A Palpable Whimper
'One ticket for the new X-Men film, please.'
'Certainly, sir. Somewhere in the middle?'
'Well, from the beginning, ideally.'
Well, it's not exactly first-rate cinema-queue badinage, but at least it had a bit more upbeat peppiness to it than the conversations I was hearing on the way out at the end of the film (at the risk of spoiling the rest of the review, 'That was so bad,' was about the gist of it). I think there's been a sense for a while now that this latest X-Men movie has been up against it – the anticipation for it has been nothing like that for either of the last two spin-offs, with most people looking ahead to the point at which the mutants get folded into the MCU. Perhaps the sheer longevity of the series has also begun to count against it, and there's also the fact that it's less than two months since Endgame came out, a movie which I expect will prove incredibly hard to equal, let alone top.
Certainly the advertising for Simon Kinberg's Dark Phoenix has tried hard to trade on the long pedigree of these films, as well as positioning it as some kind of Endgame-esque grand finale. 'Twenty years ago, one movie showed us what makes us different makes us heroes,' chuntered one of the trailers, accompanied by star-studded clips from well-received early instalments. Well, yes, but I feel obliged to point out that the original X-Men came out 18 and a bit years ago – 1999 is, in hindsight, notable for being one of the last years without a heavy superhero presence at the box office – the only superhero movie that came out that year was Mystery Men, which in hindsight looks rather ahead of its time. I've digressed again, haven't I? Anyway: my point is that when a movie starts appealing to brand loyalty, rather than promising an exciting new experience, it is perhaps not the best sign.
Writer-director Kinberg has been knocking about the franchise since the 2000s, his first script being for X-Men: The Last Stand, generally regarded as one of the wobblier episodes. So the fact that the new film is essentially another pass at the same storyline (from Uncanny X-Men #101-138, of course) should really qualify as Ominous Sign Number One. It takes place in the 1990s, not that this influences the storyline in the slightest, nor does the film attempt to explain why most of the main characters have barely aged in thirty years. Things are looking pretty good for Professor X (James McAvoy), as good PR management and wise grooming choices mean his students are now superheroes, adored by the public, with the President having a special X-Phone on his desk so he can call them up in a crisis (yes, I know).
Well, the space shuttle gets into trouble due to a mysterious solar flare, and the X-Phone is duly used: the X-Men (a bunch of familiar characters this time around, but not including the chap with the claws, obviously) are rocketed off into space to carry out a rescue, somewhat against the better judgement of team leader Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). The mission is essentially a success, but one of the team – a young girl played by Sophie Turner, whose comics codename is a bit problematic by modern standards so she just goes by 'Jean' – is exposed to the flare's radiation and returns to Earth with her mutant powers of telepathy and telekinesis increasing at an exponential rate.
This would not in itself be terrible news, except for the fact that Jean had a traumatic childhood and was subject to a little discreet telepathic adjustment by the Professor. This is now unravelling as her powers develop, and she heads off in search of personal closure, despite the fact her behaviour is increasingly erratic. The team try to stop her and tragedy results (you can guess what this is if you've seen the trailer, it's not exactly subtly handled); Xavier is forced to confront his own arrogance and hubris, while Jean seeks refuge in a mutant colony led by Magneto (Michael Fassbender). But it gets even worse! It turns out that the solar flare Jean absorbed is actually a primordial force of inconceivable cosmic power (funny, I thought all six of those had been accounted for), and a mob of evil aliens led by Jessica Chastain is also looking to take control of it...
This is, if you include the various spin-offs, X-Men 12, which is a very decent innings for any movie franchise. What's even more impressive is the fact that, for a long time at least, I found each new film to be at least as enjoyable as the one preceding it (I am part of the minority that actually thought The Last Stand was a fun romp). That changed with Apocalypse, which was all right but not up to the standard of Days of Future Past – and now, with Dark Phoenix, I fear we are confronted by the first no-two-ways-about-it genuinely poor main-sequence X-Men movie.
It's not just that this movie revisits the same material as a previous episode, because there's only one sequence which vaguely recalls the previous film. The issues run deeper than that, and most of them stem from the script. One thing the advertising for this film does get right is that the previous films were so successful because they presented rounded characters with believable personalities, and credible relationships between them. There was potential here for more along those lines, and yet the script has a weirdly perfunctory quality, seldom pausing for reflection: the film has a slightly pedestrian, obvious quality completely at odds with the fantastical elements it depicts. Even worse, most of the characters are simply thin and forgettable – you hardly care about any of them.
Even normally reliable performers like James McAvoy struggle to make an impact, and the same is true of Jennifer Lawrence – J-Law seems to have negotiated herself a brilliant deal for this movie, by the way: she's third billed, despite having limited screen-time, and only has to wear minimal prosthetics (none of that full-body make-up this time). The only person who brings any kind of presence to the movie is Michael Fassbender, who is as good as ever as Magneto. I suppose you could argue that one of the ways in which this film innovates is the fact that the bad guy is an actual alien – a new version of a character who first appeared in Avengers #4, in a fine historical irony – but, once again, Jessica Chastain really struggles to find anything to do with her.
There is plenty of well-staged crash-bang-wallop as the film goes on, and much use of swirly CGI, and it would be remiss of me not to mention that there is an impressive synth-heavy score from Hans Zimmer. But none of it feels like it means anything, most of the characters are flat and empty, there is nothing here you haven't seen before in another X-Men film, where it was probably done better anyway.
No-one would deny the significance of the X-Men movies when it comes to the development of the fantasy genre, and the superhero film in particular. This series genuinely did change the way these films are made. But things move on, and while the genre has continued to develop, it's starting to look like the X-Men have not evolved along with it (ironically enough). We are promised one more spin-off, then a break before new versions of these characters join the main Marvel Studios continuity. (I suspect it's worth a flutter that Avengers Vs X-Men will make $3 billion before the end of the 2020s.) Well, that's fair enough. Have a good long rest, X-Men: you've certainly earned it, and more importantly, it looks like you desperately need it.