X-Men: Dark Phoenix

Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Jessica Chastain

Director: Simon Kinberg

Writer: Simon Kinberg


Dark Phoenix marks the end of a two-decade journey for one of the franchises that helped launch the superhero phenomenon that has overtaken the world. As the genre has involved so has the series, going from a modestly-budgeted action flick with a mostly serious tone and black, leather costumes to a more campy sci-fi/fantasy style with larger effects-driven set-pieces and more inventive varieties of outfits and powers. Since then the franchise has also branched out to deliver a cartoonishly crude lampoon satirising the customs we’ve come to associate with the genre and an elegiac, western-inspired drama that explored and reflected on those conventions in complex and profound ways. The eleven films that came before have led the series to soaring heights and dreadful lows and, while the Disney-Fox deals guarantees that this is nowhere near the last we’ll see of the mutants, Dark Phoenix marks the end of an era all the same. That the film opted to once again draw from the ‘Phoenix Saga’ in the comics, the go-to character-killing storyline for the franchise when the actors are ready to be released from their contracts, should indicate this if nothing else. If ever there was a time for the series to pull out the big guns, be bold and daring, and make a loud, definitive statement for all to hear, this was it. Instead Dark Phoenix has turned out to be their weakest, most uninspired film yet (which is saying something).

The movie isn’t as terrible as X-Men Origins: Wolverine, it may not even be as bad as The Last Stand, but what both of those movies had that Dark Phoenix does not is personality and purpose. Wolverine was abysmal on almost every conceivable level, but it at least had the courtesy to be so laughably bad that it offers some entertainment value for those who enjoy hate-watching movies. The Last Stand, the last movie to adapt the ‘Dark Phoenix’ saga, was similarly condemned by audiences, but I’m still prepared to defend it insofar as it took actual chances with its story and characters, something that too few blockbusters are willing to do today. Dark Phoenix meanwhile is so dull and unimaginative in its approach and so pointless in its very existence that I can hardly believe it is technically considered a movie. Not only does it utterly fail to deliver its own compelling standalone story or to advance the overarching narrative of the franchise in any meaningful way, it hardly seems to care enough to so much as try. Not even the talented cast at its disposal could overcome the dismal script they were made to work with nor the failings of the first-time director the studio saw fit to entrust with their coda to the series. When Fox appointed longtime X-Men screenwriter Simon Kinberg to captain this conclusive title, what they doubtless expected was something safe, standard, and uncontroversial and that is exactly what they got in all the worst ways.

After opening with a brief flashback featuring Jean Grey’s (Sophie Turner) tragic backstory, the movie picks things up in 1992, precisely eight years before James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender (once again reprising their roles as Professor X and Magneto) are due to morph into Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. Since the events of X-Men: Apocalypse human-mutant relations have improved and the X-Men have been embraced as heroes and saviours (the Oval Office even has an X-shaped phone for the President’s use when their services are needed). Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters has also flourished into a haven for mutants in need of community and guidance and there Jean has grown to become one of the Professor’s brightest and most capable students. Xavier acknowledges that this harmony they’ve attained is more the result of necessity than it is of acceptance and that mutantkind is only one bad day away from returning to square one, but the contemporary connotations of such a concept are quickly brushed aside so that the X-Men series (as created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee as a metaphor for racism in the 1960s) may remain blissfully apolitical. Jean joins the team, as led by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult), on a risky space mission that ends up going badly as she gets struck by some solar-flare-like force of energy. Jean inexplicably survives the blast and emerges not only unharmed but feeling stronger than ever. Her powers soon grow out of control however and it isn’t long before she finds herself heading down a destructive path.

Jean, having served as little more than a minor role in the last film, is the protagonist this time around and so much of why Dark Phoenix doesn’t work has to do with how much the movie takes our investment in her character for granted. The film for example assumes that we’re already on board with the romance between her and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) despite their relationship barely amounting to a sub-plot in Apocalypse because the leg-work for these characters was already done back when they were played by Famke Janssen and James Marsden. Turner, as demonstrated in her tenure on Game of Thrones, is a talented enough actress that she ought to have been able to make the character her own and find some meat in the role of a conflicted woman with a fractured mind furiously at odds with herself and her loved ones. She never gets that far however because the movie has little interest in exploring her psyche and, more crucially, her feelings about the man responsible for perpetuating her rage and trauma. The shock from the cosmic explosion reawakens a lost memory that Xavier chose to repress in his first meeting with Jean, that of the tragic car crash that she inadvertently caused with her powers as a young girl and the harms it inflicted on her parents.

That the good Professor elected to suppress a little girl’s emotional development in a sorely misguided attempt to protect her is a questionable act worthy of interrogation, but that would mean confronting issues of underlying misogyny that the movie would prefer to leave unacknowledged. The film wants us to be critical of Xavier, but not so critical that he ceases to be sympathetic. Instead the film simply chastises him for his actions insofar as they enraged an increasingly powerful and unstable mutant and triggered a lethal rampage and tries to score what cheap feminist points it can through empty gestures and lip-service. With Mystique’s eyeroll-inducing declaration that the X-Men ought to consider calling themselves the X-Women, the film appears to be operating under the assumption that female empowerment amounts to meaningless ‘I am woman, hear me roar’ statements, caring not whether the substance even supports the statement being made. When Jean reaches the conclusion that it’s her emotions that make her strong, the words ring hollow coming from a character who is defined far more by her abilities and her connection to her previous incarnation than she is by her own personal feelings. It’s all there to provide token gestures towards a vague notion of progressivism without pressing any buttons in a world where people’s intolerance for the sexist exercise of patriarchal power and control over women is gradually increasing.

Ethical objections aside, Dark Phoenix ranks lowest in my estimation of the X-Men canon because of what a continual slog it is to sit through. Compared to First Class where each performer, most notably McAvoy, Fassbender, and above all Lawrence, brought so much spirit and enthusiasm to their roles, here they put in all the effort of mildly acquainted co-workers taking part in a mandatory team-building exercise. McAvoy and Fassbender do at least act like they somewhat care about what’s happening in the film if only because both men are physically incapable of phoning in a performance, but Lawrence, who in Apocalypse could barely disguise how bored she was of starring in these films, is so wooden and uninterested that they might as well have employed a CGI duplicate. Chastain however comes the worst out of the whole deal as a villain whose personality and motivations are so ill-defined that I’m honestly struggling to remember a single substantial thing about her character. She’s a shape-shifting alien with some kind of connection to the space energy consumed by Jean and manipulates her into performing hurtful acts towards her loved ones for… reasons. What she essentially amounts to is as an unambiguously villainous diversion (so that Jean’s dark turn need not be blamed solely on the objectionable mind games of Xavier) and an eventual antagonist for the whole team to combat in the film’s serviceable third act.

There isn’t much to talk about in terms of how the movie is shot and constructed. The style is so bland and nondescript that I can hardly remember a single image that had any kind of memorable effect on me in the whole movie. The climatic train battle does at least offer some basic thrills, particularly in the way it uses Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), but even that scene boils down to nothing more than each mutant dutifully performing their single trick in turn. So little happens in this film that I am honestly confounded as to why it was made in the first place. There’s no sense of momentum or direction to any of it; everything just more or less unfolds along the parameters of the plot points they decided to include and the movie doesn’t care enough to try and understand how or why. This movie was specially designed to be as broad, harmless and generic as is cinematically possible and the result of that endeavour is a movie so unbearably bland and meaningless that the reason for its very existence escapes me. If this is to be the final statement on Fox’s X-Men legacy and its place in the superhero movie canon, then this is the weakest, feeblest note on which they could possibly have ended especially compared to the poignant swan song of Logan. Talk about ending with a whimper.

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Glass

Cast: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Anya Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Writer: M. Night Shyamalan


Two decades ago when Shyamalan made Unbreakable, his thoughtful, meditative take on comic books, he could never have predicted how quickly and thoroughly superheroes would take over Hollywood in the subsequent years. Since the film’s 2000 release, superheroes have grown into a global sensation. From Sam Raimi’s campy, cartoonish Spider-Man trilogy to Christopher Nolan’s gritty, introspective Dark Knight trilogy right up to the cultural phenomena that the MCU and DCEU have become and countless more movies in between, the pervasiveness of the comic book movie in today’s cinematic landscape is not to be doubted. The genre with all of its characteristic stories and tropes have become so identifiable and familiar to us that many viewers have since grown bored and fatigued with their pervasiveness and are demanding progression and change. Part of this has led to more superhero films devoting their stories to a greater variety of characters (i.e. women and people of colour) and part of it has led to a self-reflexive examination of the genre itself, e.g. the satire of Deadpool, the demythologisation of Logan and the modernised evocation of Into the Spiderverse. There is a greater demand than ever for these kinds of films and the stage has never been clearer for Shyamalan to return to offer his philosophical, auteuristic take on comic book movies as they stand today.

Except that’s not what he does. Glass it turns out has shockingly little, if anything to say about superheroes today because it seems to think it’s addressing the same audience as 19 years ago. It’s almost as if back in 2000 Shyamalan had a screenplay that was ready to go but was instead shelved and that last year he dug it up, dusted it off and turned it into a movie without bothering to revise or update it. The plot revolves around super-strong vigilante David Dunn (Bruce Willis), multiple personality stricken Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) and brittle-boned psychopath Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), who are all gathered together in a mental institution by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson). She believes that all three men are deluded in the ‘superpowers’ they claim to have and tries to help them reckon with the superhero/villain complexes they each harbour. The most insight Shyamalan offers about superheroes however ultimately boils down to the most basic structure of comic book narratives, which he relates with the pedantic weightiness of a 15-year-old who thinks that they’re the first person to discover Quentin Tarantino. “In comics, this is referred to as the ‘showdown,’” explains Mr. Glass in anticipation of the film’s climax as if nobody in the audience has ever read a comic book or watched a superhero film before. One of the great failures of Glass is Shyamalan’s inability to recognise that the world has moved on since the days when Adam West was the most famous Batman.

The road to Glass was a long and arduous one for Shyamalan and, however one might feel about his filmography, one cannot help but admire the endurance it must have taken to weather the career-destroying storm that threatened to sink him for over a decade. Fresh after having astounded audiences with two back-to-back knockouts in 1999’s and 2000’s The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, with many speculating that he was primed to become the next Spielberg or Hitchcock, Shyamalan’s career took a nose dive. Audiences grew tired of his go-to formula (a supernatural mystery-thriller that comes to a head with a game-changing twist) and his concepts grew more and more outlandish and nonsensical, leading to such flops as Lady in the Water and The Happening. By the time he was making the critically panned and financially disastrous blockbusters After Earth and The Last Airbender, Shyamalan had become a Hollywood punchline; a parody of his former self whom most of us had written off. With his low-budget found-footage movie The Visit, Shyamalan was able to regain some shred of credibility and Split had us paying attention once again when his twisted horror-thriller turned out to be a surprise sequel to one of his most acclaimed films. Thus we get Glass, the film that seeks to combine the stories of Split and Unbreakable into a single, cohesive whole, the conclusion of what turned out to be a trilogy, and mark the triumphant return of Hollywood’s forgotten auteur.

If only. Outside of his absolute worst films, Shyamalan has often shown himself to be a director of great talent and singular vision and the composition of Glass is truly something to behold. The director has always been one for finding tension in that which appears normal and banal and the modest scale of Glass allows him to lean into that strength. Through long, drawn-out takes, theatrical staging and imposing colours, Shyamalan is able to make the asylum where the near entirety of the film is set feel like a battleground in the most ordinary sense. There are no unstoppable forces of CGI threatening to destroy the world, but the stakes still feel amplified because even the most mundane encounters are framed in such an intimate, eccentric way so as to make us feel like something larger is at work behind what we’ve been allowed to see. Shyamalan’s greatest weakness as a filmmaker however is that his skills as a screenwriter have never been a match for his skills as a director and Glass is let down by the same kind of confused plotting, laborious exposition and general goofiness that can be found in even his strongest work. There’s enough of interest going on throughout that the film is never unwatchable but there are hints and suggestions of a much more profound and stimulating story that was never realised.

My feeling is that either Shyamalan needed a few more years to work out what it was he really wanted to say with this film and how to make it work or he needed to bring another writer on board to iron out the ideas that were worthy of pursuit and scrap those that weren’t. If, at any point in his career, Shyamalan had ever managed to find his own Emeric Pressburger or Mark Frost, who knows what wonders he might have achieved? As far as Glass goes, there is certainly some promise in its premise. While the mystery of whether the characters really do have superpowers is a non-starter considering that those who have seen the previous two films will recall David bench pressing everything but the kitchen sink and the Horde running up the walls with his bare hands and feet, the film still raises some interesting points. By bringing its three leads together, the film invites us to consider the ways in which these broken men are all seeking some kind of identity and fulfilment in their alter egos. David finds some purpose in his previously unfulfilling existence by meting out vigilante justice, Kevin kidnaps and kills people in order to satisfy the most monstrous of his 24 personalities and Elijah became a criminal mastermind in order to make sense of the crippling disease he was born with. A greater focus on this theme might have allowed for a deeper, more captivating study of how superheroes and supervillains are almost always born from the traumas and tragedies they’ve suffered and what that really says about the ways in which we mythologise and revere them. Sadly this idea is left unexplored.

When the movie threatens to be too aimless and self-indulgent to bear, it is the three leads who pull you through and keep you watching. Even though the film never quite manages to strike the right balance between David, Kevin and Elijah (resulting in some conspicuous absences for certain stretches), each actor gives a memorable performance and make the most out of their interactions even with that awkward Shyamalan dialogue they inevitably have to contend with. McAvoy especially continues to give 100% in what must be a physically and dramatically demanding character to play. Playing a young man with two dozen personalities through which he is constantly jumping between at unpredictable beats, McAvoy ably assumes each persona thrust upon him including the prim and menacing Patricia, the lisping nine-year-old Hedwig and the savage, vicious Beast whose convulsively muscly appearance displays the kind of shocking body horror you might expect in a Cronenberg film. Jackson also impresses playing the character who gives the film its name. He’s a background player in the first half as he waits for his moment to come but once it does he comes as close to capturing some sense of pathos as this film could possibly attain. Willis, who has been asleep in most of his movies of the last few years, is also on form. Paulson, sadly, is once again trapped in a film that doesn’t know how to put her talents on display as she is given too little to work with until the very end, by which point it’s too late.

Glass is a showcase of everything that Shyamalan is good and bad at and neither dominates over the other. The film is very middling, which makes feel let down when I think about how much more the director could offer if he could just learn to overcome his weaknesses and limitations. While he offers some interesting ideas, directs his actors into delivering some great performances and brings things to a head with a wonderfully subversive confrontation near the end, they ultimately aren’t enough. What insights the film does try to make about comic books and superheroes are insubstantial, outdated and even a little patronising and the obligatory finale twist is a disappointment, complicating and confusing more than it enlightens and satisfies and failing to underscore the very themes and ideas driving the movie in the way that The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable did. It took a certain boldness on his part to try and offer the world a superhero movie unlike any other being made today and I would have loved nothing more than to see that film in its most fully realised form. Shyamalan, much like the characters he created, seems just as lost in his own search for identity and Glass could very well be seen as a film about the man himself; a mark of how far he has come and how much further he still has to go.

★★★

X-Men: Apocalypse

Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Oliva Munn, Lucas Till

Director: Bryan Singer

Writer: Simon Kinberg


As much as I’ve enjoyed some of the movies in the X-Men franchise (First Class being my personal favourite), I don’t think the film series has been realised as fully as it could be. When watching the cartoon and reading the comics what appealed to me about the X-Men was how they worked as a collective. The best parts were always when they’d charge into a situation together as a team and would then display their diverse powers, working with and off each other. So far there hasn’t really been a movie where we’ve had the X-Men charge together into a skirmish and then just had them be the X-Men. In ­X-Men the team is pretty much just there to back up Wolverine. In X2 the characters are separated and a couple of them get knocked out. Days of Future Past was a lot of fun because we actually got to see some of the minor characters like Quicksilver, Iceman and Colossus show off their powers in new and creative ways. Therefore, with Apocalypse bringing back some familiar characters from the earlier films, it was my hope that this might be the ­X-Men movie that I’d been waiting for.

Taking place 10 years after Days of Future Past (in a universe where every mutant presumably possesses the Wolverine gene that stops them from aging) Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is now the headmaster of a flourishing academy for young mutants. His newest student Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan) arrives to learn how to control his heat vision and there meets the telepathic and telekinetic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) meanwhile is working covertly to save mutants but refuses to become the heroic symbol that the young mutants proclaim her to be. Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) has gone into hiding in Poland where he lives with his wife and daughter. His peaceful and contented life is tragically destroyed, leading him to seek vengeance once again. He finds his chance for revenge in Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), an ancient and powerful mutant who has recently woken up after centuries of hibernation. He recruits Magneto as one of his four horsemen in his mission to scourge the Earth of the plague that is humanity.

The biggest problem with X-Men: Apocalypse is simple: it’s more of the same. We learn about Magneto’s tragic backstory again. Professor X gets kidnapped again. The X-Men travel to Alkali Lake again. On top of that we have a generic bad guy with an apocalyptic plan backed by a vague motivation, some forced fan service and a failure to use some of these characters the way they should be used. While watching the climatic battle I found myself comparing it to the airport scene in Captain America: Civil War. Those characters all had their reasons for being there that the film took the time to establish and the scene actually had some fun with their differing abilities, playing them with and against each other. Here the film sort of pushes its characters into the climatic setting and then has them use their powers in the most straightforward, routine way possible. There are some great moments in there like the Quicksilver scene and the Wolverine cameo (which isn’t the spoiler that it should be thanks to the trailer) but even they are little more than recreations of scenes we’ve already watched.

McAvoy and Fassbender continue to be excellent in their roles as Professor X and Magneto, more so than the film deserves. When Erik’s peaceful family life is inevitably taken away from him, it’s a predictable and derivative moment that we can see coming from a hundred miles away, but damned if Fassbender doesn’t sell it. Jennifer Lawrence however doesn’t bring half the life into her role that she did in First Class. Here she gives exactly the kind of performance that Hollywood stars give when they are only in the movie to fulfil their contractual obligations. Some of the new(ish) mutants that are brought into the trilogy like Cyclops, Jean Grey and Nightcrawler do well enough with what they are given but others like Storm and Angel are barely given enough to justify their presence in the story. Oscar Isaac meanwhile is completely wasted as Apocalypse, one of the blandest and least memorable villains that the films have come up with.

Apocalypse isn’t exactly a bad movie, especially not when compared to The Last Stand and Wolverine. It’s just generic and formulaic. It brings very little to the table that we haven’t seen before in the previous movies. Anyone who is familiar with the comics or the cartoon knows that there is a treasure trove of potential in this concept and these characters, but it is almost entirely wasted here. Perhaps this movie was following the example of Star Wars: The Force Awakens where more of the same meant a return to basics but did so without either the inspiration or the imagination that made it a success. I do hope that, at the very least, the groundwork this film has laid for future sequels will lead to greater things, especially now that some of the original characters have returned to the universe, but the film itself doesn’t stand on its own. Although it has the same characters that we’ve enjoyed watching in the previous films, this time they’re trapped in a movie that doesn’t know what to do with them.

★★

Victor Frankenstein

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, James McAvoy, Jessica Brown Findlay, Andrew Scott, Charles Dance

Director: Paul McGuigan

Writer: Max Landis


Frankenstein, one of my favourite novels, is a tale that has ben retold time and time again in cinema. As the title makes clear this latest take on the iconic horror story places its focus on the titular doctor of Mary Shelley’s novel rather than on the creature he creates. Although it’s the creature who usually gets all of the attention, the story of his creator is just as fascinating and compelling. Victor Frankenstein is a scientific genius driven by his fervent ambition to defeat death. He becomes so obsessed with the very idea of creating another living man that he never stops to ask himself if he should. As he beholds his creation in all of its grotesqueness and ungodliness he rejects and abandons it, unaware of the dire consequences his action will have. By creating this monster Frankenstein must confront the question of man’s place in the universe, of his responsibility for the creature and its actions, and of the moral implications and ramifications that come with creating life. Although I believe the film’s screenwriter understands all of this, I still found his approach to the mythos to be ultimately misguided.

The story is depicted from the perspective of Igor Strausman (Daniel Radcliffe), a hunchbacked circus performer whom Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy) rescues from a life of subjugation and ridicule. Frankenstein takes Igor under his wing and enlists him as his assistant in his groundbreaking work. Together they hope to uncover the secrets to life and death and create a living being. The secretive nature of this project and Frankenstein’s notorious reputation catch the attention of Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott), a religiously devoted police officer with severe moral objections to Frankenstein’s work. Igor also catches the attention of Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay), the subject of his affection who entreats Igor to follow his conscience and not be corrupted by his master and mentor. As Frankenstein’s obsession drives him to greater and more damaging extremes, it falls onto Igor to try and save his friend from the madness he has wrought.

The film borrows lightly from Shelley’s original novel but adds its own twist to it as a means of updating the story. Updating the story is all well and good but it becomes a problem when the updates do not compliment the story. This film tries to incorporate several new elements including Igor’s love interest, the religious policeman, a benefactor with his own sinister motivations, a backstory accounting for Frankenstein’s obsession and an original experiment preceding the infamous one in the novel. The problem is that the film becomes so muddled with all of these interweaving subplots that the story ends up trying to be several different things at once. It is difficult to become invested in a film when it keeps jumping all over the place and keeps changing its characters at the flip of a coin in order to keep the plot moving forward. Any time the film took a step forward it never felt earned because it never felt like a natural progression in the story. All of this results in a climax that was so messy and convoluted that I simply couldn’t keep up with what was happening.

There are certainly some promising ideas in this film that could have been good had they been given the proper development. However the film takes on so many of them that it doesn’t have the time it needs to realise them all. I like the idea of using Igor as a window into Frankenstein’s obsession and madness but felt that the relationship between the two was lacking. Both actors do decent jobs in their respective roles and there is definitely a chemistry there but the characters themselves are so changeable in their emotions and motivations that nothing is ever given the time to sink in. Any one of the side characters could have added an interesting element to the story had the film devoted more time to them. This isn’t the case however as the film leaves them all underdeveloped in order to incorporate other elements into the plot. Even the film’s tone jumps all over the place as it tries to be a gothic horror, a sci-fi epic, a costume drama and a buddy movie all at once.

The bottom line is that there is too much going on and not enough time to do it all in, not even with the talent that worked on this film. With a little more focus and control the parts of the films that showed promise could have been allowed to flourish. What we get instead is a confused, near-incomprehensible mess. The new ideas that the film tries to introduce to this classic tale hurt the story more than they help it and end up coming across as familiar, insipid or just plain silly. The film is at least visually stimulating and McAvoy is sometimes enjoyably over-the-top as his character becomes more depraved and unhinged. The film as a whole however is a disorderly fiasco with too many ideas and not enough thought.

★★