With Disney buying Fox and with it the various Marvel franchises to go with its own portfolio, the X-Men’s future has altered.
Nearly 2 decades on from Patrick Stewart, Iain McKellen and Hugh Jackman taking starring roles in the first big screen X-Men movie, the Fox franchise has been wound up, with the characters now likely to be absorbed into the MCU sprawl.
Whether Dark Phoenix is the film they’d want to conclude with is another matter.
After X-Men: Apocalypse proved to be something of a comedown after the engaging First Class & Days of Future Past, the film was aiming to be more of a low-stakes, character driven feature.
But amid talk of a lack of studio belief, changing release dates, a reported late in the day change to act 3, one of the franchise’s biggest ever budget and varying limits to interest from actors, the film hasn’t arrived in the best place, with several poor reviews and early talk of the film losing millions worldwide.
The movie itself is looking to be a proper look at the famed Dark Phoenix saga, which is one of the X-Men’s great stories in the ink-on-paper realm. It was touched upon in 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, but in keeping with what was a glossy misfire, it didn’t really work out.
With its new younger X-Men having gone through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the film world’s narrative now takes its still young-looking cast to the 1990s, with a short interlude set beforehand in 1975 exploring the origins of Jean Grey.
By 1992, the adult Grey (Sophie Turner) is a full part of a super-squad trouble-shooting the world’s problems under the control of an increasingly ego-driven Charles Xavier (James McAvoy).
One afternoon, they get a call from the President that NASA has lost contact with a space shuttle during solar flare activity and despite the reservations of Hank/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), they fly up to space.
During the mission, Grey is exposed to a burning purple-tinted solar flare, which fully inhabits itself within her and begins to accelerate her powers and change her personality.
She uncovers the truth about a car crash she was involved in as a child, and is duly set on a collision course with Xavier, before further encounters with a now-reclusive island-based Magneto (Michael Fassbender), and with a mysterious alien masquerading as human seeking the power within the flare (Jessica Chastain).
The film seems to try its best to zip along through its near-2 hour run-time. But it sometimes feels like the character development is neutered in order to zip along to the next plot point in the sequence.
If structured differently, the film might be allowed to more fully explore the inner turmoil that Grey faces as she is changed by what she encountered in space. Indeed, Turner does get a good performance that hints at what could’ve been for a more character-oriented piece.
As the movie’s de facto lead, she is a highly watchable presence, doing very well in selling the character’s internal turmoil and providing a new counterpoint in a film franchise that, for the most part, has largely centred around one of 3 characters.
While the jump to more arrogance feels rushed, McAvoy is also watchable as Xavier, with the mutant statesman stuck in a balancing act. But in truth, many of the other main characters in the film’s cast don’t look like they get quite so much to do, and are mainly there to try and accelerate a fairly scrappy plot with a tiny contribution apiece.
Indeed, after the arrival of Fassbender, the film seems to immediately shift away from the Grey saga into a collage of CG-enhanced set-pieces, almost running directly one after another. They’re largely well done – a few shaky-cam edits making things hard to focus aside – but ultimately get more than a bit repetitive, with the ultimate fights seemingly being included to justify the presence of the film’s chosen bad guys.
To some degree, it doesn’t help the film arrives so soon after Avengers: End Game and something that was a superhero franchise finale that felt like it was able to get a better structure and character development in spite of its ludicrous amount of actors.
By contrast, X-Men: Dark Phoenix is definitely lacking something. It feels as much like a film that had the resource for a workable story with a beloved comic book arc, high calibre talent pool and the rest, but it ultimately got lost in trying to execute it and ultimately delivered a bit of a mess.
Its not out-and-out the worst superhero film ever, but it feels puzzlingly unremarkable for what should’ve been the big finish to this generation of one of the superhero world’s big brands.