Where to start with the X Men series to date? It’s been nearly 20 years and 12 films since everything kicked off with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen squaring off as Professor X and Magneto respectively, and since then we’ve had multiple spin-offs, prequels and team-ups, which have done nothing but muddy the waters of story continuity.
2011’s full-blown prequel do-over, X-Men: First Class, was a real statement of intent from the series that, after the disappointments of X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the franchise was back and fighting fit. A few more sequels and spin-offs later, from the sublime Days of Future Past, to the ridiculous Apocalypse, the apparent final part of the saga arrives in the form of an adaptation of the comics’ much beloved Dark Phoenix storyline.
X-Men: Dark Phoenix rejoins Charles Xavier and his school for gifted youngsters in the early 1990s, no longer hated and feared by humanity but recognised as a needed force for good – they’ve even been given a hotline to the Oval Office. This time the threat comes from a shapeshifting alien race seeking to conquer Earth, as they hunt down and take on an energy force which has embedded itself in Jean Grey, after a botched rescue mission in space. A 1990s-based Marvel superhero movie with a female lead possessing immense power, against a race of shapeshifting aliens? Say it ain’t so.
There are hints at a decent story here, and Dark Phoenix tries to explore some interesting ideas around themes of male-imposed limitations and expectations of women, but all of this is lost in a mire of pure indifference. Revelations about the relationship between Charles Xavier and Jean Grey are meant to inspire shock and gasps, but they fall completely flat.
That’s unfortunately the case for a lot of Dark Phoenix‘s big moments. Whether it’s a symptom of multiple studio decreed reshoots, or simply directorial incompetence, writer-director Simon Kinberg completely fails to make any part of his film work in a way which is either engaging or satisfying, culminating in an insipid final act. The worst thing is, this isn’t even the first time that Kinberg has had a shot at this particular story either: he was one of the writers on X-Men: The Last Stand, which also took a misjudged stab at Dark Phoenix.
A bad script is only made worse when those acting it don’t care about the material, and aside from Sophie Turner trying her best at salvaging the material, everyone on screen looks either indifferent or resentful at having to honour their contracts by appearing in this film. There’s a moment when a character exclaims “nobody cares anymore”, and the irony of that line alone shines far brighter than the film’s eponymous phoenix.
The most notable examples of this indifference are Michael Fassbender phoning it in as Magneto, and Jennifer Lawrence, who looks like she’s counting down the minutes before her character’s first-act demise. Compared to the impressive performances which Fassbender and Lawrence had put in for First Class and Days of Future Past, it really does go to show how far short of the mark this finale has fallen.
X-Men: Dark Phoenix is not offensively bad, nor do I suspect I’ll be remembering much of it after a week or two; the film is just boring, with rare moments of unintended hilarity to be found here and there. It’s a film that has been the victim of gross compromise, and now that Disney have taken control of the X-Men property, no doubt with designs on a fresh start in a few years, Dark Phoenix has become less a sign of resurgence from the ashes of a drawn out series, and more the cinematic equivalent of a candle being abruptly snuffed out.