It’s always a sad moment when you know you’re going to see the last instalment of a franchise, be it a beloved TV show, or a series of films. It was a little bit worse this time, because I realised that as a result of Disney acquiring 20th Century Fox, there’s no guarantee that we’ll see that logo in the cinema again, nor hear the mighty Fox Fanfare. Of course, Disney might keep it, who knows? But one thing’s for certain, we won’t be seeing the familiar logo with the “X” in Fox remaining on the screen for a couple of seconds because Dark Phoenix is the last entry in the current X-Men franchise.
I’ve always found the X-Men films to be a mixed bag. When the first film was released, incredibly twenty years ago, I thought it was a bold move. Back then, superhero films weren’t a “thing”. Warners had successfully killed off their second hugely successful franchise recently with the truly lamentable Batman & Robin, having apparently learned nothing from the way they shot themselves in the foot with Superman III, while Marvel could barely get a superhero film going. Their previous effort was the largely forgotten Captain America film of the early nineties. (I’m not counting Blade here because he’s not a costumed crimefighter – plus, at the time of its release, mainstream audiences for the most part didn’t even know he was a Marvel character.)
I liked that first film. I hadn’t read any X-Men for years, but that would soon be rectified. It opened the doors for Sam Raimi to direct Spider-Man, which led to sequels, other superheroes getting their screen debut, and Marvel Pictures finally getting in on the act. Were it not for the success of Bryan Singer’s X-Men we probably wouldn’t have a twenty year-long (and counting) string of superhero blockbusters. We would never have seen The Avengers, no Iron Man, no Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, no Jason Momoa as Aquaman as DC learnt a valuable lesson from the way the Marvel characters were handled on screen. So, love them or hate them, there’s no denying the importance of these X-Men movies to the film industry and their legacy.
Much as I have enjoyed this two-decade run, I’ve equally been frustrated by the timeline and their complete non adherence to it. The original three films work as a trilogy. That’s fine. One leads to the other and there’s a conclusion of sorts. Then there were the standalone Wolverine films. Also fine. Wolverine went his own way in the comics and had a very successful solo run. BUT – some continuity problems began to creep in despite the Wolverine films being set in the same universe as the X-Men.
Then, with the First Class films things got really, REALLY muddled. These films were set before X-Men and were “origin” films, explaining Xavier’s early years, his friendship with Erich Lehnsherr who would become the evil Magneto when that friendship went sour. We saw the first bunch of X-Men and younger iterations of the current team. But continuity again suffered some blows and the timeline just didn’t make sense. X-Men: Days of Future Past went a way to rectify this, but was followed by movies that kept skewing everything, which a couple of years ago led me to writing a lengthy article for Starburst trying to make sense of it all called days of Future Past and Present. (Making sense of the timeline in an exercise in pure frustration, by the way.)
And the same is true of Dark Phoenix – but then, we kind of knew that already, didn’t we?
The film is set in what we might as well call the James McAvoy era, so it’s set in the past not in the unspecified “near future” of the Patrick Stewart films and follows the unfortunate events that befall the young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). In the comics, Jean (formerly Marvel Girl) succumbs to a deadly energy in space known as the Phoenix Force, which kills her but also resurrects her as “Phoenix” – but also turns her evil, hence “Dark Phoenix”. She turns on her former team, and there’s a body count by the time it’s all over. Not all the X-Men survive. Sound familiar?
Well, we’ve seen an adaptation of this way back in X-Men: Last Stand when an older Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) became Dark Phoenix. That rounded off the original trilogy. So now we’re told that tale again, albeit a more comic book accurate one, that undoes the earlier film, depicting the (later) fate of Jean Grey. But that was undone by Days of Future Past anyway because we saw Janssen’s Grey standing with the others as if nothing had happened at the end of that film. But nowhere comes Dark Phoenix to undo THAT film. See what I mean. It even sort of undoes Logan’s storyline. Damn timeline!!!
SO, the only real way to watch these movies is to just sit back and enjoy each one as standalones. Ignore what happened before – Wolvering first met Scott Summers (Cyclops) in X-Men and they both took an instant dislike to each other. Forget that a Wolverine film clearly shows him saving a grateful, clearly frightened Summers as a child from a mutant incarceration facility.
Are there ANY redeeming qualities to the film? Well, yes – for one, Sophie Turner ALMOST acts in her role of the younger Jean Grey. Turner seems to bring a strong sense of insipidness to her roles. She has a tendency to listlessness and apathy. There’s no vibrancy to her on screen. She’s not as bad here as she was in Game of Thrones, where she was just dull.
As I said, the story adheres closer to the source material than Last Stand did, starting off except that Jean’s origin has changed, and is now tinged with tragedy and abandonment – but as soon as we get past that, and zoom to 1992, we’re off and running.
In ’92, the world fully accepts and embraces the X-Men as world saving superheroes, no longer are they mutie freaks who don’t belong in a decent society, the world remembers how often they’ve risen to the challenge and saved us. So when the space shuttle Endeavour encounters some catastrophic technical problems on an orbital mission, the President himself asks for help, on behalf of NASA. Luckily the X-Jet has recently been upgraded and can now go into orbit. This mission sees the likes of Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) with the team (for the first time, since he joined them in the future in X2 – stupid timeline). Nightcrawler can teleport in a wisp of blue smoke – as long as he can see where he’s teleporting to. But during the course of the mission, his abilities aren’t quick enough to allow him to save Jean from an approaching energy field they assume to be a solar flare.
Welcome to the Phoenix Force, Miss Grey.
As we’ve seen several films ago, becoming Dark Phoenix drastically alters Jen, turning her against the team who have come to be her family. But speaking of family, she has some old scores to settle before taking on the X-Men. In this persona, she’s the most powerful of all of them, even a match for Magneto (Michael Fassbinder).
There’s plenty of action as it doesn’t take too much of a misunderstanding to turn humanity and governments (rarely the same thing, I find) against mutants again and our team have their backs to the wall and even begin to fight among themselves.
Two hours soon speed by at this pace, but although the film comes to a series conclusion – of sorts (which screws the timeline even further) – there’s also a tiny crack left open should the Disney takeover not have happened. I’m a little curious to know where they would’ve gone next – but that point is moot as the X-Men and the rest of the student body at the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters is firmly in the hands of Marvel Pictures.
And Marvel Pictures know how to handle a timeline.
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