Cast: Sophie Turner, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Alexandra Shipp. Directed by: Simon Kinberg.
Thanks to the Disney acquisition of Fox, there is now a large issue with the X-Men movies, in that they’re coming to an end. X-Men, in the hands of 20th Century Fox, began life twenty years ago as a cerebral science fiction film with top class actors and a metaphor for the downtrodden in society. Bryan Singer made a thoughtful but thrilling film that put comic book movies on the map, wiping away the camp of Superman and Batman adaptations, and leading us into this golden age of comic book movies.
Despite some good contributions to the series – namely X2, the Deadpool films, The first two-thirds of The Wolverine, and Logan – the series has had two major issues: too many characters and too many bad films that confused the continuity. Now ending the series, but without planning to, Dark Phoenix brings us the most obvious sign of why Marvel needs the series back.
In 1992, the President of the United States has a hotline to Charles Xavier and requests help with a botched space mission. He sends the X-men (Beast, Mystique, Cyclops, Storm, Nightcrawler, Quicksilver and Jean Grey) to help them out, but a storm in space hits and seemingly kills Jean. When they return to Earth she appears to be – worryingly – absolutely fine. Then things get worse.
Simon Kinberg, who has been involved in the X-series since X-Men: The Last Stand as a writer and producer steps up to director in this film, and tries to atone for the mess of his debut X flick. He doesn’t. Even with the time travel silliness of X-Men: Days of Future Past, this film continues the decade hopping gimmick of these sequels and puts us in the 90s, despite Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy having not aged since the 60s.
The set up that the X-Men are mainstream superheroes, that Xavier has a direct line to the President is ripped straight from Thunderbirds, and the blasting off into space gimmicks of the first half hour is so laughably stupid you expect Ben Kingsley to show up and Busted to do the theme song. It immediately goes against what made the series so interesting – the subtext. Be it about mental illness, LGBT+ themes, race, the X-Men series wore it large and rather proudly to begin with. X-Men was all about registers – “we must know who they are, we must know what they can do” may sound like a familiar fear for many in the LGBT+ society, and X2’s coming out scene – in which McKellen was on set to coach them on how it’d work – playing around with the concept of a cure for mutants, and even First Class proudly proclaimed “mutant and proud” at the height of the sixties – it’s not subtle stuff.
Here, a possibly interesting look at the stigmatism of mental illness could have been made from Jean Grey’s descent into the Phoenix but alas it wastes it on too many plot strands. The screenplay is laughable, not a scene goes by without people awkwardly stating their motivations and backstory. At one point old friends Magneto and Professor X basically tell each other their backstories for reasons known only to themselves despite them having been frenemies for some thirty years.
Similarly, anyone who found the collateral damage of Apocalypse a little worrisome fear not, because trains are the enemies of the X-Men. Subways are ripped from the ground, large freight trains thrown into the air, not a conversation goes by without something exploding and people dying – and it’s a nasty violent film. Logan had a serious tone and a western vibe that worked brilliantly for what it wanted to achieve, and Deadpool had a childlike glee in the ultra-violence it had, but here it’s people being impaled a ridiculous amount with no real weight but to make people argue over things that don’t really make sense.
Worst of all, Kinberg decides that now is the time to introduce aliens into the franchise with zero explanation. They’re shapeshifters that resemble the aliens from Signs, and they want the Phoenix force for— of who cares, it makes no sense and worst than that wastes Jessica Chasten in a thankless role as a personality void villain.
The performances are all universally terrible, James McAvoy spends his time in a faux British accent looking off into the middle distance, while Fassbender growls every line like he just woke up from a nap. The younger cast are given less to do, franchise favourite Quicksilver is hurt early one so he can’t do anything robbing the film of humour, Tye Sheridan and Sophie Turner do their best to pretend they have chemistry but neither can do more than look a little moody, while Kodi Smit-McPhee as teleporter Nightcrawler is allowed to gawk awkwardly at things.
There’s no internal logic to the film, Magneto as per these prequel films is a global terrorist thanks to nearly killing Nixon and then the world in Apocalypse, yet the President gifts him an Island (the closest we’ll ever get to Genosha being a thing) where he and mutants can live like a hippie commune.The hotline to X-Mansion is basically the Bat-phone from the old Adam West series, or worse still a reference to The Powerpuff Girls. It also makes no sense that Mystique, a proud mutant would constantly make herself look human, or want to quit – the fact that she’s still a major driving force of the X-men conflicts so offensively with original (read: good) films that you wonder if Jennifer Lawrence keeps taking her Oscar statue out and forcing changes to accommodate her.
By the time the film gets to its Magneto and Charles disagree over a mutant finale that has basically been the franchise thus far (Jean Grey can join Sebastian Shaw, Mystique and Apocalypse in the MacGuffin role), you’re so bored and dulled by uninspired action that you forget who is fighting who and who they are allied with. There’s too many characters, and none are given enough time to breathe and have proper motivation. It’s not impossible to do it either – X2 did it, more importantly Avengers: Endgame had triple the amount of characters and managed to balance big world ending stakes with an emotional heft. This appears to be a film made on a weekend, with people not interested in being there.
Twenty years ago the X-Men were an event, now it’s become time to RSVP a firm no.