Marvel may have cornered the market for superhero movies but the first two X-Men films are still two of the most influential and well-made comic book movies of the last 20 years. Bryan Singer’s first two mutant-based films changed the game and, arguably, paved the way for the last 11 years of Marvel greatness. But it hasn’t been plain sailing since those early days. As much as we like to forget about it The Last Stand was horrific and only seemed better once X:Men Origins came out 3 years later. The reboot/prequel series that started with X-Men: First Class in 2011 and, for a little while, everything looked okay. Days of Future Past was as fantastic as we all wanted but then Apocalypse. Boy, was that a whole load of nothing. Basically, it’s been difficult being a film fan and a lover of these comics. So, when Disney took over 20th Century Fox recently, it looked as though we might finally get to see the X-Men film that we all deserve. It just might take a really long time. So, if I continue to not count New Mutants, Dark Phoenix is going to be our last real look at these characters in the cinema. Which makes it a massive shame that people seemed determined to ruin it before it even hit cinemas.
I’m a big fan of X-Men. In fact, I’d go so far as to say they are my favourite Marvel series. Yes, I love Thor and those guys but it’s always been the mutants that have interested me the most. And, there have been some absolutely amazing stories over the years. Days of Future Past was one such narrative that was adapted into a pretty successful film a few years ago. However, when we’re talking big storylines in the X-Men comics, there’s only one that gets people really going. The Dark Phoenix Saga is one of the all-time greatest storylines in comic book history and people have a lot of feelings about it. And, considering it’s already been butchered by Brett Ratner in The Last Stand, it was always going to be dodgy to try and remake it. Especially considering we’ve only known the Sophie Turner version of Jean Grey for one very disappointing film.
But they tried. Dark Phoenix picks up 10 years after X-Men Apocalypse and the X-Men are an established superhero team. The film starts with them taking on a space mission to save the astronauts on a doomed space shuttle. During the mission, Jean ends up by a mysterious solar-like energy. Miraculously, she survives but comes back to Earth a bit differently. Her powers are amplified and she begins to lose control. At the same time, the mental blocks that Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) put on her as a child. The same mental blocks that helped her forget the fact she accidentally caused her mother’s death. Jean starts to lose control and the body count starts to rise. Can the rest of the X-Men get to her before it’s too late?
Now, according to the internet, Dark Phoenix is the worst movie in the entire X-Men franchise. Yep, worse than Apocalypse and The Last Stand. So, it really did beg the question, is it? Short answer: no. Long answer: no but it’s not good either. Whilst Apocalypse was stuffed to the brim with unnecessary comic book movie cliches, Dark Phoenix is a much more streamlined narrative. It’s focus is on Jean and what happens when she loses control. Yes, there’s a really stupid story about some alien beings, one of whom took over Jessica Chastain. And it’s not as if anything is really explained very well. But, it all feels a lot tighter. Jean is a slightly better villain than Apocalypse ever was and gives Sophie Turner much more to do than Oscar Issacs ever was.
And there are some good things about this film. The first half sets up a great idea. It basically comes down to a parent making trying to make the decision of how to deal with a difficult and dangerous child. Charles loves Jean but knows what she is capable of. He made a choice when she was younger and is having to live with the consequences. And the Charles we see now is a very different one than we’ve seen before. His position in society has given him a bit of an ego and he’s starting to believe he knows everything. McAvoy has always played Xavier pretty well considering he took over from P Stew but this is a wonderful change of pace. It’s a great set-up as we see his hubris creating an awful chain of events. We also get the chance to see Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) in a softer way. As she and Charles move further and further apart she is the lone voice standing up to him. Finally, Nicholas Hoult does his best work as Hank McCoy here and finishes his time playing Beast on a high.
But, inevitably, all of these great moments are eventually pushed aside in favour of huge action set-pieces, underdeveloped evil aliens, and fighting. It’s all handled quite well but it’s kind of lifeless. There’s no spark left in this franchise. Take Michael Fassbender as proof. Yep, he is back as Magneto despite the fact that he nearlt destroyed Cairo last year. It’s never really explained why he is still a free man but never mind. He gets an interesting start living in a peaceful mutant colony. It’s something that could and should have been explored more. But, because blockbuster, it takes the flimsiest of excuses to get him to go evil again and that’s it. Back to basics. Fassbender was too good an actor for what these films let him do. He’s a great performer but he was only ever one-note.
It’s not that Dark Phoenix is the worst film in the X-Men franchise. It’s just that, as a way to end this run of films, it feels like a letdown. But that shouldn’t distract from the positives that it does have. The performances have always been solid in these films because, somehow, Fox managed to keep hold of so many great names. I agree that it’s not great and it does rely on the audience already knowing the previous versions of the characters. We’ve only known this Cyclops and Jean for one film and their relationship jumped dramatically between films. But we’re still supposed to care. Something we do but only because we’ve seen this before. Plus, there are some awful moments and the script is often terrible. But, let’s be honest, this is a fucking marvel compared to The Last Stand and Apocalypse. I don’t understand why people are being so petty about this. Is it just that it’s been so long? Maybe it helps that I recently rewatched Apocalypse for this Thursday’s post? Or maybe it helps that I’m not a pathetic individual that had decided it would fail before it was released.