“You’re always sorry. There’s always a speech. Nobody cares anymore.” This is a line of dialogue spoken by Michael Fassbender’s Magneto to James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier during the new, and last, of these X-Men movies, Dark Phoenix (at least of this particular storyline; the forever delayed New Mutants is still technically on the release schedule). And for the life of me, I don’t understand how this line could be put in this movie unless the filmmakers had all just kind of given up, because it’s impossible not to interpret it as a kind of breaking the fourth wall meta-commentary about the proceedings held forth in front of us. Yes, this is a movie filled with speeches.
Sadly, everything about Dark Phoenix just feels unnecessary – and it shows in the performances, as everyone just seems to be going through the motions, wondering how on Earth their contracts aren’t up yet. It’s a stark contrast to Matthew Vaughn’s rip-roaring, excitingly cool X-Men: First Class that kick-started this new cast. Now everyone looks bored.
It’s now the second attempt at adapting the X-Men comics’ Dark Phoenix Saga to the big screen. It was first squeezed in Brett Ratner’s 2006 X-Men: The Last Stand and now tried again in Simon Kinberg’s Dark Phoenix, to not much better success. And on top of all that, after the sale of 20th Century Fox to Disney, this film now serves as an unofficial ending to a 19-year-old franchise that, despite its ups and downs, deserved a lot better.
The first X-Men, way back in 2000, deserves more credit (or blame, depending on your point of view) for ushering in the superhero-infested theatrical waters we now live in. It was only three years prior Batman & Robin did its best to kill the superhero genre forever. It’s one particular scene that stands out in that first X-Men: As Mystique disguises herself as Wolverine, Wolverine proves his true self by calling Cyclops a “dick,” which Cyclops quickly accepts as valid identification. At the time this was somewhat groundbreaking, a scene played for laughs in a superhero movie that was “adult” in nature. We’ve seen it literally a hundred times since, but, then, this was a pretty shocking and hilarious scene. And it became a kind of template in tone for these X-Men movies, and then the MCU, for the next 19 years.
In the comics, Jean Grey (played by Sophie Turner) is hit by a solar flare that gives her heightened powers that eventually leads to Jean calling herself Phoenix, then Dark Phoenix. In the film Dark Phoenix, it’s 1992 and the X-Men are asked to rescue the Space Shuttle Endeavor that’s being attacked by some sort of space gunk – a gunk that Jean Grey eventually absorbs. Whatever this gunk is remains a fairly confusing plot point for most of the movie. The best explanation was that it’s kind of like the Genesis device from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: It can create life out of lifelessness, but also destroy any life it encounters. Anyway, whatever. Jean is now possessed by this space gunk, which causes her to lose control of her emotions and wreck havoc on anyone who stands in her way – something that winds up dividing the X-Men into “pro-Jean” and “we should just kill Jean” factions.