It’s not unreasonable to say that the modern superhero explosion would never have happened without 20th Century Fox’s X-Men. It’s hard to remember now, but in 2000 the Batmanfranchise was dead, courtesy of Batman Forever, and even James Cameron couldn’t get Spider-Man to the big screen. The idea of a Marvel Cinematic Universe seemed impossible, but it was undeniably inspired by the look and feel of the merry mutants. Yet the X-franchise has often been overshadowed by its offspring, not least because of cinematic self-sabotage. While it’s had some of the genre’s real high points (Logan, the fourth-wall-busting Deadpool), it’s also seen some of the lowest points, like the sloppy X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
Now, cursed with an unfathomable continuity, which has been regularly rebooted and often ignored, the franchise grinds to an end (well, almost: there’s still the long-delayed New Mutantsarriving next year).
Blame, if you must blame anyone, the purchase of Fox by Disney – a purchase that probably never would have happened if it hadn’t been for Fox’s X-Men reviving mainstream interest in Marvel and triggering the massively lucrative MCU. If only the culmination of this iteration of Charles Xavier’s students made as much narrative sense.
Instead, series producer Simon Kinberg writes and directs another take on the seminal “Dark Phoenix” plot, where psychic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) becomes possessed of world-threatening powers.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because Brett Ratner already fumbled the ball in 2006 when he adapted it as the dull X-Men: The Last Stand. This time, Jean ends up absorbing the Phoenix Force – a cosmic entity responsible for the life and death cycle across the cosmos – after the team heads to space to rescue a doomed Space Shuttle crew. When she returns to Earth, her proxy father, Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), is still convinced he’s doing the right thing, even as all signs point to disaster.
It doesn’t help that this iteration of the X-verse, which began with the period kitsch of First Class and has slumped ever since, lacks most of the franchise’s power players. Kinberg’s dourest timeline loses the most charismatic characters (so no Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool, no Hugh Jackman as Logan, no Josh Brolin as Cable). Even Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique, around whom the last three films were built, plays a reduced role.
But there are flashes of what made the franchise work. Turner, after stumbling through the part in the rocky terrain of X-Men: Apocalypse, finally gets to grapple with the emotional complexities of a woman whose gifts are the most constant curse (which makes it all the more of a shame that Sheridan, as her constant love Cyclops, is just a blip on the narrative landscape). Meanwhile the remaining team is riven over exactly how to deal with her: with Magneto (Michael Fassbender) exiled after striking an uneasy peace with the U.S. government, it’s up to Hoult as the blue-furred brainy Beast to be the new intellectual foil to Xavier, and to at least raise a few interesting questions about the ego of a man who named an entire superhero team after himself. McAvoy is no longer simply channeling Patrick Stewart’s Xavier but has become his own, arrogant version of the character, and he gives a lot of heft to the themes buried in the script.
Yet suggestions of questions are all the audience really gets. Kinberg may deliver some of the most epic images from the series, but the story is flat. It’s fortunate that Turner is such a fiery presence because Chastain as Vux, leader of the D’Bari (the alien race incinerated by Phoenix in the original comic, now reduced to knock-off Skrulls) is arguably the least memorable X-villain to date. Moreover, her plan to steal or kill or manipulate or something the Phoenix Force is so ill-defined as to make it seem like someone flipped a few pages forward in the script.
For all its flaws, what’s most disappointing is that Dark Phoenix was the final chance for the Fox X-verse to really flex its muscles. The franchise has been Earth-bound from day one, so why introduce the Phoenix and have a final fight on a train? If Kinberg as writer-director wasn’t prepared to throw the universe at the screen, why not pull from an X-Men plot that deals with the original core idea of mutants as a proxy for every oppressed minority?
Fans of the comics can probably list a dozen plotlines – X-Tinction Agenda, Operation Zero Tolerance, X-Cutioner’s Song, Schism or the seminal God Loves, Man Kills graphic novel – that would have said more about the X-Men than this last, valiantly attempted remix.
DARK PHOENIX ( 2 1/2 ) Directed by Simon Kinberg• Starring Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Jessica Chastain • Rated PG-13 • 113 min. • At Century Cinemas Del Monte, Century Marina, Northridge Cinemas, Lighthouse Cinemas