I talk about superheroes a whole lot on this website. I’ve always felt a deep affection for these larger than life characters, in whatever medium they end up in. And, as with anything else, that sometimes works out great, and sometimes is a bit of a failure. We live in a period of over-saturation of superheroes, since their continued assurances at box office gold have instigated damn near every major studio to get their hands on the rights for whatever superhero is available for their turn at box office domination. But, it wasn’t always this way. Growing up, I would occasionally come across a big budget superhero movie every few years or so, and had to get a majority of my superhero entertainment from animated shows. And, one of the film franchises that came about during this period of relative unease with the superhero genre were the X-Men movies. Now, I’ve never been the biggest X-Men fan, in comics or really any other medium, but there was a chunk of time where those original X-Men films were some of the only choices I had, and I found myself drawing towards them and their style of adapting these characters in as grounded and realistic manner that one could when telling stories about superpowered mutants fighting each other. But, as time went one, and more and more superhero movies started to get made, the X-Men franchise started to lose quite a bit of its luster. Several terrible choices seemed to show that the franchise was truly dead, at a time when larger, more faithful adaptations were becoming king. But, that all seemed to turn around with X-Men First Class, a movie that essentially functioned as a reboot of the old series, telling a new story with actual zeal in it. But, almost immediately, things started to slide again. With each new entry to this franchise my enjoyment and excitement has dropped further, until we’ve reached this, the latest and final entry in one of the longest running superhero movie franchises of all time, Dark Phoenix. What started as the dominate superhero film adaptation has now resulted in a baffling final entry that ended up being released after the announcement that a different company would be taking a swing at these characters in the forthcoming years, all but ensuring that this film wouldn’t matter in the slightest. And, as you might have guessed from a pedigree like that, it doesn’t lead to a particularly great movie.
Dark Phoenix pick up in the early 1990’s, continuing the franchises trend of hopping ahead roughly a decade at a time, to see that the X-Men have more or less been accepted as member of society. Charles Xavier is a national figure, and his team of mutants are called upon in moments of dire need. Such as when the space shuttle Endeavour is damaged by a solar flare during a mission, requiring the X-Men’s aid in rescuing the astronauts. So, the team suit up and head into space to save the day, utilizing their abilities to save the astronauts. Unfortunately, an accident occurs in the process, leading Jean Grey to absorb the entire might of the peculiar solar energy. She is brought back down to Earth where the X-Men find that her powers have been amplified to an unbelievable degree, but otherwise seems fine. That is until she starts to have a bit of a mental breakdown, getting visions of previously hidden memories that show that she was responsible for her mother’s death. She also learns that her father, who she thought was also dead, is still alive. So, still writing with newfound power, Jean heads to meet with her father, and finds only disappointment. She learns that her father basically abandoned her to Charles Xavier who then began blocking her memories and powers to keep her from reaching her full potential. Which is when the rest of the X-Men arrive to try and talk Jean down. But, in a rage she lashes out at them, and ends up killing her friend and mentor Mystique, before flying away.
Jean has no idea where to go at this point, and ends up seeking aid from Magneto, the only other mutant she knows who has been able to curb his violent instincts. But, Magneto spurns Jean, sending her out into the world again, and into the clutches of an alien woman known as Vuk, who explains that the force inside of her has the ability to bestow people with great power that could be used for destruction or creation. And Vuk wants Jean to start embracing that power. However, at the same time a schism has occurred in the X-Men, with Hank McCoy deciding that they should try and kill Jean, while Charles thinks they can save her. Beast ends up siding with Magneto and some fellow mutant followers of his, and they begin tracking Jean down while Charles rallies Cyclopes, Storm, and Nightcrawler to aid him. Thye end up all running into each other in New York, just in time to see Vuk steal a majority of Jean’s powers, leaving them all to be abducted by the military who plan to take them to some sort of mutant detention facility. However, on the way to the facility they are ambushed by more aliens like Vuk who want to kill the mutants and take the rest of Jean’s powers. The mutants then begin working together, and are eventually able to defeat all of the aliens, with Jean taking the full force of her newfound powers back, before vanishing and leaving the rest of the mutants to their own devices.
I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t looking forward to this film. I hadn’t liked the last several X-Men movies, and it just seemed like an exercise in futility. The franchise is dead, and this film was just being released postmortem. The MCU has swallowed up the X-Men franchise, leaving this film and the perpetually delayed New Mutants in a strange state where most people had already agreed that the franchise was dead, and have moved on from it. And, sadly, this film didn’t really deliver anything to negate that general apathy. I made the perhaps insane statement when I discussed the last film in the franchise, Apocalypse, that while the movie was terrible, it was a pretty perfect example of X-Men comics, full of convoluted plotting and poorly defined characters. And this movie doesn’t even have that going for it. It’s incredibly straightforward, especially since it’s a story that has been done to death, even having been done once before already in the same franchise. But, at the same time, the film just doesn’t seem to know what to do with itself. It hand-waves away some elements of the plot, seemingly because we already know what’s going on, while spending a shocking amount of time to talk about things that ultimately don’t matter. This results in a movie where we’re given a primary villain whose name I only learned by checking Wikipedia, because I legitimately don’t think they ever said it. It’s a movie that’s just going through the motions, hitting all the main plot points they they needed to to tell this story, while also just giving us all of the same character developments that these characters just keep circling around in every movie, never actually gaining any traction. And all to tell a story that we’ve seen a million times, and done better.
Which really makes me confused about the inner workings of this film. I’ve never been the biggest X-Men fan, but as time went on it became increasingly clear that the first few movies in the franchise were deeply ashamed to be based on comic books. It was kind of the style of the time, to take the bright and colorful source material and throw it all out, giving us stories featuring none of the flash or style of the comics. But, times have changed, drastically. The success of the MCU has shown us that audiences are willing to accept some authenticity from their superhero stories, telling big and bold tales of larger than life characters. Which leaves this entire franchise feeling incredibly out of date. True, this film embraces some of the more comic booky elements of the source material than others in the franchise have, but it’s still a movie that seems to sneer at the idea of costumes and being called superheroes, which just seems hilariously old-minded. And, all of that comes together to make you question why this movie even exists. It’s telling a story that has already been told, somehow worse than before, and all the while seems embarrassed that it even exists, rushing it along to a finish point. Which is just strange. Because clearly the people behind this film saw something in the Dark Phoenix storyline that they felt justified this films existence, and then they said nothing with it. This franchise has survived in two extremely different climates for superhero movies, and found itself unable to evolve in a changing world, being left behind to be forgotten while sticking to its same old stubborn ways. Which is more than a tad ironic.
Dark Phoenix was written and directed by Simon Kinberg and released by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2019.
Categories: Reel Talk