I wonder if in 10 or 15 years, we’ll look back at the entirety of the X-Men years like an early college-bound hipster looked at their nu-metal records at the start of the decade. That is to say, we’ll regard these movies as with a palpable sense of shame and embarrassment, with the occasional flash of nostalgic glee during a particular refrain or, of course, the giving of proper credit where it’s due (Logan, most of X2).
It was an evolutionary step, there to help us through our growing pains and our darkest moments as nerdy children, but quickly shed once brighter and better things were offered to us: Along with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (emo) and the Nolan Batman films (major label “indie”), they were building blocks on the road to poptimism (the MCU). There’s something so archaic about it’s half-hearted approach to the comic book world after all — the “What, would you rather be wearing leather spandex?” ideology, which the franchise has never truly abandoned, is quite quaint in a cinematic landscape where the Guardians of the Galaxy make hundreds of millions of dollars — and its light embrace of “darkness” gives it a surface approximation of depth. Such is the case with Simon Kinberg’s Dark Phoenix, the penultimate installment of the X-Franchise (remember, we still have New Mutants hitting sometime later this year), which is about as low as blockbuster filmmaking gets in this day and age.
Once again forgoing any of the cosmic goofiness that made the original comic book storyline memorable, Dark Phoenix takes most of its cues from Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand, from Jean Grey’s (Sophie Turner, who, despite some trouble with the American accent, really isn’t that bad here) red-clad trench-coat to the way that she disintegrates fools when she decides it’s time to fight. That’s where the movie picks up most of its plot threads, as well. The main difference this time is that the Phoenix Force — the all-powerful entity that possesses Grey — isn’t just an alternate personality, and that it’s actually alien in origin. Jean is transformed by the entity when she’s on a space mission with the rest of the X-Men, who are now national heroes (in the film’s sole sight gag that lands, they now have a direct line to the President, in the form of a telephone that sits on his desk in the Oval Office, complete with X-Logo). So, she’s super-powerful and whatnot, and those superpowers com at a cost: Jean’s psyche starts to break down, and she learns that Professor X (James McAvoy) meddled with her mind to suppress traumatic memories of the childhood car accident that claimed her mother’s life.
So, while the film is busy making these overtures at “trauma,” our latest pop-psychology Occam’s Razor in which the simplest explanation for a given character’s motivation is a lone tragic event in their past, Jean is off discovering some bad shit about her dad, lashes out at the X-Group and, as shown in the trailer, offs Mystique (Jennifer Lawerence), which saddens all three of the dudes who fell in love with her over the course of the franchise: X, Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), all whom have the same motivation. In her turmoil, and rejected by the commune-running Master of Magnetism and war criminal, she turns to an alien (Jessica Chastain), who suggests that she can help her control her powers — much like Professor X did back in the day. This time, she’s perfectly cool with someone manipulating her, just as long as they’re emphasizing the fact that she can totally whip their asses whenever. And so, the Dark Phoenix is born — well, not really. She never does anything too bad: Mystique’s death is clearly an accident, and she never really joins up with the baddies ideologically either, which at least The Last Stand made efforts at selling.
But whereas Ratner, at least, knew how to shoot and stage an action sequence (regardless of his scummy personality, the dude made the Rush Hour franchise compelling for most of the late ‘90s), Kinberg has no such visual flair, and all of Dark Phoenix’s fights look like something ripped out of an Uwe Boll tax scam. Worst among these is a fight that takes place on the Upper West Side (didn’t Manhattan get destroyed in the last one, anyways?) between Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil D-Listers and the X-Men, which descends into uninteresting chaos believing it to be style. Still bad is a sequence set on a moving train, which features perhaps the worst CGI that you’ll see in a movie produced by a major studio this year, which most likely came from Disney and/or Fox not wanting to lose any more money on this motherfucker. The drabness, which has been a feature of the X-Films since day one, given that superhero costumes were still regarded as silly by Hollywood, is suffocating: everything is grey and empty. Or, it’s poorly-done, with once reliable, seemingly impossible-to-fuck-up effects like Magneto’s levitation looking cheap and garish.
This “let’s get this out of the way” malaise seems to infect everything, especially the actors, who are presumably glad to cross off a contractual requirement while the checks can still be cashed. If an actor were ever to have a Metal Machine Musicor a Chaos and Disorder moment, this would be Lawerence’s, who seems so exhausted by this entire process at this point that she can barely hold in her (still visible) frustration with her agents. She has an Oscar, for God’s sake, and surely should be doing better trash than this with her spare time, like she did with Red Sparrow. Chastain’s alienness would typically be an asset in a film (and a role) like this, given how she’s a floaty etherial presence in a lot of her best work, such as Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, but she’s failed by the script. Her character, Vuk, the head of the D’Bari race, is too vaguely written to be menacing or threatening: Her and her band of faceless goons are simply cannon fodder, free of the bonds of “personality” or “wit.” F
assbender, Hoult, and the rest of the X-Men regulars are given glancing moments in the spotlight, all of whom disappear underneath the crushing blandness. Only Sheridan and McAvoy make impressions, the former not in the way you’d hope, as he’s being forced by Kinberg to say awkward, nigh-unreadable dialogue at any given turn, including the film’s only “fuck,” which caused my audience to erupt with laughter. And for those who want a good McAvoy performance in a superhero movie about “trauma” from earlier this year, just watch Glass, a movie with more ambition in its opening sequence than Kinberg can muster in an entire film.
Dark Phoenix is the kind of aggressively bad summer blockbuster that Hollywood used to make in the halcyon days of the Comic-Con era, where the mere attempt at pandering to the geeks and nerds of the world would be enough to sell some tickets. But fans and critics have wised up to the joys and insanities of the comic book universes in which these characters inhabit, and such aggressive “gritty” posturing feels ugly and outdated. I have no doubt in my mind that everyone involved in this film wanted to make something wonderful, that would cap off decades of fandom and expectation from this odd little franchise, and it’s a shame that the product didn’t deliver. But perhaps that’s what happens when your franchise loses it’s biggest star and foundational character while also having its central ethos undermined by the shifting winds of pop culture favor — it’s a sort of superhero Son of the Pink Panther, if you will.
Regardless of whatever major merger ended this franchise prematurely, it still wasn’t hard to see the writing on the wall for it. Sometimes, the curtain call is inevitable, and it’s sad that the X-Men had to go out like this.