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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Logan

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, Richard E. Grant, Dafne Keen

Director: James Mangold

Writers: Scott Frank, James Mangold, Michael Green


In Jackman’s final turn as the character that made him a star, Fox has finally delivered the Wolverine movie that fans have been waiting for. It’s probably significant that this movie was made with the intention of being Jackman’s final turn as the metal-clawed mutant. After having already seen him featured in two solo films, one terrible and one boring, I can imagine the filmmakers felt some pressure to use this one final chance to get it right. There will be other Wolverine movies I’m sure, but there may never be another actor who embodies this character as perfectly as Hugh Jackman did. With Logan he is finally allowed to fully realise this character he helped bring to life in a way he never he could in any of the prior X-Men films and it was well worth the wait. What makes Logan great is not just the way it portrays this iconic character, but also how it stands within the X-Men franchise and how it comments on the superhero genre that has dominated Hollywood for well over a decade.

Set far in the future where mutants are all but extinct, Logan (Hugh Jackman) has long since abandoned his calling as Wolverine. Now working as a limo driver, his healing factor has faltered and he has now become weaker and weary with age. With the help of the mutant tracker Caliban (Stephen Merchant), Logan cares for Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), now suffering from dementia and no longer in control of his telepathic abilities. At this time Logan is approached by Gabriela Lopez (Elizabeth Rodriguez), a nurse on the run from a secretive government organisation, who begs him to take in and protect an eleven-year-old girl called Laura (Dafne Keen). Hot on their trail is Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), the cybernetically-enhanced security officer charged with the girl’s retrieval. After an encounter where Logan learns that Laura possesses abilities similar to his own, they must go on the run with Xavier in search of a place called Eden.

After Deadpool proved once and for all that superhero movies could go for an R rating and still be massively successful, Logan followed suit and fully embraces the liberties that became available. In the very first scene Logan is protecting his car from a gang of thugs intent on stealing his tires and the fight that ensues is unlike anything we’ve seen from Wolverine before. Skulls and bones are being sliced, blood is splattering all over the place, and Logan swears like a sailor with every blow he’s dealt. However what makes the action feel so different from what we’re used to extends far beyond the blood and gore. Here Mangold does away with the rapidly edited, distantly shot action that the Marvel blockbusters tend to favour. Here the fighting is up close, intensely choreographed and much more raw and organic. When Logan gets hit, he feels it.

What makes Logan truly special though is not just the action, but also the characters and the story they tell. Logan is an old man now and Jackman plays him as a wearied soul, haunted by past traumas and losses and reluctant to ever fight again (not unlike Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven). He has grown disillusioned with the ideals he once believed in, especially now that the man who originally inspired him is little more than a raving loony. Professor X has gone senile and Stewart is loving every second of it as he rants and raves about the place while Logan tries to care for him. Keen is also great in her turn as Laura, a silent role that requires her to be as expressive as she can with her looks and gestures. All three play their role with such resolve, comedy, pathos and humanity that Logan reaches beyond what we’ve come to expect from the superhero genre and provides something altogether deeper and more stimulating.

Jackman was there when the cinematic superhero craze started, and now here he is 17 years later where the fatigue has set in for many audiences. Who better then to use as a model for the consideration and analysis of the genre and how it has evolved? There is a complex morality that comes with the superhero mythos, full of grey areas and contradictions, that goes largely unexplored (or perhaps underexplored) by superhero movies for the most part but which Logan fully embraces. The movie takes a fundamentally cynical view towards the superhero myth, establishing that the whole thing very much as a myth, the kind that only exists in children’s comic books or movies like Shane. Even after all the heroics he accomplished as Wolverine, Logan has gone on to lose everyone he cares about and none of the problems he solved or the people he’s saved have really mattered. Things have gone to hell and people have gotten hurt despite (and sometimes because) of what he’s done. And yet there are still some who believe in him and who believe that what he does is important and is for the better. The deconstruction of the genre is a fascinating one that at once dispels the myth of the superhero while also reaffirming it.

Between Logan and Deadpool, it looks like the game is very much changing for the superhero movie. As much as I enjoy the popcorn quality of the Marvel and DC movies, there is an undeniable fatigue that has set in. These franchises have adopted a certain business as usual sensibility that hasn’t exactly made them less enjoyable to watch (not for me anyway) but somewhat less fulfilling. It is for example difficult to feel that anything is really at stake in the Marvel and DC films when all of their actors are contracted to appear in future titles. It’s also true that these movies often spend so much time setting up future stories that you never really feel like you’re watching an actual story unfold. The superhero films are also falling victim to their conventions which, unless done very well, can feel tired and predictable (as it can with any genre). This is why movies like Logan are needed to shake up the genre, explore new directions and possibilities, and go deeper than any has gone before. What’s more, Logan is quite simply a great film with a profound story, excellent action, and a marvellous performance by Jackman.

★★★★★

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.

★★