Of all the superheroes series that dominate 21st century cinema, X-Men deserve to be fondly recollected. Much has happened in the world in general and in the film industry in particular since the first X-Men picture was released in 2000. The series of movies symbolized an era of optimism and its promise of an ever freer world. But then came global terrorism, unnecessary wars, economic crises and Marvel Studios’ universe – a necessary background for understanding the process undergone by the series’ mutants.
Today, 19 years and 12 movies later, it looks as though Professor X’s group has reached the end of the line. The series has in fact already ended twice (“X-Men: The Last Stand” and “Logan”), but the plots of those movies took place on different time lines. The present plotline actually started in the 1960s, and in the course of three films erased many of the events of the original series.
The opener was “X-Men: First Class” (2011), in which young, better-looking actors stepped into the shoes of the familiar characters, and since then they’ve progressed by leaps of a decade. “X-Men: Dark Phoenix,” the fourth and last in this sequence, is intended to provide an exit for some of the characters and lay the groundwork for the reboot of the entire brand.
After the events of the previous picture, “X-Men: Apocalypse,” which takes place in the 1980s, “Dark Phoenix” jumps to 1992. Jean Grey (Sophie Turner, “Game of Thrones”) is now the right-hand person of Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), who heads the school for mutants. For now, the political argument between Xavier and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) – between integration and isolation – has been decided in favor of the moderate side.
The mutants are now superheroes admired by humanity. Children play with action figures in their image and even the president of the United States has a direct line to Professor X. At the beginning of the film, the president uses it to get him to rescue a space shuttle that’s in trouble, while a team led by Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) is launched into space. The X-Men save the day, but a mysterious substance enters Jean’s body.
While the effects of the substance are gradually revealed, a small number of aliens led by the shape-shifting Vuk (Jessica Chastain) land on Earth with a malicious and mysterious agenda in regard to Jean. Thus, as her powers amplify and she is flooded with traumatic childhood memories, Jean is revealed to be an extremely dangerous weapon. To humanity, of course. But also to the mutants, who are always “one bad day” away from once more becoming public enemy number one.
In his fourth film as an X-Men screenwriter but his first as director, Simon Kinberg appears to have forgotten all the elements that breathed life into the veteran characters. The first trilogy, which hit the big screen at the beginning of the last decade, dealt with the dilemma of the “other” and bore a liberating, optimistic message: come out of the closet and truly live. The subsequent “Wolverine” trilogy gradually shed the positive message and supplanted it with a pessimistic theme appropriate to a broken and frightened period. The last, masterly film of that trilogy, “Logan,” was the final nail in the coffin, and made it clear that every liberation is a temporary illusion, that every liberal achievement can be unceremoniously nullified, and that it’s better for every minority to reenter the closet or escape to Canada.
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The same sea
The present trilogy, which went back in time to the start, actually got off on the right foot. It sparked a renewed discussion, with a twist, about the question of fate and free will. After we’ve already seen the characters in their adult version, the young Magneto, Charles and Raven succeed in changing the course of history. The interesting question that arises in this series, and in the new movie, too, is how far it’s possible to change and be changed. The insight so far, as one of the protagonists says, is that time is like a river. It can be diverted from its course, but only a little. In the end it flows to the same sea.
Even though Kinberg wrote the scripts for most of the films in the series, as director he doesn’t take advantage of the latest picture to overlay the themes and ideas that infused the previous episodes with an interpretation. The focus on Jean’s story as she develops into the strongest being in the world doesn’t make us forget that Sophie Turner also has potential but doesn’t get the tools here to actualize it. A collection of slogans and pensive looks doesn’t allow her to take off. A similar problem affects McAvoy, Fassbender and Lawrence; but in contrast to Turner, they have already been able to leave a fine imprint on their characters in the earlier movies.
Kinberg has stated that he was inspired by “Logan” and wanted to create a “darker” movie. However, that film, which starred Hugh Jackman, acquired its edginess from a sensitive, humane script that deepened and broadened the characters’ traits in order to say something new. It became a rare superheroes movie where the action served the plot, which in return enriched the action. The choice of American open spaces in the spirit of the western over familiar explosions in urban skyscrapers lent itself to a modest plot about shattered, scared X-Men. Kinberg, though, does not go deeply either into the characters or the frame story, but tries to replicate the “atmosphere” of “Logan.” He strives to be dark for the sake of darkness alone.
The final result is artificial, mechanical and challenging to the eyes. That problem is particularly evident in what is supposed to be the bread and butter of the X-Men series: the action. Like Zack Snyder in the DC Films’ universe, Kinberg, too, is convinced that atmosphere is fomented by means of a filter in the camera. Like the reviled third episode in the last season of “Game of Thrones,” in which Turner also played, the action scenes of “Dark Phoenix” are about as edgy as an adolescent’s bedroom. Worse, they generate a yawn. Characters with physical qualities, like the blue, violent Beast and Raven, or the entertaining Quicksilver, whose agility is inherent in his name, have been downgraded to negligible roles. Only the important people – from Jean to Professor X, from Storm to Magneto – remain in the heart of the battles.
Earlier directors in the series, such as Bryan Singer and Matthew Vaughn, were able to take advantage of those heroes’ abilities to shape the space around them in order to create an effective choreography. Under Kinberg their role is limited to intensive thinking while massaging their temples, causing objects to be hurled from side to side.
The world of “Dark Phoenix” tries with all its might to connect to its heritage – and that, oddly, is the reason it’s disconnected from the whole series. On the one hand, the picture assumes prior familiarity with the majority of the characters and doesn’t dwell on them, so it’s not recommended for new viewers. On the other hand, it doesn’t utilize that situation to take the characters to new places and new heights, so it’s not of interest to veteran viewers. In the few cases in which characters are given a motive for taking action, the dialogue is embarrassing and turns entire relationships, which extend across 12 movies and two decades, into the shallowness of a telenovela.
“X-Men: Dark Phoenix” is an unnecessary movie at best, and it’s too bad it was made. The story of Jean and the others was already told and wrapped up in “X-Men: The Last Stand.” The story of Wolverine and Professor X was related and done with in “Logan.” If “Dark Phoenix” is really the end of the X-Men as we’ve known them, it’s a pretty gloomy ending. If the film is meant to prepare the ground to reboot the series, or for hooking up with the new owners – Disney and Marvel – the failure is all the more egregious. It’s hard to imagine what sort of new film it will be possible to salvage from these ruins without a time machine.