In Review – X-Men: Dark Phoenix

Review by Tim Robins

The Film: The story of one of the X-Men’s most beloved characters, Jean Grey, as she evolves into the iconic Dark Phoenix. During a life-threatening rescue mission in space, Jean is hit by a cosmic force that transforms her into one of the most powerful mutants of all. Wrestling with this increasingly unstable power as well as her own personal demons, Jean spirals out of control, tearing the X-Men family apart and threatening to destroy the very fabric of our planet. The family of mutants that we’ve come to know and love must face their most devastating enemy yet — one of their own…

X-Men: Dark Phoenix Poster

The Review: X-Men – Dark Phoenix may be a burnt offering, but it is not as bad as critics would have you believe. It just pales in comparison to the loud and garish Marvel Cinematic Universe. Neither is the film incoherent: it just lacks the sense of continuity and faux gravitas that the MCU has created.

I have no doubt that lecturers on media studies courses and studio executives will be pondering the differences between 20th Century Fox’s and Marvel/Disney’s take on Marvel’s superheroes for decades to come. Perhaps that’s overly optimistic, because, to quote William Goldman (again), when it comes to predicting a film’s success or failure “nobody knows anything.”

X-Men: Dark Phoenix is not as densely or cleverly scripted as even a minor offering from the MCU, but it is not as bad as X-Men: Apocalypse (which I must admit I enjoyed at the time) or X-Men: Last Stand. The latter pretty much killed the series for me, which had started so well: Bryan Singer’s first X-Men movie was in many ways a ground breaking take on superheroes. It showed there was a market for apparently lesser-known superheroes, notably a knowledgeable audience of young adults who had watched Marvel cartoons on TV. It also, finally, moved on-screen superheroes away from rescuing children and cats or stopping natural disasters. Instead, Singer recognised that what superheroes do best is fight supervillains.

A problem with X-Men “franchise” is that it hasn’t built on its own success. First Fox tried the MCU strategy but in reverse, pretty much saying that you’ve seen these characters work as a team, now see them on their own! Of the planned X-Men: Origins spin-offs, only a few so-so Wolverine movies came to pass. Then, Fox seemed to reboot the series with X-Men: First Class, a decent enough film although it left me feeling I had just watched a film that was mostly about the origin of Magneto’s helmet.

X-Men: First Class also highlighted another problem with the franchise. Without the gravitas of Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan and the simmering, sweaty, vest-and-claws sexuality of Hugh Jackman, the young cast of X-persons looked cute, but just weren’t particularly interesting. That situation hasn’t changed with this latest offering, which demands a greater depth of emotion than the director, Simon Kinberg, gets his stars to deliver. Instead, the characters seem to just talk emotions at each other.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix - Phoenix

Then there are problems of scale. Bryan Singer had been approached to adapt the so-called ‘Dark Phoenix Saga’ after X-Men 2, but felt that the story was too soon for the film series’ continuity and too cosmic (the original series sees Jean Grey’s phoenix energy devouring an entire planet). The Last Stand chose a more low key approach to the story, one which saw the Phoenix disintegrate Charles Xavier and Cyclops. It was a move that pleased virtually no one, but, incredibly, X-Men: Dark Phoenix tries similar moves by killing off a character.

The film does gesture towards the original comic story, but its cosmic scale is bought down to Earth by some totally boring, shape-shifting aliens. It is a move that leaves us just with another blonde femme fatale in place of Emma Frost aka The White Queen. For me, the whole dark Phoenix story needed to have been spread over a number of movies and required more fidelity to the comic book universe, if it ever had to be adapted in the first place.

X-Men: Dark PhoenixThe tone of X-Men: Dark Phoenix is also very different to the MCU. It has a sense of humour, but it is often only glimpsed in passing. For example, when the Nightcrawler is clamped to a train carriage his tail gets its own restraint. The mutant disco dancing queen Dazzler gets a cameo, although to no particular end. There’s a lorry with Bishop on its side which misled me into thinking it was a jokey reference to the mutant of the same name – but it turned out that the dreadlocked mutant in question is Akari.

There are some nice touches, such as the X-Men’s Blackbird emerging, Thunderbirds style, from beneath Xavier’s mansion. There’s also a good visual moment when Magneto drags a train up from New York’s subway system. But it is a pretty poor show when it is left to the second unit director to deliver the, exciting, climactic fight on board a prison train.

It’s sad that Fox has really underplayed its hand with some tremendous Marvel properties. Marvel may now embark on rebooting the characters but I suspect that will be many years before the X-Men rise from the ashes as Fox is still to release The New Mutants, now scheduled for 2020.

Tim Robins

A freelance journalist and Doctor Who fanzine editor since 1978, Tim Robins has written on comics, films, books and TV programmes for a wide range of publications including StarburstInterzonePrimetime and TV Guide.

His brief flirtation with comics includes ghost inking a 2000AD strip and co-writing a Doctor Who strip. He reviewed comics and films in posts and podcasts for The Mindless Ones until he became a net diva and forgot to name check the rest of the team at a San Diego Comic Con panel. The Mindless Ones gave him the nickname ‘Tymbus’

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A freelance journalist and Doctor Who fanzine editor since 1978, Tim Robins has written on comics, films, books and TV programmes for a wide range of publications including Starburst, Interzone, Primetime and TV Guide. His brief flirtation with comics includes ghost inking a 2000AD strip and co-writing a Doctor Who strip with Mike Collins. Since 1990 he worked at the University of Glamorgan where he was a Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Media Studies and the social sciences. Academically, he has published on the animation industry in Wales and approaches to social memory. He claims to be a card carrying member of the Politically Correct, a secret cadre bent on ruling the entire world and all human thought.

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