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.
YANG: Good Omens
I have to admit, I hadn’t looked forward to a series premiere as much as I had this one in ages. Not because I was a fan or even aware of the book—I’ll be reading it soon!—but because the various elements absolutely intrigued me. The story of an angel and a demon who lose track of the Anti-Christ just before Armageddon and must test the limits of their unorthodox friendship to prevent a war between Heaven and Hell is just sheer genius. To do it as a subversive comedy from the creative minds of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett is just utter nutty perfection. And to cast two of my all-time favorite actors in the leads and set them loose amongst the music of Queen . . . well, I thought my head was going to explode before the first episode ended!
Having absorbed the entirety of it now after a bit, I have to say that while all of those elements are well- utilized, Good Omens does have its shortcomings. As I understand it, there were some notable deviations from the book, for better and for worse, so fans expecting a literal re-telling might be disappointed. But taken as it is, the show certainly seems to capture the irreverent tone the creators established, and some of the social commentary and satire within the series is timely and clever.
At the forefront of the tale is the unlikely duo of the angel Aziraphale, played by Michael Sheen, and the demon Crowley, portrayed by David Tennant. These are two of the greatest thespians on the planet in my estimation. Not only was Tennant my favorite live-action Doctor and been brilliant in everything since (loved his villain in Jessica Jones), but the fact that Sheen can play a range from sexy werewolf general in the Underworld films to eccentric journalist David Frost in Frost/Nixon punctuates his chameleon-like nature. Both men disappear into their roles here, seeming to revel in not only the juicy delights of otherworldly beings embracing the decadence of the Earth but in the sheer masterful sport of playing off each other. The pair feel like 6,000 year-old friends, bickering and sharing and supporting each other down through the ages.
Sheen imbues his angel with a paunchy effeteness, a creature far too acclimatized to the pleasures of existence and perhaps well out of his element to effectively do his job (if he ever could). The sweetness exuding from Sheen’s performance is immediately disarming and endearing. And while the character is never treated lightly, there is a child-like vulnerability that leads the audience to want someone to protect him.
And so comes Crowley, perhaps the least-qualified but best-suited partner Aziraphale could ever ask for. Tennant supplies that rock-star swagger and undeserved confidence that he’s proven so well at portraying. Crowley is perhaps as equally out of his depth as his friend, but perhaps more out of laziness than ability. Crowley also enjoys humanity and its offerings and thusly doesn’t want to see the party end.
The pair together are a perfect yin/yang; two opposites that complement more than truly oppose each other. Both have the same end goals, and thus their coming together never feels anything but organic. My absolute favorite episode of the series by far is the third (“Hard Times”), which chronicles their relationship over the millennia. It’s just a perfect encapsulation of how well these two actors and their characters play off each other, and that really is the crux of the series. We watch for them, to soak up every moment of their interaction because it’s always hilarious or beautiful or unexpected, usually all together.
Outside of that relationship though, the series is a bit hit and miss. When the focus isn’t on our angel/demon duo, it tends to stray. A bit too much time is spent on characters far too tangential to the main plot (like the Witchfinders). And while those elements are somewhat interesting in their own right, they detract from the time better utilized exploring some of the other characters more relevant to the upcoming conflict. The first few episodes move at a nice, steady pace of development before the writers seemed to realize they were running out of time and began to rush, sacrificing some of the details that might better help flesh out elements such as the two opposing factions preparing for war, the Four Horsemen and their threat, and even the young Anti-Christ and his very interesting but underdeveloped internal conflict. If the show had gone for either a few more episodes or better used the time within the ones they had, I think the story would have been all the stronger for it.
Likewise, some of the characters ultimately end up taking unusual turns that perhaps don’t quite add up to the established projection. The big twist at the end dealing with Aziraphale and Crowley’s comeuppance seems like a showy device that wasn’t needed given their development over the course of the series. Young Anti-Christ Adam (Sam Taylor Buck) seems to flip like a switch rather than deal with any sort of proper struggle with his destiny. And witch Anathema Device (Adria Arjona) lives up to her name by basically serving little real purpose.
As is, the plot, motivations, and character development fizzle over the course of the series, and yet, the journey is still quite enjoyable. The performances by each actor is so strong and engaging that we do indeed feel invested—enough that the underutilization feels all the more prominent. The comedy is consistently on point scene to scene, crafting a delightful tone that somehow balances the absurdity of the entire situation with the grounded realism of the potential emotional stakes. Several moments are just flat-out cool (particularly when they involve Crowley) with others just bringing a smile to your face.
All in all, Good Omens has its heart in the right place if not its head. The desire to craft something unusual and enjoyable is clear, and the actors all buy-in to support that vision. But the details in the construction fall short, particularly in the latter half, leaving an intense feeling of opportunity squandered. But the series is worth the watch for the sheer joy of seeing Sheen and Tennant play so magnificently, as well as for the irreverent humor that nails it far more often than not. While not perfect, it’s a worthy effort and helluva ride. A little bit of Heaven, a little bit of Hell—I suppose in the end we got exactly what we were promised.