Dark Phoenix and the Death of a Franchise

With the release of Dark Phoenix comes the end of an era. Fox’s grand X-periment to turn the X-Men into a viable film franchise, and then to keep it running by hook or by crook, is finally over. It’s not over because of some grand design or narrative necessity; it’s over because Disney purchased 20th Century Fox, absorbing the X-Men franchise back into the Marvel fold. This series, which began all the way back in 2000 with Bryan Singer’s now quaint-looking X-Men, no longer has any reason to X-ist. The X-Men are now nestled snugly in Kevin Feige’s back pocket, ready to be deployed whenever the MCU’s next phase starts to run out of juice.

Film franchise fizzle out all the time. But the fact that this particular series, which has already had multiple endings, rebirths and tangents, is ending not by design, but due to corporate acquisition. That leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Part of the thrill of the X-Men franchise, a film series that began when Bill Clinton was still president, has been watching them try literally anything to keep it all afloat. Now it’s just over, and nobody, not even the people making these movies, seems to care.

But maybe it’s for the best, because it’s pretty clear with Dark Phoenix that things were coming apart at the seams.

One of the central relationships in the X-Men universe is the strained friendship between Erik Lehnsherr and Charles Xavier, two men who no longer see eye to eye on humanity’s relationship with mutants. One is ready to burn it all down at the slightest suggestion that humans might try to subjugate mutantkind, while the other is dead set on stopping him. After the sputtering calamity that was 2006’s The Last Stand (which I’ve written about before), someone had the bright idea to tell the story of how that rivalry began. What started out as X-Men Origins: Magneto twisted and mutated into Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class (2011), the story of Xavier and Lehnsherr’s budding friendship as they work together to save the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I think he thinks Magneto is Spider-Man?

Anchored by a pair of solid, emotional performances set against an Austin Powers-esque parody of the early 1960s, First Class was a welcome left turn after two absolute stinkers. It also developed two key byproducts that would eventually kill the series. The first was the necessary recasting of major characters; James McAvoy stepping into Patrick Stewart’s shoes as Xavier, ditto Michael Fassbender for Ian McKellan’s Magneto. Jennifer Lawrence won the role of Mystique just as her star was beginning to rise, which would increasingly become a thorn in her side thanks to all that scaly blue makeup. As the series wore on, these three were clearly putting in less and less effort to bring these characters to life, culminating in Dark Phoenix, where Lawrence appears just long enough to get murdered, and Fassbender apparently agreed to show up so long as he didn’t have to leave his backyard.

The other cause of death was the insistence on jumping ahead a decade with each subsequent film. First Class taking place in 1962 was a fun gimmick, and it gave that film a sense of place and style that we hadn’t really ever seen in these films before (or since, to be honest). A sequel set a couple years later would have made perfect narrative sense, but I get why they jumped ahead. Setting an entire run of summer blockbusters in the 1960s would be a huge waste of everyone’s time. So for the next film, Days of Future Past (2014), we jump ahead to 1973. Apocalypse (2016) takes place in 1985, followed by Dark Phoenix set in 1992. This means that between First Class and Dark Phoenix, we get to watch our newer, younger cast of characters not age at all over the course of thirty years.

Pictured: A character who is supposed to be in his 50s.

This time jump worked exactly once. The 11-year gap between the events of First Class and Days of Future Past works because that’s juuuuust enough time for us to reasonably suspend our disbelief.  And in a film that already incorporates a Terminator-esque time travel plot to save the present from a nightmarish future involving giant robots, that’s a pretty big ask. And to pull all of this off also required the return of several key performers from the original X-trilogy, including Ellen Page’s Kitty Pryde, the films’ least essential X-Man. Suddenly, the girl who can walk through walls also has the power to send Wolverine’s brain back in time to 1973 so he can round up the First Class crew to help him fix the future. The whole movie is one swing-for-the-fences concept after another, and I’m still impressed that any of it works at all.

Days of Future Past turned out to be one of the highlights of the entire series, partly because we got to see our favorites return for one last hurrah. I cannot overstate how good it felt seeing McKellan and Stewart playing Magneto and Xavier again nearly a decade removed from The Last Stand. It was like finding a warm blanket you thought you’d lost years ago. You were okay with it being gone forever, but it’s so nice to have it back.

The Apocalypse tease at the end of DoFP felt more like a suggestion than an inevitability. “If this movie makes money,” DoFP seems to say, “Maybe we’ll do an Apocalypse movie next. But don’t count on it.”

And then it happened. Not only had Bryan Singer wormed his way back into the X-fold with DoFP, he’d somehow knocked it out of the park and teed up an even more ambitious sequel. And because the time jump worked once, what the hell, let’s try it again! This time our now-veteran First Class crew are supposed to be pushing 50, but they’re still being played by young fresh-faced upstarts and Michael Fassbender.

Pumping iron means something different when Magneto does it.

And to top it off, we’ve got a new supervillain to contend with, played by 20 pounds of purple makeup sitting on top of Oscar Isaac’s face. Add in a new cast of young mutants meant to lead the series forward, returning players desperate to move on, and a director whose legal woes and personal problems led to him frequently showing up  late and unprepared, and you’ve got one hell of a mess on your hands. The problems with Apocalypse are legion, but for all its faults it’s the closest the series ever got to matching the utter goofiness of the cartoon series. It’s an utter trainwreck of a movie, but by god is it an entertaining one.

One issue that always bugged me about Apocalypse was that in order to defeat Apocalypse, a newer, younger Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) has to unleash the Phoenix Force which has been tormenting her throughout the film. This would be fine in and of itself had they not then announced the next film was going to be an adaptation of the “Dark Phoenix Saga”. That story explains how Jean acquired the Phoenix Force. And it takes place seven years after the events of Apocalypse. In which Jean…already used…the…Phoenix Force.

When the core premise of your sequel is already retcons the ending of the previous film, you know shit’s gone sideways. And now that I’ve spent 1000+ words complaining about the X-Men movies that I supposedly actually like, it’s time to talk about Dark Phoenix.

Good lord, where do I start?

Whoop de shit, let’s go to space…

The Dark Phoenix Saga is the one X-Men story that non-nerds actually know about. “That’s the one where Jean Grey becomes an alien monster that eats planets or something, right?” Yeah, that’s pretty much it. It’s one of the biggest, kookiest stories in a comic that regularly features giant robots, talking dinosaurs, time travel and an entire planet based around the concept of game shows. So, naturally, it’s also the one X-Men story that Fox decided was worth telling twice. And by the same person, screenwriter-turned-director Simon Kinberg, no less.

So Dark Phoenix does the time warp again, this time taking place in 1992, which incidentally is also the year that the X-Men animated series first premiered. The X-Men have become national celebrities to the point where Charles Xavier has a hotline to the president, a literal phone sitting on his desk with a giant X on it where all the buttons should be. Right away we’re in 1960s Batman territory, and I’m kind of into it. Apocalypse started to push this series into the realm of the cartoony, and this direction was long overdue. I’m here for it.

The X-Men are called into action to save the Space Shuttle Endeavor from a solar flare. Xavier commands Beast (Nicolas Hoult) and Mystique (J-Law) to load up the X-Men onto the X-Jet, despite Beast’s very reasonable protests that an airplane can’t fly in space. His boss tells him to do it anyway and it turns out fine, except the solar flare is actually a blob of cosmic energy that invades the body of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and turns her into the Phoenix. The X-Men save the day, and everyone is declared national heroes. Xavier even gets to go to Washington and schmooze politicians with stories of togetherness and teamwork.

Seconds later, Charles would be tackled by Frank Drebin.

Later, Jean starts recovering suppressed memories of her dead parents, particularly that her father is still alive after surviving the car crash that killed Jean’s mother. She tracks him down and discovers the awful truth: That after the crash he sent Jean away to Xavier’s school, and he’s rebuilt his entire life without her. This is an emotionally raw sequence, and it works well enough, but this is also like the tenth time we’ve had a scene exactly like this in these films. It doesn’t matter that this is a new take on a character we already know; we’ve seen this sob story before, and it’s tiresome.

Jean lashes out at the X-Men, who show up at her dad’s house just in time to watch her destroy half the neighborhood and accidentally murder Mystique. Shock of shocks! The one actress who didn’t want to be there in the first place found a way out! To add insult to injury, Mystique gets force-pushed backwards and impaled on a stake. The shot of her dying is framed in such a way that we know what’s happened, but they don’t want to show us because it’s waaaay too graphic for a PG-13 comic book movie. Then they pan down to show some splinters sticking out of her stomach and before we can even heckle it the scene ends and Mystique is dead. At least Patrick Stewart got the proper CGI vaporizing a trained thespian deserves.

Every good force-pusher needs a spotter. That’s just force-pushing 101.

Jean then flees to the island of Genosha, where we catch up with Magneto. Since nearly murdering half the planet, he’s spent his time building an island refuge for mutants that looks more like the set of The Walking Dead than an autonomous nation-state. Fassbender gets a couple of great scenes, including the one shown above where he has to pretend to push a helicopter. You can tell Fassbender is just as annoyed to be here as Jennifer Lawrence, but he still gives Magneto an air of Shakespearean tragedy. It’s like watching Olivier shill for Polaroid.

Eventually he discovers what Jean has done to Mystique and he’s out for blood. Erik dons the iconic Magneto helmet (specifically the one he stole from Kevin Bacon at the end of First Class) one last time and gets down to X-business. That is, until he, and everyone else in the film, realizes that Jean is under the thrall of an alien played by a platinum-haired Jessica Chastain, who is very specifically not Lilandra—but c’mon, she’s basically Lilandra—who wants Jean’s power for herself.  It’s a race against time between Charles and his X-Men, Magneto and his Great Value brand X-Men, and Not-Lilandra and her alien X-Men to see who can get to Jean and either save her, kill her, or steal-her-essence-and-then-kill-her first.

That’s all the plot there is to this film. It’s refreshingly streamlined, a back-to-basics kind of movie, yet it still bears the marks of a deeply troubled production. Dark Phoenix was made in the midst of Disney’s acquisition of Fox, and all the reshoots, re-tinkering, and schedule-pushing is a direct result of one company purchasing another, realizing they’ve already got this film on their hands, and shoving it out into the world just to be rid of it. You can feel the indifference oozing off the screen, dripping down and infecting the audience. Dark Phoenix has all the enthusiasm of a sports team who just missed the playoffs.

That’s what hurts the most, I think. Dark Phoenix may have started production with an eye on the future, but the film that we got feels very much like the death rattle of a franchise. The film makes a point of revisiting locales and visual cues that made this series what it is, almost like a half-assed highlight reel. After Mystique’s funeral, we get a raw scene between Xavier and Beast set in the X-Mansion’s kitchen. Charles points out it’s where he and Mystique first met (which we see in First Class), but I immediately recognized it as the place where Wolverine stabbed a guy in the lungs back in X2.

You know, for kids…

Later, during the big climactic train sequence (a mandated reshoot to curtail off comparisons to Captain Marvel), we see Magneto levitate dozens of automatic rifles and use them on Jessica Chastain. This is a direct callback to probably the most memorable scene in the original X-Men. And of course, what would an X-Men film be without a scene of Charles and Erik playing a game of chess?

Dark Phoenix ultimately stumbles in thinking any of this was necessary. Did we need to see this story told again? Did we have to jump ahead a decade for a third time? Was Charles Xavier being a blatant fame whore the most relevant character development they could come up with? Why bring Quicksilver back if you’re not going to give him another showstopping music video? Are we supposed to infer that in the eight years since Apocalypse, Dazzler has been reduced to playing impromptu concerts on school campuses? Actually, that last one makes the most sense. 1992 was not a kind time for 80s holdovers.

Enjoy your ten seconds of Quicksilver, kids!

This is a series that has raised ten times more questions than it has answered, all in the service of telling X-Men stories using the eras in which the comics were produced. So bringing the X-Men into the Jim Lee/animated series era, did they go for broke and make a film as wildly flamboyant as the version that still resides in our minds’ eyes? No, they instead decided to go out with a bare bones, stripped down rehash of one of the worst movies this series has ever produced. And they couldn’t even do it better. And that’s how this series that spanned two decades, three trilogies, two unfortunate Deadpool tangents and change had to come to an end.

Requiescat In Pace.

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