The X-Men Franchise, Shot Down in a Blaze of Glory?
DIRECTED BY SIMON KINBERG/2019
Longtime readers of Marvel comics know that the Phoenix entity is among the most unstoppable in the galaxy. That said, the latest X-Men film, Dark Phoenix, has numerous viable challenges to withstand at the summer box office. It is the first X-Men movie to not feature Hugh Jackman’s popular Wolverine character in any way; it’s following on the immediate heels Marvel Studio’s record-smashing super-extravaganza Avengers: Endgame; and it is the series’s second attempt at adapting this particular tale, the previous being 2006’s limp X-Men: The Last Stand.
The Last Stand is but the first of several high profile fumbles throughout what launched as a very promising series. As far as director Bryan Singer has since fallen, his original X-Men (2000) and its even-better sequel, X2: X-Men United (2002) are the work of a filmmaker on fire. Though the films are rickety as adaptations, they proved that there was a large audience for a new kind of fanciful comic book action picture.
From there, both Marvel itself (as Marvel Studios, apart from this licensed property), DC, and even the X-Men series itself would come to comfortably embrace the far wilder and colorful tropes of the source material than Singer’s initial Earthbound black-leather jump-suited versions could fathom at the time.
With and without Bryan Singer, (who’d eventually return with his tail between his legs for two additional sequels), 20th Century Fox’s handling of their X-Men franchise has a track record that’s spottier than that of the noble X-villain, Magneto. The extreme ups and downs of the film series mirror that of the comic book’s long history, ranging from brilliant (Logan) to great (X-Men, X2) to just fine (X-Men: First Class, The Wolverine, X-Men: Days of Future Past) to “meh” (The Last Stand) to putrid (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men: Apocalypse). Off to the side, basking in a glow far brighter and wackier than any of the above films, and blowing raspberries all the while, is Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool series. Don’t look for his shenanigans in Dark Phoenix.
Despite that mountain of obstruction and apathy-inducing checkered history, Dark Phoenix is not a bad film. In fact, surprisingly, it’s one of the best of the franchise. Never mind the widely known fact that the film’s been sitting on the shelf for a few years, patiently awaiting the resolution of the big Disney buyout of 20th Century Fox. With this fairly unceremonious release, Dark Phoenix leaves its longtime shelf-mate, The New Mutants, to continue collecting dust.
As mentioned previously, the film’s story is a familiar one. Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), while acting heroically during a rescue mission in nearby outer space, is stricken by a mysterious entity of massive energy. The entity, known to fans as “The Phoenix” (though that monicker is barely acknowledged in the movie proper), comes to roost in her already considerably powerful consciousness. The trouble is, that try as she might, she can’t control it. And if Jean Grey can’t control this thing, it’s unlikely that anyone could.
Even so, a race of evil aliens, led by a blankly wicked Jessica Chastain, will go to any lengths to take the Phoenix power, as it would be the perfect weapon to overtake our planet. At one point, Jean even allows Chastain’s character to take this unwanted thing from her, as it’s proven horrifically lethal. But alas, ridding one’s self of one’s demons, be they metaphorical or external, is never nearly so easy. Along the way, a delicate and hidden history between Grey and the rather egotistical Professor X (James McAvoy), dating back to her arrival at his school for gifted youngsters, comes to the surface.
What makes Dark Phoenix a standout film in its series is the palpable care that first-time director Simon Kinberg brings to the table. Previously a producer of the series, Kinberg’s lament of the previous lack of cinematic justice having been done to the iconic “Dark Phoenix Saga” proved so strong that he decided to bite the bullet and direct it himself.
What we get, though flawed, is a tremendously refreshing straight-up shot at the material, for once unsaddled with any of Singer’s now-tired gay allegory or Last Stand director Matthew Vaughn’s gross red-blooded male overcompensation for it. This is the first X-Men film proper that is, dare I say, unburdened with any extraneous baggage of its filmmaker. (Such “baggage”- or perhaps “imprimaturs” is the better term- is far from being an always-problem. Most of the time, it’s a positive. But in this case, particularly in this age of the superior Marvel Cinematic Universe, it proves a relief). The allegories of outsider status and outcast heroics have always been heavy-handed enough without any extra piling-on. This one truly is about doing right by a story that it’s filmmaker deemed worthy and vital. Though the ending is rushed, and though Jennifer Lawrence (back again as Mystique for some reason) is acting with one foot out the door, the care and passion inherent in the production itself otherwise shows. Returning second-wave cast members Nicholas Hoult (Beast), Tye Sheridan (Cyclops), Alexandra Shipp (Storm), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Nightcrawler), Evan Peters (Quicksilver), and the formidable Michael Fassbender all do their parts to sell the weight of this story.
Regarding all the inter-studio turmoil as of late, the smart money has been on Dark Phoenix emerging as the final X-Men film of this nineteen-year run. The fate of New Mutants remains vague, and Deadpool will no doubt return sooner than later. But as for McAvoy’s Charles Xavier and company, this quite likely may be their adieu.
Despite the current trend to hate on this film, Dark Phoenix proves both a competent and focused directorial debut for Kinberg and a decent send-off for the franchise; itself a tragic tale of super-heroic selflessness and sacrifice looking to redeem its own brand- even if it’s destroyed in the process.