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Dark Phoenix (2019)

What is it with the X-Men film franchise and its aversion to simple titles? We couldn’t just have X-Men 2, we had to have X2. The third film was billed as X-Men: The Last Stand in some places, but the theatrical poster seemed to imply it was X3: The Last Stand. At least the reboot films seemed to rectify this with X-Men: First Class followed by X-Men: Days of Future Past, but now we have just Dark Phoenix. Not X-Men: Dark Phoenix, but Dark Phoenix. Just in case you were confused though, at least the theatrical poster circled the “X” in Phoenix, but why not just keep things nice and simple?

Dark Phoenix is the 2019 film that marks the end of the X-Men film franchise as we know it. It’s been an interesting, confusing, frustrating, and sometimes thrilling ride. The franchise took off in 2000 with X-Men, and arguably peaked with the sequel. The third film was a let down, and then we had some solo Wolverine outings with one being terrible and the other acceptable, plus a sort of prequel, reboot, in 2011. X-Men: First Class turned me off initially, but once I finally gave it a chance I was forced to concede it was at least a fun film. I just didn’t really like how it tried to be both a reboot and a prequel to the original film and felt it would have been better to just commit to one. Apparently, the studio saw this as an issue too so Days of Future Past in 2014 basically served as the sequel to First Class and as the true reboot for the franchise as the time-traveling original heroes changed history and likely inadvertently erased basically everything that happened in the original trilogy. Confused? I suppose you should be, but at the end of the day, it just meant we were truly were dealing with two distinct sets of films that just both happened to be about the X-Men.

The sequels/reboots ended up being a lot of fun, but things took a turn in the third film, X-Men: Apocalypse. That one was a mess and was a textbook example of what not to do when telling an X-Men story. The villain was just an all-powerful being with no subtext. I likened Apocalypse to a natural disaster in my review of that film and I stand by that. He was a foe that just was; there was no getting away from him or around him or reasoning with him, he just had to be endured. The cast basically exploded which meant we had a bunch of new faces and not enough time to get to know any of them. It was almost as if the film depended on people knowing who these characters were and establishing a connection based off of that and not by what was presented onscreen. Given that, the obvious next step was to tell a story entirely dependent upon the audience caring about these new characters – what could go wrong?

The original story of Phoenix unfolded over several years and was anchored by characters introduced 20 years prior, this film is counting on viewers caring about characters introduced just a film ago and given minimal screen time at that with only 2 hours to tell the story.

Apocalypse made enough money that a fourth film was commissioned: Dark Phoenix. The Dark Phoenix Saga is perhaps the most famous X-Men story ever told. Crafted by writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne, The Dark Phoenix Saga unfolded in the pages of Uncanny X-Men spanning 8 issues in 1980. Some would argue the story began earlier with Uncanny X-Men #101 which began the story of Phoenix way back in 1976. In essence, this was a story that unfolded over parts of 5 years, so is it any wonder that other versions of the X-Men have struggled to match the original story?

Probably the best adaptation of The Phoenix Saga and Dark Phoenix Saga is in the animated series X-Men. That show devoted basically 10 episodes to the event and had given us multiple seasons before that to develop a connection to the characters in the show. When the X-Men originally went to film, we had at least had two films to connect with characters Jean Grey and Cyclops, only Cyclops was basically written out of the sequel and quickly killed off at the beginning of the third. Oops! At least The Last Stand had the Wolverine/Jean dynamic and the Xavier/Jean relationship to fall back on, but it was sloppy with the Phoenix character taking a backseat to Magneto for large stretches of the film.

This film is not good, but that’s not because of the performance of actress Sophie Turner.

In the waning moments of Apocalypse, the film started dropping hints that Phoenix was next so I was not surprised to find out that Dark Phoenix was in development, but I immediately expected failure. Once again, a film was jumping over The Phoenix Saga and going straight to Dark Phoenix, only this time, the title character was one no on cared about. The film had a lengthy development cycle due in the part to director/screenwriter Bryan Singer getting fired for being a sexual predator and the studio having enough issues with first-time director Simon Kinberg’s final act that they sent the whole crew back for reshoots. The release date got kicked around as the film would basically become akin to a lame duck president since rumors were flying, and would later come to fruition, that Disney was purchasing 20th Century Fox which would bring an end to the X-Men film franchise. The film was finally released in June 2019 and it bombed. If Wikipedia can be believed, it would eventually make more than its budget, but that probably doesn’t factor in marketing costs so it’s possible the studio lost money, though it’s certainly likely that it did not realize a substantial profit.

The poor reception to the film is why my review has taken more than two years to arrive. I’ve simply been unwilling to spend money to watch it, so I waited for it to finally show up on a streaming platform I was already subscribed to. I will come right out and say it: this movie is not good. I was hoping that maybe for a longtime fan of the X-Men, it would work on a basic level for me and I could have some fun with it despite its flaws. Instead, I found little to enjoy.

For starters, the script and screenplay are poor. Characters are given lines riddled with clichés. One can practically predict every word about to come out of a character’s mouth in a given situation and it just feels like amateur hour. Despite the poor script, some actors are able to rise to the occasion. Sophie Turner, who plays the title character, received poor marks for her performance in Apocalypse, but here she redeems herself. Yes, the movie does her few favors, but she performs as well as could be expected. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender continue to be pleasant as Professor Xavier and Magneto, respectively, though the latter’s appearance felt especially shoe-horned this time around. Just like with Apocalypse, Magneto is basically just to hear to clearly demonstrate that another being is more powerful than him. Nicholas Hoult is fine as Beast/Hank McCoy, but that’s basically it. Jennifer Lawrence continues to underwhelm as Raven/Mystique which is partly due to the character being underserved by the role while Kodi Smit-McPhee (Nightcrawler) and Alexandra Shipp (Storm) are treated more like tools than characters. Jessica Chastain, who reportedly turned down numerous offers to appear in a “superhero” film before, plays the villain Vuk and it’s truly puzzling that this is the role she finally accepted. She must have owed someone a favor or just really likes Kinberg because the role is terrible.

A space rescue leads to an encounter with the Phoenix Force, setting the wheels of the plot in motion.

The plot of the film basically tries to adapt portions of both The Phoenix Saga and Dark Phoenix Saga. When the film begins, Xavier is basically a celebrity with direct access to the President of the United States and things are going well for mutants. It’s supposed to be set in the early 90s, but the period is not utilized in the least. When the X-Men are called upon to save a stranded space shuttle in the outer rim of Earth’s orbit, Jean Grey is exposed to a supernatural force and is forever changed. This causes a rift between Raven and Xavier, with Beast caught in the middle, over Xavier’s willingness to place his student’s in harm’s way to further his agenda while Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) is left to worry about his girlfriend, Jean, who is acting different. Things take a turn as Jean essentially becomes the Dark Phoenix character as we know her leading to tragedy and her fleeing the team. In the process, it’s discovered that Charles had used his own powers to hide traumatic memories of Jean’s when he took her in, and now those barriers are failing causing others on the team to question Xavier’s judgement and Jean to basically go out of control.

Vuk (left) basically plays the role of Mastermind this time around as she attempts to forge a bond with Jean to gain control of the Phoenix.

Complicating things further are the D’Bari, a race of shape-shifting beings made extinct by The Phoenix Force before it ever encountered Jean. Their leader, Vuk, wants to take control of the Phoenix which now rests in Jean, and in order to do so needs to become her ally. Along the way Magneto will be pulled in and Xavier will be forced to reassess what the X-Men stand for. It’s a mess of a plot that both asks us to care about characters we barely know and is also afraid to actually put a lot on the shoulders of these characters. A lot of what happens, particularly with Magneto, feels like the film just padding out its length. Once again, Magneto is presented as being in a state of peace, but then immediately goes back to being a tool of vengeance. It’s ridiculous what the past two films have tried to do with the character and the only silver lining is that Michael Fassbender continues to be terrific in the role. The presence of the D’Bari is essentially taking the place of the Hellfire Club from the comic, and not the Shi’ar, as Vuk tries to coerce Jean into being an ally in order to take control of the Phoenix Force. The film isn’t really interested in explaining this cosmic entity; does it just function like a power amplifier or is it in control? It’s basically just there to give Vuk a motivation and a reason to exist, albeit a flimsy one. The film would have functioned in the same fashion if Vuk just wanted to use Jean like a weapon, as Magneto had done in The Last Stand, and the Phoenix entity was just something that existed inside her character.

I love Fassbender’s Magneto, but he did not need to be in this picture.

Dragging the film further down into the mire are the special effects and action pieces. The effects are not bad, just not interesting. It’s a lot of characters just putting their hands up and CG taking over to add in some flames or lightning. The only interesting moment involves a subway car crashing up through a street, but it’s also a head-scratching moment as the character responsible didn’t really need to do that and it just looks like the film trying to show off. There’s no moment that made me say “Wow” and there’s no signature fight scene either. The final battle is one of the film’s most underwhelming moments. The costumes at least look okay. Beast still looks kind of dumb, but a lot of that has to do with the character’s design and not the makeup effects being utilized. This one, like the previous film, does draw attention to how the franchise loves blue characters as we have the blue Beast, Nightcrawler, and Mystique making up half of the X-Men. The franchise is finally confident to give the team a comic-inspired uniform, but still not willing to give other characters a cool, fun, look. Jean, as Dark Phoenix, just wears street clothes throughout this one and Magneto apparently lost his threads between films.

Dark Phoenix is not a good film and a whimper for the franchise. Technically, the final X-Men adjacent film is last year’s The New Mutants, another film fraught with delays and reshoots that ultimately did not pan out. It’s a shame that a cartoon in the early 90s is still the best depiction of a classic comic story like The Dark Phoenix Saga and I wonder if the repeated failures will cause Disney to bypass it when X-Men finally enters the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a shame, because it’s really not a hard story to adapt, it’s just one that needs time. It’s not a one-movie deal, it has to be cultivated across films and, most importantly, they need to be films that actually respect the characters. Marvel has proven it can create a team and have the audience care about it, and I don’t mean The Avengers. That was obviously a different animal where most of the characters got stand-alone films first, but Guardians of the Galaxy did not go that route and found a way to make us love the characters on that team. I do suspect that when it comes time to onboard the X-Men that we’ll meet someone like Xavier in a different film before being properly introduced to the full team. And it’s possible we’ll meet other characters prior to that as well. It wouldn’t be hard to slip Storm into whatever comes next for the Black Panther and Wolverine can fit in almost anywhere. That’s a whole other subject though. For now, the X-Men film franchise that began in 2000 is over. It had its ups and downs, but it’s also a big reason why we have the superhero genre today. It was immensely important and I’m glad it exists even if it has many flaws. It’s unfortunate it didn’t get a better send-off, but I think of Days of Future Past as the true bookend and that film is great. And if not, well Logan is possibly the best superhero movie ever and also would be a fine end. Dark Phoenix just happened to be the movie that came last.


X-Men: Apocalypse

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X-Men:  Apocalypse (2016)

No Marvel property has had a more up and down relationship with the silver screen than the X-Men. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because at least it hasn’t been all down like the Fantastic Four, but it is frustrating for those who love the X-Men property. The first film was one of the early superhero films that launched this new found romance between Hollywood and Marvel, which also helped open the door to DC as well. That first film hit on a lot of what makes the X-Men unique, though it sacrificed action and plot in devoting so much of the film to setup. The second film seemed to better encapsulate what X-Men could be, but made some changes and decisions that felt rushed and short-sighted. Still, it was successful and the best X-Men film for a long time. Following X-Men 2, director Bryan Singer departed the franchise for Superman, and Brett Ratner came on to direct X-Men:  The Last Stand, a hot mess that at least had the decency to keep the run time down.

Following The Last Stand, Fox went away from their mutant franchise but did allow Wolverine to get his own terrible solo film. Seeing Marvel have success with other franchises without Fox likely helped bring the X-Men back with the Mathew Vaughn helmed X-Men: First Class. First Class was a new beginning for the franchise, though a confusing one as the continuity between it and the original trilogy seemed non-comittal at best. Was it a prequel? A reboot? Vaughn was one and done, and having not directed much worth discussing since X-Men 2, Singer took over for Days of Future Past, which further muddled the continuity between this new series and the original. Days of Future Past was a fun time travel piece. It also helped that it was adapting one of the most popular plots from the classic X-Men stories. It reunited the new cast with the old, and the conclusion seemed to reset the franchise as the heroes successfully changed the future leading the viewer to assume what happened in the original trilogy was basically undone, or at least severely altered, freeing this new franchise from further continuity scrutiny.

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Apocalypse with his two horsewomen Storm and Psylocke.

X-Men:  Apocalypse gives us a second completed trilogy, though one that clearly sets up for another X-Men film. It adapts the popular villain, Apocalypse, for the movie-going audience for the first time. Apocalypse is a tough sell in live-action. In the comics, his giant persona complete with big “A” belt buckle and blue lips somehow works, but viewed outside of that context looks ridiculous. His powers in the books began as being a kind of shape-shifter, with the emphasis placed on his ability to increase in size. Since his debut in the pages of X-Factor, Apocalypse has been retconned numerous times and his powers expanded to the point where it’s probably easier to just say that they’re undefined – he can do almost anything. As a plot device, he’s interesting in the sense that he’s a third alternative to the Xavier/Magneto world view. Xavier wants humans and mutants to co-exist, while Magneto wants to establish mutant supremacy. Apocalypse just wants to kill everybody and let the strong survive. He wants to rule over all as a god-like being. It makes sense for one who calls himself Apocalypse, though it’s not always interesting.

Despite that, I’ve mostly enjoyed Apocalypse as a foil as sometimes it’s nice to have one villain in a hero’s rogue’s gallery that’s just plain evil. I never really expected to see him in a film, but if he had been brought over, I expected him to be heavily altered to ground him a bit more. To my surprise, Singer and company did no such thing with Apocalypse.

The film opens with a flashback to a ritual involving Apocalypse in Cairo. He’s being placed in the base of a pyramid, surrounded by his disciples and attendants, as they prepare a second person on a separate slab within the tomb. We learn shortly after that this is a ritual to transfer Apocalypse’s essence to a new host to allow him to continue to live for years upon years.

Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) is explained later as the first mutant, who likely lived for centuries even before that flashback took place. He was worshipped as a god called En Sabah Nur, and the film actually never directly refers to him as Apocalypse. He’s yet another blue-skinned mutant with weird metal dreadlocks and vaguely Egyptian themed armor. Returning character Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) learned through research that he was the suspected first mutant, and each time he transferred to a new, mutant, host he would gain their powers. As a result, Apocalypse possesses numerous abilities that go very much undefined in the film. He’s portrayed similarly to Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan for much of the film, basically disintegrating people who get in his way without so much as a gesture. Other guys are melded into walls or the ground, and we also see him do some minor mind manipulation. He’s able to somehow sync with satellites to learn about the state of the world after awakening after thousands of years, and perhaps most importantly, is able to draw out the max potential of other mutants. He displays this by assembling his four horsemen:  Storm, Psylocke, Archangel, and eventually Magneto.

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Jean, Nightcrawler, and Cyclops are expected to shoulder some of the load in this film, but aren’t given adequate character development to really let them sine.

Now, I’m not one for spoilers when reviewing films. It strikes me as lazy, but I’m going to kind of spoil something in this paragraph as it relates to Magneto (Michael Fassbender). We see him with Apocalypse in all of the promotional imagery, so I don’t consider it much of a spoiler to point that out. When we first see Magneto in the film though, he’s married with a daughter and working in a steel mill in Poland. He has a conversation with his daughter before she goes to bed about how his parents were taken from him, and assures her the same won’t befall her. The film could not have telegraphed what’s to follow any more implicitly than that. Again, I don’t mean to spoil anything, but obviously something bad happens which leads Magneto to Apocalypse and I felt irritated by the whole setup. Did we really need Magneto to be, once again, re-motivated to take on humanity? When we left him in Days of Future Past, he really had no reason to change his ways and could have been left as a sulking, angry, and determined adversary for the X-Men without the need for additional motivation.

I suppose I should just cut to the chase and say I did not like this movie. Apocalypse doesn’t work as a villain. He has the personality of a natural disaster. His motivations are vague and uninteresting. They appear to be mostly in-line with his comic book motivations, but I don’t know how much of that is me filling in the blanks with what I know from that medium or the film actually earning that conclusion. His supporting cast is even less interesting as there’s really no character development devoted to his followers. He’s also absurdly over-powered, to the point where it’s not really believable when he (spoiler?) eventually fails to bring death and destruction to the world.

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Evan Peters returns as Quicksilver to basically do the same thing he did in Days of Future Past, only with an 80’s soundtrack this time.

None of that is the fault of actor Oscar Isaac, he does about as well as he can with what the script and screenplay give him. And as far as X-Men scripts go, X-Men: Apocalypse hits a new low. When it’s not having its characters spout tired cliches, it’s having them say nothing much at all or clumsily setting up whats to come, as if we need the film to help foreshadow anything. James McAvoy returns as Charles Xavier and he probably comes off the best, as Xavier is pretty easy to write. He’s paired often with Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique, who’s pushed into a starring role, probably not because her character is suited for such, but most likely because of how her star has risen since First Class. Mystique is poorly suited to be so front and center in the story as she’s clumsily written. Her motivations change so quickly and effortlessly you would think Xavier is mentally controlling her. The same can be said for Magneto.

New additions to the cast include younger versions of mutants featured in the original trilogy:  Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Cyclops and his relationship with brother Alex/Havok (Lucas Till) is fit into the film by being the younger brother, instead of the older one as he was in the comics. His struggle to control his optic blast mutant power is kind of glossed over and not really dwelled on as Hank/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) presents him with his special glasses pretty quickly. He’s a pretty terrible character who’s primary motivation is apparently skipping out on class to go to the mall – how 80’s! Jean is portrayed rather predictably as the girl scared of her own powers. She has a vision of the coming apocalypse which is what gets the X-Men involved in seeking out more information on En Sabah Nur. Smit-Mcphee’s Nightcrawler is easily my favorite addition to the cast. He’s depicted the same as he was in X-Men 2, visually speaking, and he’s kind of cautious and quirky and is an obvious gentle soul not suited for violence. His religious beliefs are not front and center, but he is shown praying at one point.

The film mostly suffers by just being uninteresting, and it runs over two hours in length. Even at such a length, the plot moves relatively fast as it relates to Apocalypse who just teleports wherever he wants. There’s a pointless detour taken when the X-Men collide with the military and an old foe from the past film, which seems to exist only to setup a soulless cameo. The film builds towards a confrontation with Apocalypse in which we’re supposed to care about the new recruits taking center stage, but we have so little invested in them that it just feels hollow, not to mention expected. The film also wastes the 80’s setting, really not using it for anything other than a few jokes that were probably too obvious for That 80’s Show. Worse, it feels rather forced since none of the characters look like they’ve aged the twenty or so years that have past since First Class.

The resolution is a foregone conclusion from the start, and we’re left with a big, empty, action film that didn’t really need to be an X-Men film. So little of what makes the X-Men special as a property is encapsulated here, and what is feels like retread. I was checking the time an hour into this one, and I couldn’t wait to be done with it and had to struggle through the credits to see the epilogue, which did little to excite me for another film. It feels like Singer is just setting up to tell a story he missed out on with his first go-around with the series, though I have no idea if a next film is a guarantee. Most of the contracts with the heavy hitters likely need to be renegotiated, and what incentive is there for some of them to return? I suppose they could get by without Magneto, since he felt shoe-horned into this film to begin with, but Mystique was positioned as the leader of the X-Men so I don’t know how they get out of that if Lawrence has no interest in reprising her role.

In the end, I’m left to say “who cares?” where a next film is concerned. We already have the reported excellence of Logan to indulge with, and another X-Men film will need to be tackled by people who have the motivation to craft a worthwhile story that begs to be told. Apocalypse did not do that, I don’t think it killed the franchise, but it did bring it back to where it was following The Last Stand. If X-Men Origins: Wolverine is excluded, this is the worst X-Men film yet. I’d rather watch The Last Stand because it at least has an interesting plot, if poorly executed, and it’s a hell of a lot shorter. Like The Last Stand, I find myself not really caring where the franchise goes from here, or if it continues at all, and that’s a pretty poor lasting impression for X-Men:  Apocalypse.


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