If we include the Wolverine spin-offs, and discount the two Deadpool films – given they look in on this universe, rather than feel of it – with even James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart jokes/references in the first entry – there have been nine entries prior to X-Men: Dark Phoenix. These split roughly into three camps (allowing for slight variations, according to taste, of course): the good-to-very good – X2, X-Men: First Class, Logan; the decent-to-somewhat good – X-Men, The Wolverine, X-Men: Days of Future Past; the poor-to-execrable – The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men: Apocalypse. Across the course of 19 years, audiences have been given a slate of films of hugely varying quality, but it is worth remembering – and fair to note – that some of these were very good indeed.
For all this, and the fact that First Class rebooted the series only eight years ago (with Days of Future Past also providing a reboot, of sorts, by way of a timeline reset), it is surprising how much ill-will there is towards this series, and the general scepticism with which Dark Phoenix was met. Part of this is the even split in quality of the films above; audiences are never sure what they will be getting. The post-2011 continuity started with two strong entries, only to be followed by a serious clunker in Apocalypse. The Wolverine sub-series has run the gamut from unwatchable to sublime. In addition, there has been a lack of care and consistency given to continuity, with events of one films often ignored or retconned without explanation next time out (think Mystique’s impersonation of Stryker in Days of Future Past being ignored in the very next film; Beast being unable to take a normal human form – until we find he can; Bolivar Trask changing size dramatically – and countless other examples). This gives out the message that no-one at the wheel cares enough, either for the property or the fan base, to even attempt internal consistency. That the series entered this year in such poor esteem so short a time from a successful reset, spoke to a series running on fumes.
X-Men: Dark Phoenix is, as the name suggests, a second attempt at a telling of the Jean Grey/Dark Phoenix storyline. The first was The Last Stand, from 2006. That Fox were willing to greenlight this, and put Simon Kinberg in the Director’s chair, is suggestive also of a complete lack of imagination. Quite apart from the fact that Kinberg has never directed a feature film – of any size – he wrote the 2006 version of this story. This is akin to offering Sylvester Stallone the opportunity to write and direct a Rocky remake: utterly pointless. With decades of storylines on which to call, Fox offered a man with no experience the chance to direct a story he had already royally screwed up once. Hopes were not high.
Dark Phoenix ignores that Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) had the Phoenix skill-set at the end of Apocalypse, and treats audiences to her acquiring them again (this film is generally inconsistent with what’s been established since Days of Future Past – it’s best not to think too hard about it). It is 1992 (31 years having elapsed since First Class, without characters ageing beyond the eight years of real time that has passed), the X-Men respond to a distress signal from a space shuttle which has been damaged by a “solar flare”. In saving the crew of the shuttle, Jean is separated from everyone, and hit by the energy. The film deals with the instability this causes to her character, and the threat her skillset and character changes pose to the X-Men and the World. In attempting to understand her new circumstances, Jean is advised/manipulated by Vuk (Jessica Chastain – wasted, but good at… standing around), member of an alien race whose world was destroyed by the power.
The surprising news is Dark Phoenix is a reasonably competent ending to the series, and to Fox’s ownership of the property. After the endless reshoots and delays, it is nowhere near as messy in structure, or cheap cosplay in aesthetic as Apocalypse (and the effects work is of a higher standard). In fact, it belongs in the middle grouping referenced above (albeit at the weaker end). Kinberg has produced a better, more emotionally resonant film than The Last Stand. The film leaves us happy to leave this series, but in a good way: it feels complete.
On a more negative note, the film has little real imagination, or anything approaching decent dialogue (this having some of the weakest exchanges of any superhero film). It is a curiosity that this is far better directed than written (despite moments of unintentional humour – Charles and a flight of stairs being laugh-out-loud, during a supposed moment of tension). Performances are uneven. Sophie Turner was wooden and unengaging in Apocalypse – to the point that this, not the repetition of the storyline, was the biggest worry when this project was announced. She is fine here – just about. Michael Fassbender awakens the film with his appearance, in the same way as he did in Apocalypse. Jennifer Lawrence appears to no longer want to wear the blue make-up and, without doubt, phones it in. McAvoy struggles with the poor dialogue on offer (plus in the prologue there is some subtle, yet noticeable de-ageing performed on him that doesn’t work).
There have been many worse superhero films, than this. Though, it is probably fair to say that the truly awful quality of its predecessor, Apocalypse, leaves this looking a little better than had it followed one of the better entries. It avoids the bottom three, but the best we could say is that this is merely the fourth-worst (or seventh-best) X-Men film. This franchise has been most damaged by its lack of consistency, with the poor overall reception to this entry likely a reflection, in part, that the series has worn out its welcome. Now this property returns home to Marvel, where we must hope for greater care and consistency than from 20th Century Fox.