Holy shit, is it 2006?!
Thirteen years ago, the worst X-Men film at the time came out featuring Dark Phoenix as the main antagonist. More than a decade later, and nothing has changed. Dark Phoenix is one of, if not the worst X-Men films to date, and as the name implies, Jean Grey takes on her Phoenix persona and shifts into the villain role for a while. In case that wasn’t bad enough, this film, for this reviewer at least, the oft spoken of super hero fatigue may have finally set in.
So many aspects of this film simply don’t work, and the greatest failings are frequently among the characters. Mystique, historically an embodiment of quintessential female villainy (for better and for worse), has decided to transform into a sanctimonious, preachy and thoroughly irritating character who does absolutely nothing before being escorted out of the film after seemingly only a few minutes- which is one of the best things the film has going for it.
Cyclops is utterly pathetic, as for basically the entire first half of the film, he is completely feckless and cannot accomplish anything without being attached at the hip to Jean Grey. Once Jean Grey starts to go bananas, he cannot do anything other than chase after her the entire time. He is more akin to a puppy with separation anxiety than he is to anything that can be confused with a leader. After six appearances by two different actors across decades within the sprawling X-Men film franchise, Cyclops remains one of the most underutilized characters within the X-Men universe. Fox seems both unable and uninterested in getting him right, despite him being one of the first, most powerful and most important X-Men in the franchise.
In case you were worried that the suck would be strictly confined to the heroes, I have good news for you! The villain in this film is one of the worst in any comic book adaptation. Freaking Whiplash and Steppenwolf are better than the semi-sentient crash test dummies Dark Phoenix employs. Vuk is a space alien whose planet was destroyed by the weird space magic that turned Jean Grey into the Phoenix. She is trying to get the energy for herself and create new planets or something. It doesn’t really matter, as Jessica Chastain was apparently tolled to act with as little personality as possible. She is so flat and lifeless, that it made me miss the bland and faceless monsters that some other films were utilizing, as at least those had ferocity and some semblance of a personality. This film features Vok and an entire league of followers which are a very poor man’s version of the Blanks from The Worlds End.
This single frame conveys the entirety of the emotional spectrum that Vuk operates on throughout the entire film.
Even the characters that are good are brought down by the ambient stench of this film. Magneto and Storm have to take a back seat to the above characters, and are unable to live up to their full potential as a result. The latter of which is particularly disappointing, as, like Cyclops, Storm is painfully underutilized in these films. Magneto and Xavier have long been among the best parts of the X-Men films, and Magneto gets off easy having only to take on a smaller role. Xavier gets completely trashed throughout most of the film. The fact that he was mistaken in his treatment of Grey is important to the film, and a necessary point. The issue comes from the fact that it is handled completely without tact and in the most clunky ways possible.
Clunky is the most apt word for most of this film. The first thing that happens in this film is that the X-Men have to go up into space to bail out some Astronauts his by some cosmic magic. Each member of the team has a role to fill within the larger rescue, and each does their role well- even the feckless Cyclops shoots one heck of an eye laser. The only character who does absolutely nothing is Mystique, the apparent self-imposed Queen of this new timeline. Despite her futility, Mystique has the gall to lecture Xavier before saying that the team should be called the X-Women due to their actions. I know that Cyclops and Beast twiddled their thumbs for most of the rescue, but both Quicksilver and Nightcrawler put themselves in harm’s way by going onto the shuttle- with the latter going on a second time with Jean Gray. So not only is she sanctimonious and annoying, but she is also just plain wrong.
This is important to point out beyond simply being a stupid moment that sticks in my craw. This theme of men taking advantage of women- most notably Jean Grey- persists throughout the film in order to make Xavier and Magneto more unlikable. Xavier gets it the worst, as his role in twisted into a veritable Comedy Central roast. Yes, he made a critical mistake in the way he raised and treated Jean Grey, and most critically, how he tried to control her. This makes him into a pseudo- antagonist, as almost every character on the screen at any given point has some element of dislike towards him. Bringing down Xavier, and confronting him on his thought that he can control every situation he gets into- even if he does it with the best of intentions- is an interesting element for the character, but it is one that needs to be handled subtly, so that the audience doesn’t grow to hate Xavier. This is a task in which this film completely fails, just as it does with seemingly every other element.
Even with all of this trash: the lousy characters, the cumbersome execution of ideas, the forced, bandwagon-y and transparent political pandering, this film could have limped away with just being a poor super hero film. The true nightmare of this film may be that it has brought about the super hero fatigue. There was a point in this film where I simply grew tire of it. The storyline, the characters, the world, the genre clichés- I was done with all of them. Part of the problem is that this film was essentially done recent enough for people to still remember it. The greater problem is that this larger narrative has been played out: one of the super heroes has gone bad and has to be reeled in and brought back from the proverbial dark side. How many times have we seen this play out over the past few years? How many times are we going to see these super hero films go over the same narrative and structural conventions? I wanted this film to be over so that I could see something that was not the same super hero fare.
At least when Marvel incorporates the X-Men into the MCU there won’t be too many attached to this current crop of mutants.