By Derek May:
YIN: X-Men: Dark Phoenix
It’s been a long road. Just shy of 20 years after the first X-Men film lit the fuse that truly ignited the age of superhero films, the franchise sings its swan song with its final installment, Dark Phoenix. Aside from the merger between Fox and Disney finally transferring ownership of a mega slate of Marvel characters back home, the writing has been on the wall for a while that the series had been running out of steam, if not on pure fumes. The previous installment, X-Men Apocalypse, was nearly universally shredded amongst critics and fans alike for its vapid, clumsy handling of both its characters and story. So to end now with a rehash of The Last Stand, the third entry that effectively torpedoed the original cast’s adventures, seems eerily prophetic. But is it a last-ditch effort to properly tell one of the most beloved and significant tales in the X-Men universe, or a flaccid attempt to coast to the finish line on a practically pre-packaged gimme?
As it turns out, it’s really not either.
Dark Phoenix does indeed cover much of the same ground as The Last Stand, which can either be chalked up to laziness or homage depending on how gracious you’re feeling. But even so, it pushes some of those familiar elements to new places and adds plenty of new facets via the “young X-Men” universe begun with 2011’s First Class. So while comparisons are largely unavoidable, the movie is unique enough to be judged, for better or worse, on its own merits. Unfortunately while there are some legitimately impressively aspects, much of the film is thin, clunky, silly to nonsensical at times, and anti-climactic.
All that might not be a surprise given the extensive behind the scenes turmoil. Let’s start with the fact that series producer and writer Simon Kinberg was given the helm this time. Kinberg can certainly lay claim to a number of successes under his producer’s belt, including the Deadpool films, Logan, and The Martian. But he’s also behind some epic stinkers, including as writer of xXx: State of the Union, Fantastic Four (yup, that one), and yes, X-Men: The Last Stand. So the odds were not good from the start. Add to that rumors of studio concerns about the final film and extensive reshoots done to rework the entire third act in order to avoid comparisons to two Marvel films (which in hindsight they probably should have just done), and we might be lucky the movie makes any sense at all.
The story, for those wondering, revolves around traumatized mutant Jean Grey (Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner) struggling to control, or even co-exist, with the powerful and enigmatic Phoenix force that travels throughout the universe consuming and/or destroying entire worlds along the way. What essentially amounted to a few throwaway lines in The Last Stand are far more broadly and effectively expanded here, with Jean’s psychological issues intertwined with her battle with the Phoenix within. Her relationship with Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is given a far richer development, with consequences deeper and more extensive than before. Their personal entanglement and journey is by far the clearest and best-executed aspect of the film and really carries much of the plot as well as the emotional throughline.
The rest of the story and the characters, unfortunately, do not fare as well. The plot is relatively thin beyond Jean’s suffering at the hands of both the Phoenix and perhaps Xavier. There’s a fair amount of progression toward the possibility of something greater, but it never truly pays off into the sort of climax that is promised or expected. The interesting and perpetual issue of mutant acceptance by the larger world is setup logically as an extension of the previous films, but it ultimately falls fast and fails to wrap up in any sort of meaningful way (or, really, is ever mentioned again). And as for the external threat, the villains this time round feel haphazardly thrown in without much motivation or threat. The expected final confrontation fizzles with hardly a sweat broken, and all the fights and sacrifices feel undeserved and, frankly, inconsequential.
Many of the characters and their relationships feel shallow at best, out-of-character at worst. I never really bought the romance between Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank McCoy’s Beast (Nicholas Hoult). I think they did a good job in establishing across the previous films why they might be a good match, but with Raven being mostly a villain till now, they’ve been kept at arm’s length. Now that they’re together, the chemistry is palpably lacking. Perhaps it’s partly due to the fact that Raven’s defining trait has always been about openly being yourself, to not have to hide, and yet for some reason she does so at inexplicable times, while Beast uses his confusing ability to change form at will as a chance to remain human most of the time.
On the other hand, one thing I did always find interesting, if underdeveloped, was Raven’s relationship with Xavier. While I never bought them as would-be siblings, I did like that she challenged him, and she continues that trend here, setting the stage for both her and McCoy’s building resentment and defiance of Xavier’s actions. In addition, Jean’s love story with Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) starts off strong and believable, and ends up fizzling out and going pretty much nowhere. And where they end up taking poor Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) quite simply boggles my mind even more than the fact that after a nearly 30-year span, none of these characters has so much as a wrinkle or grey hair to show for it.
On the villain side, Jessica Chastain’s Vuk apparently went through so much revision during reshoots that even she wasn’t entirely sure who the character was. That fits given the ultimate direction chosen. Vuk seems inconsistent with what she really wants, and both she and her side suffer for it in multiple ways. What could have been something of an interesting exploration of the corruption of power or a moral dilemma of the ends justifying the means ends up a cardboard mustache twirl that sucks the air out of the film.
Lest I get too negative here, I did mention that there was a not-insignificant amount of the film that did work. We really get to see each mutant character at their fullest, utilizing their power unabashedly and in often thrilling displays of teamwork. The effects are quite something to behold, and the powers all crackle with visual splendor. We also get to really see life at this stage for the mutants at Xavier’s School as well as those under Magneto’s Brotherhood. And speaking of, Michael Fassbender gets to seethe and revel in his power and feelings once again, bringing Erik Lehnsherr to possibly the height of his badassery. In fact, the performances are exceptional to a tee, regardless of how much the poor actors actually have to work with. They give their all, with McAvoy delivering the beautiful conflict between right and wrong, and of being the leader and rational mind amongst those losing theirs. And Sophie Turner is utterly heartbreaking amidst her various pains and moments of powerful ecstasy.
So this is the end, my friends. Dark Phoenix is neither a bang nor a whimper. It’s not the travesty of, say, Kinberg’s Fantastic Four, and it’s to me at least more emotionally complex than X-Men Apocalypse. There are some rich areas explored and character depths mined, and the acting is as solid as some of the action set pieces. But whether the fault of poor initial planning or the scramble to retie threads after extensive reworking, the film doesn’t lead anywhere of significance or deliver on its various promises. If you’re a fan of the X-Men films in general, and/or of the First-Class series in particular, it’s certainly not the finale we might have hoped for. While it does right a few of the wrongs of The Last Stand, it creates whole new problems of its own. Personally, I think the series might have been better off ending after the last failure rather than adding yet another. But ultimately, love it or hate it, it’s the end of this universe as we know it. From here on, the ball is firmly in Marvel’s court. And while I feel confident they can do better, as it stands it’s not like they have a high bar to clear.