Oh yeah… the X-Men… I remember the X-Men…
by Thom Yee
I hate X-Men: Apocalypse.
I hate its little face. I hate its guts. And I hate the way it ruined the X-Men franchise.
Though to be fair, X-Men: The Last Stand did that first.
And that’s really the story of the X-Men on the big screen: Generally okay movies ruined by a few bad installments. For every couple of decent ones — X-Men and X-Men 2 — and even some good or great ones — X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past — there’s an X-Men: The Last Stand or X-Men: Apocalypse to set things back and screw everything up for those that try to follow them. Even the Wolverine and Deadpool movies were both almost tanked before they could start by X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
And the craziest thing is it’s usually been much of the same creative teams behind the different chapters, good and bad. Bryan Singer directed X-Men 2 and X-Men: Days of Future Past, two of the series’ best, as well as X-Men: Apocalypse, one of the worst installments of the entire X-Men movie saga (plus he’s got problems of his own going on right now, so that’s the last I’m going to mention of him). Same thing for Simon Kinberg, who’s the sole credited screenwriter on Days of Future Past and Apocalypse as well as one of the primary writers behind The Last Stand. Both of their names are also all over the production of the many different movies in the franchise, as is Lauren Schuler Donner’s, who produced them all, from Logan to the yet-to-be and may-never-be released New Mutants. You can’t just blame the bad ones away on creative changes or executive shuffling.
And yeah, it’s fair to think that they can’t all be perfect and that it’s only natural that there would be a few bad, mutant eggs in the carton, but some of the bad ones have been so ruinously apalling that they salted the earth and scorched the skies behind them, making it hard for the series to form anything like a consistent narrative or anything close to a coherent timeline. There were three steady years between each of the first three X-Men movies in 2000, 2003, and 2006, but the third, The Last Stand, was not only gratingly bad and poorly executed, it also treated the concept so offhandedly, killing and depowering key characters while introducing a plot point that, in many ways, negated the whole premise, that the whole series needed a five-year, Batman–and–Robin-to-Batman–Begins-esque franchise resting period before a soft reboot in First Class took the team back to the early ‘60s, and then, two years later, a hard reboot in Days of Future Past that literally reset the timeline because too many things in the continuity didn’t make sense any more.
And then Apocalypse ruined everything the reboot was going for by just being bad. Fitting then, perhaps, that it’s under a post-Apocalypse regime that we’re now receiving this last gasp of an X-Men movie, the concluding chapter of an age of X-Men that began almost 20 years ago under 20th Century Fox, when the thought of a Marvel Studios as we know it today — cohesive, mindful, with input from actual Marvel writers and artists, and with a real vision for how to move these properties forward — was only a twinkle in producer Kevin Feige’s eye. Still, twenty years is twenty years, the X-Men movies have built a genuine fan following despite their many missteps, and it’s fair to at least hope for a little bit of resolution, some salve to ease the pain at least, here at the end of all things FoX-Men. So does Dark Phoenix stick the landing? Well, if you’ve been paying attention to the chatter, I’m sure you think you already know the answer to that. Even if most of you still haven’t seen it.
What’s it about?
The year is 1992. Having defeated the world-ending threat of the immortal Apocalypse 10 years Pryor (see what I did there?), mutants have become accepted in society, the X-Men even becoming heroes in the eyes of the public. But on their latest mission to save the crew of the space shuttle Endeavor, the X-Men will encounter perhaps their greatest adversary, the cosmically powered Phoenix and its hold over one of their own — Jean Grey! And if a suddenly overpowered Jean Grey Phoenix threatening to destroy us all sounds familiar? Like something we’ve seen before? And it didn’t go well that time either? Yeah, you’re not wrong.
At this point, one week after its opening, the verbal surrounding Dark Phoenix isn’t about how it did or how good it is, it’s questions like “What went wrong?” and “How bad could it be?” Opening to just under $33 million, Dark Phoenix made the least amount of money of any X-Men movie ever, and that’s in real, unadjusted dollars, which is really bad considering many of its X-Men comparables stretch back to almost 20 years Pryor (see what I did there again? ‘Cause this is the second time we’re doing Dark Phoenix in the movies?), from times when the franchise didn’t have the benefit of more than a decade and a half of exposure to the public, when ticket prices were lower, when only the biggest movies opened to more than $75 million, and when movies didn’t almost always have to make most of their money in their first weekend of release. That’s bad. That’s only a little bit more than the disastrous Fantastic Four (2015) movie, and I’m pretty sure most people who saw that FF movie were only seeing it as a joke. Of course the reviews didn’t help, 23% right now on Rotten Tomatoes, which is a dishearteningly low enough number to throw off even the most ardent of fans. I know I wouldn’t have seen it if I had had anything better to do.
But I didn’t [have anything better to do].
Of course, focusing so much on this X-Men movie and these FoX-Men movies overall as if they’re what matters most is ignoring the all-consuming elephant of a mouse in the room that is the $71.3 billion Disney-Fox merger. While the rational way to look at Disney’s buyout of Fox’s movies, TV shows, studios, many of its networks, and its controlling stake in Hulu is probably as a net negative in terms of the reduction of jobs in Hollywood, the likely contraction in creativity as a result, and the further consolidation of power underneath a single [totalitarian] entity, what matters is WE WON, the FoX-Men are no longer, and the X-Men [and the Fantastic Four] are finally back under Marvel Studios control. That means we could finally have Wolverine fighting the Hulk! Or Wolverine fighting Captain America! Or Wolverine fighting the Avengers! Screw those guys who might actually have some original ideas in Hollywood but will now have even fewer opportunities to find work because of the lack of studio diversity! So long individual artistic expression and all hail our Disney overlords! This IS how liberty dies! With thunderous applause and a metallic, claw-springing “SNIKT!”
All of which means that this final FoX-Men: Dark Phoenix really never had a chance. This closing whimper in an already suspect series of a concept expected to soon be much better done now that a superior studio has its hands on it. Regardless of how well it could have done or how good it could have been, there’s a whole meta-narrative surrounding Dark Phoenix that all but ensured that little if anything of it would matter or count in the long run. No, the X-Men are (or will be) part of the MCU now. That’s all that really matters. Combine that with writer Simon Kinberg’s installation as Dark Phoenix’s director despite him never having directed a single movie before, the constant pushbacks of the movie’s release date, the extensive reshoots that ballooned the budget because Fox never did quite crack how to do these movies right, the fact that one of its stars has clearly been disinterested in the X-Men for quite a while, and really just Fox’s spotty track record overall, and we didn’t exactly have a recipe for success.
Is it any Good?
There are two ways to look at Dark Phoenix. Well, there’s a near-infinite amount of ways to look at Dark Phoenix, but probably only two ways that most of us will be looking at it. One is as the final chapter of the X-Men saga, the culmination of everything that’s come before and the ultimate, concluding expression of what this series has been and always meant to be. The other is as another X-Men movie. Full stop. It’s on that first viewpoint that I would suggest that Dark Phoenix is disappointing, even accounting for the many ups and the many downs of the series as a whole. But on that second one? Yeah, it’s definitely another X-Men movie. And on that count I honestly think it’s one of the better ones. In fact, I actually think it’s one of my favourites.
I think maybe the first thing you should know about Dark Phoenix is that it is definitely a movie. It moves like a movie, looks and sounds like one, and definitely passes the smell test of being a movie. Maybe that should go without saying, but the horrifically low Rotten Tomatoes score and the fact that this is director Simon Kinberg’s first swing at directing might have convinced you otherwise. If you’re merely going to see it as a diversion for a lazy afternoon or a way to get out of the heat for a bit, it’s okay-good, and that, to me, gets it at least up to a two out of five stars review. That Rotten Tomatoes score, though, and the general reaction Dark Phoenix seems to have gotten almost makes it seem like this isn’t a movie I can call good or that I would have to be some sort of contrarian to say that I liked it.
When you’re reviewing something as poorly received as Dark Phoenix, to me it makes more sense to start with what’s bad about it, so that’s where I’ll begin. One of Dark Phoenix‘s greatest failings is in comparison to the conclusion we just received to the first three phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Avengers: Endgame, but it’s not really fair to call that a failing of this movie as much as it’s a failings of circumstance. Avengers: Endgame was the result of careful, meticulous planning, having absolutely the right people in exactly the right places, and Marvel Studios’ entirely different approach to building out these types of movie, an approach established after the X-Men movies were already well on their way. All of that and probably more than a little bit of luck considering how extraordinarily well Endgame turned out.
In comparison, Dark Phoenix could never have been as good. It’s a little more fair to hold this movie accountable for being a good Dark Phoenix story, but even then, for many of the same reasons Endgame was so good and the X-Men movies have not been, it was almost impossible for the Dark Phoenix movie to turn out right. The construction just wasn’t there. The decade-long in-story cadence established in X-Men: First Class through Days of Future Past and Apocalypse more or less prevented us getting us as close as we needed to be to the major characters in the comics Dark Phoenix story, one built heavily on serialized storytelling told continuously over months and years. That’s just not the way the X-Men movies have been constructed and it’s the type of storytelling that’s only just become possible with the Marvel Cinematic Universe model. As much as we may want to be able to invest in the Dark Phoenix as a saga, we’re just not that close to these characters because we haven’t grown up alongside them so much as we’ve seen them once every three years in our time and once every ten years in theirs.
That last point may be the bitterest pill because of how revered the comicbook Dark Phoenix story is and how foundational it is to the overarching X-Men mythos, but if you can get past that, and you should have been prepared to given everything we’ve seen of this franchise since 2000, I think it’s possible to look at Dark Phoenix a little more fairly, and when I did, I honestly thought that Dark Phoenix is among the best of the FoX-Men movies. It’s got some pretty good action, more pathos than most of the others haveachieved, and what I felt was a real relationship at its core
One thing that I found incredibly liberating about Dark Phoenix is that for once the X-Men were allowed to be superheroes. The movie opens with a flashy and highly public heroic event as the X-Men save the crew of the space shuttle Endeavor, working as a team to each of the members’ individual abilities, and doing things superheroes do. Maybe part of the appeal of the X-Men as a concept as an essential rejection of these superpowered individuals as heroes, but seeing them just save people for once pulled the movie a bit out of its own self-important ass. The X-Men idea is one build fundamentally on an allegory of discrimination, but that’s all of what these movies have been about so much that it’s become a bit suffocating, particularly because I don’t think these writers rarely knew what to do with that allegory beyond the obvious. The pure superheroics continued in the movie’s final moments when the X-Men were just fighting aliens rather than their fellow mutants in the midst of another tortured philosophical conflict.
There’s definitely still a schism in between the mutant factions behind Xavier and Magneto, but it’s over what to do with the now uncontrollable Jean Grey, infused with the primal power of the Phoenix force, and I also found it refreshing that the conflict was over something much more direct than a heady deliberation on bigotry and that Xavier comes out on the wrong side on a lot of the debate. At least some of what’s gone wrong with Jean can be placed squarely at the feet of Xavier and his decisions on how to raise her as a child, and though I didn’t find all of the supporting material behind Xavier as partially responsible to be totally convincing, it at least opened up the essential ideas driving the X-Men movies up a bit.
What ultimately convinced me of Dark Phoenix’s quality, though, was the X-Men themselves, finally given a bit more of the limelight now that this movie was allowed to be about more than just race relations (and now that Wolverine is no longer part of the equation). There’s a moment Storm that spoke so clearly and with more conviction to her commitment to the team that Halle Berry should feel even more ashamed of her time with the character. The Beast has a point of view in this movie that, after three previous outings under Nicholas Hoult (who is a pretty good actor in other roles), finally made me care about him. And the relationship between Jean and Scott, for once in all of the X-Men movies, was one I could actually get behind. There’s one line in particular, the only outright swear in this entire movie, that Scott gives about Jean that gave me goosebumps because I could feel the conviction and unwavering devotion in his voice. I could feel something real in these movies, and that’s something that’s been painfully lacking in the FoX-Men.
None of those virtues take away from how sloppy or unconsidered Dark Phoenix could be at times, its usual problems with people doing things or suddenly changing perspectives on a dime because that’s what the story required, how laughably bad and then completely forgotten Magneto’s henchmen were, or, most importantly, or its ultimate failure to tie things up in a very satisfying way (and I think they missed a very easy way to link this movie back up with where the first X-Men began), but I feel that Dark Phoenix’s strengths easily outweigh its weaknesses, and for so many people to say that this movie is so bad, so disappointing, and so unwatchable is to massively overstate the problems and maybe not even get what this movie was ever capable of being.
So should I see it?
Judging by what’s been said about Dark Phoenix critically, I don’t even know anymore if I can truly, fairly judge whether or not you should see this movie, because I liked it a lot despite its problems. It doesn’t stand up that well as a Dark Phoenix story, and that’s too bad, but it was always ridiculous to expect that it would or could given how this property has been treated by Fox since its inception. And it was never going to be as fulfilling a concluding chapter as something like Avengers: Endgame, but you should realize that that sort of capable, exceptional, uncanny storytelling was never in the cards for Dark Phoenix, it’s just not built into the DNA of this FoX-Men franchise.
The FoX-Men have been miles behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe ever since there was an idea to bring together a remarkable group of people to see if they could become the Avengers in a movie because it’s never been a franchise treated with that sort of care or attention to detail. Thinking about a comicbook universe that much, speculating about it, wondering about how the Hulk could possibly deal with his condition, or if Captain America, of all people, was worthy of lifting Thor’s hammer, or how much worse things were when Thanos attacked and the Avengers weren’t ready? That was all off the table with the X-Men movies because their creators didn’t care that much. Because plot points weren’t thought out. Because things changed, the continuity shifted on a whim. The characters were all wrong and put in the wrong places and sometimes even duplicated in different times and spaces and then ignored or written out entirely.
To judge Dark Phoenix just as another movie then, for me, was to view it without expectation beyond what we’ve seen before from the FoX-Men movies. This was not ever going to be a cathartic, all-encompassing Endgame-level ending. If you had that level of expectation, then yes, Dark Phoenix is a massive, perhaps colossal failure. The creators aren’t that good and this continuity isn’t that steady, and as much as we might think we deserve something on that level for sticking by this franchise for almost twice as long as the MCU, it was just never right to expect it.
To be clear, I think the X-Men movies were all important steps in getting where we are today in the superhero movie world. It’s just too bad that so many of those steps were one back for every two forward. X-Men: The Last Stand? X-Men Origins: Wolverine? X-Men: Apocalypse? Those are truly terrible. Those are hard to watch. Those insult your intelligence and ruined the mythology. But I wouldn’t count Dark Phoenix among them. Not even close. It’s competent at worst and made me care at its best, and it was more than good enough for me to enjoy it. So bye-bye, X-Men, at least for now. You left on a bit of a whimper, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as the whining of your critics.
Thom’s Dark Phoenix final score
On the Edge
- This movie takes place in 1992. The first X-Men takes place roughly in the year 2000. Are we really to believe that in less than a decade’s time that someone who looks like Michael Fassbender will become someone who looks like Ian McKellen?
- So Beast has a picture of Mystique on his desk and, instead of a treasured memory or special moment, it’s just a bland production still of her just standing there in her uniform.