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You're always sorry, Charles, and there's always a speech, but nobody cares anymore.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix
(2019)

(SPOILERS) To credit its Rotten Tomatoes score (22%), you’d think X-Men: Dark Phoenix was a travesty that besmirched the name of all good and decent (read: MCU proper) superhero movies, or even last week’s underwhelming creature feature (Godzilla: King of Monsters has somehow reached 40%, despite being a lesser beast in every respect). Is the movie’s fate a self-fulfilling prophecy, what with delayed release dates and extensively reported reshoots? Were critics castigating a fait accompli turkey without giving it a chance? That would be presupposing they’re all sheep, though, and in fairness, other supposed write-offs havecome back from such a brink in the past (World War Z). Whatever the feelings of the majority, Dark Phoenix is actually a mostly okay (twelfth) instalment in the X-franchise – it’s exactly what you’d expect from an X-Men movie at this point, one without any real mojo left and a variable cast struggling to pull its weight. The third act is a bit of an oof, so I can only guess how unworkable it was to begin with, but Simon Kinberg’s much maligned (penultimate) exercise can at least proclaim itself superior to a couple of its predecessors.

Those being? X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine spring to mind. If not for Dark Phoenix’s final act, it would probably beat out The Wolverine and X-Men: Apocalypse too; the latter is reserved a particular bruising, it seems, but I thought it was fine if nothing special. But then, I’ll go to bat for the likes of Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 as being quite watchable, and Captain America: The First Avenger as a right slog, so you might view my superhero perspective as not entirely aligned with the rank and file.

There is, of course, now a tendency to label all things X-Men trash – Logan and Deadpool sometimes honourably excepted – as if the often equally formulaic and creatively underwhelming MCU is the one-and-only (with the DCU gradually gaining on the outside). It’s certainly true that Bryan Singer brought a slightly sickly design aesthetic to the series and that Fox, for all or because of the cash it raked in, seemed slightly ashamed of it; it’s thus been a rather rocky road with only sporadic, relative highs (X2, First Class, Days of Future Past, Deadpool 2 – I’m still not wholly convinced by Logan) and a tendency to make narrative and character choices that have understandably attracted mockery for their limited variations (in the same way that Daniel Craig’s Bond has to go rogue every movie). And yet, I rather like the manner in which it has played fast and loose with anything approaching continuity (the current leads are now more than thirty years older in the X-timeline than they were in First Class, but with no ostensible reason for setting the last two entries in their respective decades).

As far as retelling the same story again and again – for Charles and Erik, the old friends-combatants-uneasy allies is on stir and repeat – this time Kinberg (a frequent series screenwriter making his directorial debut, the kind of foolish thinking that regularly infects studios despite ample evidence, most recently The Mummy, that it’s never a good idea) returns to The Last Stand, to do it justice this time, as he sees it. It should thus come as little surprise that he’s a more sensitive director than Brett Ratner, if only because it should come as little surprise that anydirector is more sensitive than Brett Ratner. There’s a degree of flatness to Dark Phoenix’s narrative progression, evidencing a writer-turned-director’s lack of aptitude for the change of medium, but that doesn’t mean Kinberg isn’t obviously trying hard.

He’s keen to raise issues of abuse and empowerment (simultaneously at times) through the character of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner, both competent and entirely lacking the presence to take the leading role), and at times even hits his marks with something approaching verve; the opening, fateful incident involving Jean’s parents, and a later reunion with her father (Scott Shepherd) are particularly well sustained. Indeed, when Kinberg has the story he wants to tell, Jean’s tale of woe, in focus, Dark Phoenix is quite dependable, even if he consequently rather overeggs the hubristic qualities of Charles Xavier, so making the character’s decisions a little too boo-hiss (it doesn’t help that James McAvoy leans into this so much, unrestrainedly channelling the haughty, know-better rectitude of Patrick Stewart). The problem is, he hasn’t really worked out what do with his protagonist/antagonist once he’s had her blow a gasket, so he sends her on rather a half-assed road trip.

Kinberg’s also evidently aware of the responsibility he’s given himself in taking on the mantle of a blockbuster franchise, and the action set pieces that come with it. You can see he wants to impress with them, but they lack the fluidity we saw when Bryan Singer had the reins (or, more likely, discharged the reins to an entirely competent second unit while he got on with whatever more important and less reputable activities were preoccupying his attention). There’s a space shuttle rescue opener that riffs on many of the crowd-pleasing moments of yore (Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Nightcrawler teleporting in line of sight, Evan Peters’ Quicksilver super-rushing about) but the need to include a rollcall of super skillz (behold how Alexander Shipp’s Storm… freezes shit) adds an underlying element of the formulaic. To be fair, this is nothing new, or old, as the Russo brothers encountered similar in their Endgame finale; they were just more confident with the derivative aspects.

There are further such incidents, such as the encounter at Jean’s dad’s house and a helicopter wrestling contest at Erik’s hippy commune (Michael Fassbender’s really not too convincing with his acting masterclass “imagine you’re straining and suffering metal fatigue” posturing), a New York street battle pitting Erik’s earthy undesirables against Charles’ allegiant adepts, and the aforementioned finale, a mixture of shoddy, sometimes psychedelically so, CGI effects – so about as psychedelic as a fractal screensaver – and unconvincing hero moments that feels entirely familiar and less than essential (I find it difficult to believe the original version’s reputed space set battle was more underwhelming).

Part of the problem with the finale is that the picture’s best realised moments come with the uneasy sympathetic villainy of Jean; when it relocates that to the entirely banal Vuk, Jessica Chastain in albino guise, a gaping hole of tension is left. Chastain is given one good scene, in which, as her character’s original human form, she’s goes out to check on her barking dog, but after that she’s as rote and undistinguished as they come. There ought to be a degree of empathy for the D’Bari, given the fate that befell their race via the cosmic force possessing Jean, but instead they just want to take the power for themselves and use it for destruction. It’s yawn-stifling.

Which means the weight of conflict and motivation for the rest of the X-players has to derive from Jean’s actions, which in turn spin heavily on her accidental killing of Raven. Jennifer Lawrence apparently persuaded Kinberg to put himself forward as director, so she’s at least partly responsible for the messy results. Presumably, she savoured the prospect of an impaled, spluttery death scene to add to her resumé, although it says a lot about how her stock has plummeted in the last few years (Passengers, Red Sparrow, Mother!) that she’s now objectively reduced to extended cameos in a second-league superhero franchise (which, let’s face it, it largely is without Hugh Jackman). Raven is duly granted a spiel about Charles’ irresponsibility – you know, a meaty acting moment where she can avoid the blue paint job she loathes so much – which is entirely spoiled by a puerile bit about calling the X-Men “X-Women” instead, as the women do all the saving. It’s not quite as savagely patronising as the MCU sisters line-up moment in Endgame, but its evidence of a similarly stultifying level of cynicism and absence of wit on the part of those joining the dots of furthering a progressive agenda.

When Matthew Vaughn made First Class, it felt that, in McAvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence and Hoult, he’d cherrypicked the best possible younger incarnations of Singer’s X-band. Now, getting on for a decade later, only Hoult is still impressing with his choices. Fassbender increasingly seems to have headed down a career cul-de-sac through flaunting his Hollywood wares to diminishing returns (no matter how juicy a part android David is), such that it seems entirely appropriate that his character should be a washed-up site manager of a broken-down caravan park. McAvoy will appeal in any old shit (Victor Frankenstein) but at least there’s a degree of entertainment value in his flexing of his B-movie muscles (Atomic Blond, Split). Only Hoult seems to be able bring anything vital to the material, and he’s saddled with a standard “feeling betrayed, going to the other side and back” arc that rather undermines how methodical we know Hank to be. Cumulatively, there’s something rather slumming it about their all reuniting for this last-legs X-Men outing, almost an apologia rather than a grand send-off, given that it will be rebooted in the next few years by Kevin Feige. 

Erik: Just one game, for old times' sake.

Kinberg, like Alex Kurtzman, would have been best to start small rather than jump straight into a blockbuster, as he won’t be trusted with the same again in a hurry, but there have been far worse entries in this genre, and from more successful directors (Tim Story and Mark Steven Johnson both earned repeat shots and delivered negligibly on each occasion). Of course, Kinberg hasn’t entirely capped Fox’s two-decades spanning franchise with X-Men: Dark Phoenix. There’s still the even more delayed The New Mutants to come next year, by which point it will have been two-and-a-half years since principal photography wrapped (whether it garners a cinema release has been questioned, though, as it might seem like throwing away advertising spends). What will the series’ legacy be? Inconsistency, in part, and the perils of a studio with no inherent affinity for the material beyond gross. But X-Men still gets points for perseverance, effectively kicking off the modern era (with Spider-Man) and managing to stick it out until the end of what may – given that peaks necessarily need subsequent troughs – come to be seen as the golden age of the reigning champ that is the MCU.


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