Frankly, Dark Phoenix isn’t a very interesting movie. It is a failure, but not an egregious one. It feels compromised from the ground up, but with solid, interesting takes on various characters that are ground up and cut apart into meaninglessness. However, the core of the story comes through, even it if feels truncated and the ending takes a weird turn.
Dark Phoenix is most interesting to me as the end of a movie universe that has meant a lot to me over the years. I am a comic fan now, but I really wasn’t when X-Men came out in 1999. My relation to the X-Men movies in some ways mirrors my relation to superhero comics. I liked superheroes, and likely would have been a comic fan had the opportunity presented itself before the movies, but I lived in something of a comics desert, with the only place to purchase comics within fifty miles being a lonely, sporadically refreshed spinner rack at the local grocery store. I did purchase some comics from there, spurred on by a brief infatuation with Archie Comics Sonic the Hedgehog comic (that is a post for another day), but I never really got into superheroes.
That is not to say I didn’t have some experience with superheroes or the X-Men, that experience just didn’t come from comics. Like many people who were seven in 1992, I was a huge fan of the cartoon. That show was a gateway, a glimpse into a larger world. Even without reading the comics, I knew somethings were missing with that show, but it still set my expectations for what the X-Men should be, especially when it comes to the make-up of the team. That early 90’s team is the iconic one to me. While I don’t think there is a member of that team I didn’t like, my favorite was always Beast. And the fact that Gambit is not an integral part of the team in other media was a surprise to learn. That wasn’t my only source of superhero knowledge. My best friend was comics fan, and he had these coffee table books that went into the history of comics characters. I remember he had one about Batman and one about Marvel Comics. At his house, sitting on the floor in the tiny closet of a room his family had set up as a game room, I would read these summaries of stories and character histories while we took turns playing Super Nintendo games. They are some of my happiest childhood memories.
I really had a thing for those sorts of books. I routinely checked out a similar book about Godzilla from the school library. I had seen three or four Godzilla movies, But this book went into great (and occasionally incorrect) detail about all the movies and various monsters that Godzilla would face off against. Finally seeing the movies was a bit of a disappointment, because they didn’t quite match how I imagined they all looked. With the superhero books, it was an amazing glimpse into a world I couldn’t actually see. There was something called the “Mutant Massacre” and I didn’t know most of the details, but it sounded amazing.
So I was perfectly primed for the movie when I was 14. I liked the X-Men, but I didn’t know the comics well enough to be concerned about whether or not the movie was accurate. Honestly, at the time the only superhero movies I knew were Batman movies, so it wasn’t like I had something else to set expectations by. A lot of stuff now about X-Men makes me roll my eyes a little bit. The jabs at colorful costumes or the fact that it isn’t actually very good, you know, those sorts of things. But as a 14 year old, it hit me perfectly. It was cool, which was the most important thing for a new teenager. It didn’t have the X-Man I most identified with, the monstrous yet erudite Beast, but the rest was good enough that I didn’t care. The scene where Magneto points all the guns back at the cops blew my mind. My enthusiasm didn’t wane. I bought the movie on VHS, one of my first such purchases, and completely dissected it, searching the background for hints at characters that weren’t in the movie. Needless to say, I was excited for the sequel. And the sequel worked. Sure, it turned into even more of the Wolverine show, but Wolverine was great so what was the problem?
I think the “geek” movies of the early 2000’s don’t get the respect they deserve. Everyone probably feels that about the movies they fell in love with when they were teenagers. But starting in 1999 with The Phantom Menace and The Matrix, the next six or so years were filled with movies that just worked for me. The best remembered, and likely best all-around from the time, were Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. I loved them. I never hated the Star Wars prequels and I didn’t lose any of my excitement when a new one was coming out. Let’s not forget Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies. But my favorites at the time were the X-Men movies. Recently, in a pile of papers, I found a list I made, likely around 2004, of the best movie trilogies. I like to make lists, so this seems like something I would have done instead of paying attention in some high school class. Star Wars topped the list, with Lord of the Rings and Back to the Future also near the top. There was a note on the page, though, reminding myself to revise the list when X-Men 3 came out, because based on the strength of the first two movies it was a contender for the top spot.
X-Men 3: The Last Stand was in some ways the end of my close relationship with the X-Men movie franchise, but not because I was disappointed in it. I convinced myself it was good for a long time. No, it is more that movie kind of marks a sort of childhood’s end for me. That was a long time coming, as I was twenty when that movie came out, but age wasn’t really the dividing line. It was that X-Men 3 was the last movie I went to see with my high school friends. We, in many groups and variations, went to see plenty of movies together. The most memorable for me were the times when we got as big a group of us together as possible, piled into my parents’ full-size Chevy van and went to see a movie. I’ll never forget the night we watched the Matrix Reloaded on DVD at my friend’s house, then all went together to see The Matrix: Revolutions. The silent, angry car ride home was excruciating. We all hated the movie, but none of us wanted to talk about it. It was crushing and we all just sullenly fumed as I drove us home. One might think that the Last Stand would have had a similar result. An unsafe number of teenagers, or recently turned not teenagers, stuffed into a van (close to a dozen in a vehicle that seats seven) making the thirty minute ride to and from the theater. But it did not. That movie got a range of reactions and we had a pretty good discussion about it on the ride home. No, it didn’t really do a great job with the Phoenix story. Yes, Kelsey Grammar as the Beast was great. We stood in the driveway talking for more than an hour after we got back. I think we all subconsciously knew that this was something like the end of an era, that we would never be together and be the people we in high school again. We were already dispersed to different colleges and these get togethers were growing increasingly infrequent. But as long as we stood there talking about whether The Last Stand was actually going to be the last stand, the longer our group lasted. But, as all things must, that night ended.
That was also the end of that take on the X-Men. Despite my claims of childhood’s end, before the next movie came out, the desultory X-Men Origins, I got into comics. With my initial love of the X-Men, the first thing I did was . . . acquire a full run of .pdfs of all X-Men comics and read them. But as my reading branched out, I moved away from the superhero team that was a favorite of my childhood. In fact, I came to realize that the characters a DC resonated more strongly with me than most of Marvel’s. When First Class came out in 2011, I actually kind of cared that they were bungling a whole handful of characters. (Really, that movie is super overrated and in many places quite bad). I would still go see X-Men movies, but I was no longer really a fan. Days of Future Past is likely the best of the bunch, but I haven’t returned to it like I did with the first two movies. Honestly, I didn’t think about the X-Men movies much at all, at least until Disney bought Fox and I realized that this movie franchise that has been there for so long was going away for good.
Dark Phoenix does not feel like a movie designed to be the end of a blockbuster movie franchise. The Last Stand did. Logan did. Dark Phoenix, for much of its runtime, feels like just another chapter. For one thing, we haven’t gotten to know this team of X-Men well enough to care. Which is really the biggest flaw with the movie. The fact that it is a low key character focused take that was hastily retrofitted into being a big action film is a problem, but that still stems out of the fact that how are we to know that Jean has changed when we don’t know Jean. For better or worse, the movies since First Class have focused on the trio of Xavier, Magneto and Mystique, with Beast always there in the periphery. This new crew of Nightcrawler, Cyclops, Jean and Storm just showed up last movie and were at best tertiary players in that movie. Also, Quicksilver is there, mostly for one cool action scene a movie and nothing else. There is what appears is supposed to be a big character moment for Nightcrawler in the final act, but it is hard to know when we don’t know Nightcrawler. Maybe Storm makes a big decision about midway, but we don’t know Storm well enough to tell. The only one it is possible to get a read on is Cyclops, and that is because he doesn’t change. Meanwhile, Dark Phoenix does almost nothing with Magneto or Mystique, and Beast’s arc is underwritten. That leaves only Xavier, and this time we never really get inside his head.
Dark Phoenix is the most disappointing kind of bad; the kind of bad when you can feel that people were really trying and really cared (maybe not Jennifer Lawrence). There is fun to be had with a big, dumb goofy movie. Something like Gods of Egypt that isn’t good, but there is at least fun spectacle to entertain while pointing to the badness. Dark Phoenix seems like it cares and is much too dour to have a good time with.
Now the X-Men have been hoovered up in that corporate megalith Disney, something we have been assured is a good thing because now they can be in the same mega-franchise as the Avengers. Maybe it will turn out to be a good thing for X-Men movies. While I think there is a lot of potential in the young actors cast to play the X-Men, a completely new take is likely for the best. Maybe someone will get characters besides Xavier, Magneto and Wolverine “right.” There are a lot that haven’t really gotten their due. I would love to see a movie that actually does something with Storm, or a movie that gets the swashbuckling nature of Nightcrawler. Colossus and Kitty Pryde. Rogue. Emma Frost. Gambit. There are a ton of characters that have never gotten a once of focus because it has all been about Xavier, Magneto and Wolverine; even when the movies are adapting stories that originally focused on other characters. Only Dark Phoenix broke from that, putting the focus on Jean Grey, but failing to flesh her out enough before her change into Phoenix for that change to have any meaning.
The X-Men movies were only intermittently good, but I’ll miss them nonetheless.