“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.
Now, for reasons I still can’t figure out, this is also where the film introduces us to a bunch of aliens, led by Jessica Chastain, who are in pursuit of this space gunk. Why this movie also needs “aliens” is beyond me. What I think they were trying to do is set Chastain’s character up to be kind of like Mastermind in the comics – the villain who manipulates Jean and her new powers. But, instead, we just spend the whole movie trying to figure out who Chastain is even playing. (Honestly, poor Chastain seems about as confused as the audience is as she’s doing some sort of monotone “I am an alien, take me to your leader” voice.) Here’s the best explanation I could come up with: In the end credits, Chastain’s character is credited as “Vuk.” Doing a search of some Marvel Wikipedia type sites, Vuk is a member of the Xartan alien race who seldomly appeared in anything really – which makes “Vuk” an odd choice to be the villain. Though, considering all these aliens are shapeshifters, I suspect they were initially envisioned at Skrulls, at least until Captain Marvel used Skrulls in that film and, well, here’s now fan favorite “Vuk” for the viewing masses.
Again, going back to that quote to start this whole thing, Dark Phoenix is filled with a lot of speeches. Gone from Dark Phoenix is any sense of joy (or anything fun like the also aforementioned “you’re a dick” scene; or even those killer Quicksilver slow-motion scenes from the last two films) and it’s all replaced with speech after speech after speech by actors who look like they wish they were doing literally anything else – in a story that seems like it’s been patched together with fragments of a much better story they weren’t allowed to tell. (Jennifer Lawrence, who is still somehow playing Mystique and is second-billed in this movie, is only in this movie for a grand total of maybe 15 minutes. If you’re a big Jennifer Lawrence fan and you just can’t wait to see the new Jennifer Lawrence movie, well be warned she’s barely in this.)
What a bummer for this franchise to end on Apocalypse and, now, Dark Phoenix. Yes, there have been plenty of clunkers along the way, but these X-Men movies have also provided us with some legitimate classics. And now, somewhere down the line, Marvel will reboot the X-Men to fit into the MCU. (If nothing else, at least there will be some continuity, something that always plagued this franchise. Don’t forget, somehow Michael Fassbender will look like Ian McKellen just eight years after the events of Dark Phoenix.) But I will miss this franchise. When they got it right, these movies could be incredible. I do wonder, 20 years from now, how we’ll look back on these movies. My guess is entries like Dark Phoenix and X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Last Stand will be forgotten, while films like X2 and First Class and Logan will all be remembered fondly.
So, yes, it’s a shame we didn’t get one last great X-Men film, but in the end, it won’t matter. There are still a whole heck of a lot of them that will stand the test of time.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.