by Jason Delgado
Legendary X-men comics writer Chris Claremont repeated a familiar refrain in a recent Vulture article by saying, “Those who do not learn from the lessons of the past are destined to repeat it.” Here’s another one I just came up with, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on Simon Kinberg.” The writer/director of Dark Phoenix, Kinberg, promised the fans at WonderCon that the “wrongs” of X-Men: The Last Stand (in my mind, these are the lack of development and uncharacteristic choices for main characters, emotionless deaths, and just plain butchering the epic comic storyline) would be righted with his new iteration of the same Phoenix story. “Promises, Promises”, as the 80’s one hit wonder Naked Eyes would sing, “Why do I believe?” Kinberg talked a big game, and showed some cool footage at WonderCon, so I was hopeful.
Even after I saw the Rotten Tomatoes rating for Dark Phoenix of (as of this writing) 23%, I thought to myself, well, I’m the guy who enjoyed the new Hellboy when critics hated it. I’m a fan of the X-men comics, and I liked many of the movies, so maybe I’ll find it entertaining. I’m always hopeful going into a movie, because I’m just an optimistic type of guy, for the most part. Then I saw the movie, and the realist in me came out. Dark Phoenix may be best summed up by a conversation I overheard as two guys discussed the flick afterward, as we were exiting the IMAX theater. “Would you ever watch that movie again?” one asked. The other replied with, “Zero chance, none. Well, except if I had it playing on the TV in the background while I did something else.” They then went on to compare it to Dexter, which I believe was apt, since Dexter started off strong, just as the X-men films did, until it peaked in season four, and then fell off of a cliff to the point where Dexter’s finale is talked about as one of the worst of all-time.
It’s a shame, since the X-men are the reason for this whole current Marvel movie mania in the first place. Blade does deserve some credit, but the first X-men movie in 2000 really jump-started it all. Marvel President Kevin Feige has echoed as much, and he’s explained before at San Diego Comic Con about how he got his start on that original X-men film as an associate producer. I really believe that if there is no Feige, there is no Marvel (as we currently know it) because he laid the groundwork for it all. Besides that, there have been some pretty awesome X-men movies in the past, such as X2, Days of Future Past, and Logan. There have been some stinkers too, notably The Last Stand.
Simon Kinberg, who wrote the screenplay for The Last Stand, has been saying at comic cons for years that he regrets how that film turned out. He knows, like the rest of us comic book nerds, that the Dark Phoenix Saga was a milestone in comic book storytelling. Chris Claremont wrote that comic story, along with artist John Byrne, and it was Claremont’s seminal work, out of almost 17 consecutive years of writing the X-men comics, from 1975 through 1991. It was such an amazing run, one that included the Days of Future Past storyline, along with so many others that are well-known within the comic realm.
The Dark Phoenix Saga unfolded over four years in the comics, and told the cosmic story of original X-men member Jean Grey attaining off-the-charts level powers after a near-death experience in space. This film condenses the story, obviously, while making strange choices about plot and characters. I think a problem that plagued Kinberg was that he never specifically addressed what the issues with The Last Stand were, only that it didn’t do the comic story justice, so he was destined to repeat many of those same mistakes.
The normally superb cast of James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Sophie Turner, Nicholas Holt, Jessica Chastain, and others, are reduced to mere mortals in this movie. If this was the only film in which you had seen these actors, you would say that the cast is good, but nothing special, because that’s how they come off with the direction of Kinberg. We’re talking about Oscar-nominated actors, including one who won the golden statue. Some may think that anyone could direct these actors and make a great movie. People said the same thing about coaches with Shaq, Kobe, and Jordan, but they didn’t start to win championships until they had the Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson. This was Kinberg’s first time as a director, so he’s still a rookie learning the ropes, with seemingly a ways to go. I think that Fassbender stood out among the crowd in this one, with Chastain reduced to such a silly, laughable role. Lawrence did her usual fine work, but McAvoy took a step back because of the odd, uncharacteristic choices they made for his character of Professor X. I read one review saying that the actors were phoning it in, but I believe that it was more due to the direction and poor script.
Moments that were meant to play as quite emotional in Dark Phoenix just fall flat because of the lack of meaningful buildup and execution. Kinberg said in a recent Hollywood Reporter interview, “If anything, I would say this movie is a close cousin to Logan in many ways because that was also the final chapter of a sprawling saga. That movie also had a rawness and an intimacy and an emotionality I was trying to capture in this film too.” It’s as if he was trying to make the Green Book, but instead it came out more like Dumber and Dumber To. Parts of the story and character “development” of Dark Phoenix even work to detract from the years of X-men films that came before, until the audience is left feeling cold and emotionless. That may sound a bit harsh, but that’s how I felt at the end of it all.
The bright side is that as the Scarlet Witch famously declared in the “House of M” comic storyline, there are “no more mutants” for Fox studios, well, except for New Mutants coming out in April of 2020. Disney/Marvel owns the rights now, and with their excellent casting and storyline track record, it will be fun to watch Marvel with more characters in their sandbox with which to play. Maybe we’ll get an Avengers vs X-men movie down the road? Hopefully, anything they do will be good enough to washout the taste of this movie.