard time calling this an outright bad movie. That said, the film was made to set up a sequel that’s never going to come, and that’s a huge mark against it. Even discounting that (because the filmmakers couldn’t have known), I’ve got to ask — after pushing back the release date for over a year, allowing for more reshoots and post work, and given a reported budget of $200 million, is this really the best these filmmakers could do?

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