Dark Phoenix perfectly sums up a series that constantly flubs the landing
Liam MagurenFeatures | 07 June 19
In his two-star review, Flicks’ Tony Stamp wrote that Dark Phoenix ended a once-mighty franchise not with a bang, but a shrug. Liam Maguren shares that sentiment, but says we shouldn’t be surprised that the film flubbed the landing—the series has been doing it for ages.
The following contains spoilers for Dark Phoenix.
Fox’s X-Men series did a lot to shape superhero cinema. For that, we owe our undying thanks. But we also cannot deny that this series has wibble wobbled all over the Richter scale of quality.
The first entry showed an admirable amount of confidence in the costume department, straying away from beloved designs to make their mutants stand on their own feet/paws. The film itself isn’t on the same level as, say, Superman II but it was a significant step to where we are today.
Then there was X2, a superior sequel that evolved its characters, added deeper layers to its human-mutant relationships, and gave my boy Nightcrawler one of the series’ best fight scenes.
When it got to the trilogy-maker, people rubbed their hands in anticipation. What they got was a crudely way-off-the-mark pants-shitter that’s too flawed to list. (Somewhere near the top of that list is Vinnie Jones yelling: “I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!”)
Given what came before, X-Men: The Last Stand was a severe letdown.
It took five years for the core franchise to kiss its boo-boos and return with Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class. And, boy, talk about a reboot done properly. Not only did James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender do right by Patrick “Professor X” Stewart and Sir Ian “Magneto” McKellen, the 1960s period setting allowed for a striking point of difference.
Xavier was a groovy cat. Erik was a Nazi hunter. Mystique actually mattered. And, to this day, it still maintains the most horrifying death-by-coin scene ever committed to film. This was a return to form. A phoenix from the ashes, if you will.
Vaughn had a whole trilogy planned out, with a second film set in the 70s with a new, younger Wolverine in the limelight. It would then culminate in the timeline-merging Days of Future Past.
However, Fox liked the idea of Days of Future Past so much, they wanted it immediately. Vaughn was deadset on having a film in between to really give his trilogy weight, but “they didn’t listen to me” he told ComingSoon.net, so he dropped out (the second time he’d abruptly left the franchise after wisely bailing on The Last Stand at the eleventh hour).
In a coincidentally retrospective move, they rehired the director of the first two X-Men films for Days of Future Past. To Fox’s credit, that film proved to be an entry worth getting excited for. It managed to entertain as a blockbuster while also purging the franchise of previous flubs thanks to course-correcting timeline mumbo jumbo.
To Fox’s disgrace though, it also exposed their lack of vision and foresight. In that same interview, Vaughn said that he told Fox: “Well what do you do next? Trust me you’ve got nowhere to go.” That ‘nowhere’ was X-Men: Apocalypse.
It was a mess. Oscar Isaac was little more than a blue Hitler dressed like a rejected Doctor Who villain, returning characters weren’t fleshed out in satisfying ways, new characters weren’t given time to shine, and the climax was just a blurry Dragon Ball Z fight set to a navy-and-grey colour filter.
Once again, X-Men betrayed the goodwill built up by two excellent films by releasing a lacklustre follow-up. Staying oddly faithful to this tradition of flubbing the landing, Dark Phoenix is itself a reverse Phoenix.
The first two acts start off surprisingly strong. Sure, you have to ignore that suddenly the X-Men can go to space and that suddenly there are aliens. However, there’s strength in its core conflict regarding Professor X’s long-brewing arrogance and carelessness towards his disciples.
By implanting mental blocks without her knowledge, Jean Grey rightfully feels violated and misunderstood. Raven and Beast call Xavier out on his BS, but like a typical older dude too used to feeling right and in control, he can’t admit his wrongdoing. Meanwhile, Magneto’s all about the humble life and staying out of people’s business.
This provides a strong, fascinating flip on two long-standing characters that the film does very little with. By the time we board a fun but superficial train sequence, Dark Phoenix dismisses those themes with a gigantic yawn, too afraid to do something truly new.
(I haven’t mentioned the Jessica Chastain-led alien villains yet, and why should I? They’re as dull as coleslaw.)
Writer-director Simon Kinberg looked ready to give Jean Grey the justice she deserved after The Last Stand (which he helped fumble). However, whether due to the reshot finale or just general storytelling incompetence, the movie simply crumbles.
We should have expected this. And, let’s be honest, most of us did. It’s poetic, in a way, to have this series burn into a pile of ash before Disney picks the IP back up again.
At least we got one true Phoenix out of Fox’s X-Men franchise in Wolverine. It still amazes me that a spinoff trilogy could start with something so pungently awful as Origins and rise to the blazing glory of James Mangold’s Logan.
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