Walking out of Dark Phoenix, I felt an odd sense of closure. Not so much like reading the last sentence of a book, but more like seeing that book turn to dust before you can finish it – which is as apt a metaphor as I can think of for this character and title – and reconciling yourself to be satisfied with unrealized potential. I suppose it only helped that I stayed through the credits, and after witnessing the sea of technicians, artists, and artisans, there was no stinger – that post-credits titillation of what’s next and possible that I’ve have now grown accustomed to – just empty space, and lights up. And so the 20th Century Fox X-Men cinematic franchise ends as a dissolve, as an uneasy quiet.
I have a very particular, personal fondness for this series, Toad-warts and all. X-Men was my comic book series (alongside the off-brands Cable, Gambit, X-Force, et al.). I still remember getting a copy of Wizard magazine somewhere in the 1997 range and reading the best-of what-if casting possibilities once the movie was announced (Schwarzenegger was Colossus, lol). Fast-forward to 2000, and we’re living in Japan. My Dad won tickets to the Japanese theatrical premiere of the very first installment, 2000’s X-Men. And he gave them to me, and said I could take my little brother along with me. I was overjoyed. Here I was, a 13-year-old decked out in a suit and tie in a foreign land, taking my kid brother to a red carpet screening of the first movie adaptation of my favorite comic book series! Up in those second-story balcony seats, holding my oversized press kit in that nosebleed section with the poor sound and Japanese subtitles, was one of the best movie-going experiences of my life, those black leather jumpsuits be damned.
Yet, 19 years later, with this feverish nostalgia, I still had to force myself into the theatre to see Dark Phoenix. I knew it wasn’t going to be great from the trailer (“Who are you?” / “The greater question is: Who are You?” made my wife and I give each other the ‘cringe face’), but I felt an obligation, dammit, to that 13-year-old manifesting his goddamn dreams. Am I suffering from that dreaded, poorly defined, “franchise fatigue”? Or is something else amiss?
Reading the press on this has been exhausting, and contradictory, and frankly a lot of opinion and pissing into the wind. So here’s my own take:
With my personal history with the comics and films of the franchise, I didn’t want to see Dark Phoenix.
For those normal people who don’t know Jubilee from Dazzler, they didn’t want to see Dark Phoenix.
Let’s address what informs the first point. The release of the muddled, messy, and lazy X-Men: Apocalypse tacitly informed fans that Fox was not making these movies because they wanted to; they were making them because they had to. Those are two very distinct moods that are easily passed from content to consumer. Here’s my favorite line from this pretty great investigation:
Insiders tell The Hollywood Reporter that in a series of postmortem meetings on Apocalypse, execs came away thinking that the movie's failure had been due to an excessive amount of explosions and scale, not due to franchise fatigue generally. "There was a misguided feeling that [Apocalypse] was an anomaly, that we just got it wrong," says one Fox insider familiar with those meetings. "We were wrong."
So: We’re going to make another one, clearly, and we just need to tweak the action. But, how about the quality of everything else, in between CGI battles? What’s ultimately unresolved by Fox corporate in the above statement is the silent double-negative: the need to return to character.
One of X-Men’s most surprising features has been that, regardless of the quality of the films, the actors have embodied some characters to a point of synchronicity. Think of the notables: Ian McKellen as Erik Lehnsherr, Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier, Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. But also notice, recollection of notable embodiments are mostly isolated to the first wave. While the First Class epoch isn’t without its share of memorable moments, such as Michael Fassbender’s exile in Poland in Apocalypse (easily the best part of the film), or Evan Peters’ Quicksilver, or Nicholas Hoult’s tested and weary Hank McCoy (providing some of the best moments in Dark Phoenix), who remembers a single line spoken from Olivia Munn’s Psylocke? Could it be because she only had four lines (and not a single one of them of note)? There’s a possibility that the new cast was either not capable enoughto work with, or, was rarely given the opportunity, to shine through the inert material bestowed on them from the corporate overlords. This is most obvious in Dark Phoenix through the villains, who were, who again? What did they want? Eh. Just have an Academy-Award nominee play her and it’ll work itself out.
Having seen Dark Phoenix, I can actually say there was a return to some character: Charles was surprisingly and refreshingly untrustworthy, Jean’s Daddy Issues provided just enough emotional turmoil to push her over an edge, and Hank had a welcome vulnerability. But for every step forward, the engagement took two steps back towards the evident creative indifference of Apocalypse with what I will now call the “J-Law”. The J-Law is: not just appearing passively indifferent as you take part in the film, but looking actively annoyed. She may have started with some gravitas around First Class, but the façade was already cracking in Days of Future Past – by Dark Phoenix, her contempt at not being in a David O. Russell picture is palpable (watch the unfunny “bloopers” for Apocalypse for evidence of just how actively she didn’t want to be there). I’ve never seen any character so happily lock herself inside a refrigerator. As a fan, recasting someone who cared to add to the films (in an elevated narrative part) and give it her best have been welcome, and preferable to name recognition only. Let people go who don't want to be there and bring in people who do. Or don't do it at all if you can't do it right. These are sometimes better options.
Because at this point, this franchise was not going to win over any newbies. Nor was there any incentive to: the Disney/Fox merger clearly put the kibosh on future endeavors. And so, the final nail in the coffin was of course the timing of it all, and perhaps this does lean into the discussion of franchise fatigue, but I also think not. Again, as a fan: I don’t care about reshoots if they add quality to the film. I don’t care if a film I am excited about is released concurrent to other tentpoles, like Endgame; correlation of timing is not indicative of an interrelationship. Lastly, I also don’t care if I hated the last outing but, through review of marketing and pre-production news, thought the next one corrected course. Fox unceremoniously dumped this film into blandsville (apparently, pushing it so far from its already delayed release because James Cameron wanted to protect Alita: Battle Angel… how bout dem priorities). A tip of the hat to the fandom that has followed these characters and films for two decades (and given Fox, by the way, tons of money along the way) would have, I believe, not only improved returns on this one but left the audience with a better feeling about the whole thing, and about Fox and their future creative choices. The last shot of the franchise, of a whisp of a Phoenix in the distance, is I suppose as fitting an ending as there could be. These characters will rise from the ashes, with a little necromancy from Feige and Co.
It’s odd that I care this much, I get it. But the MCU, comic book movies, action fantasy films, would not be what they are today without the groundwork this franchise laid. Keven Feige even got his start on that first X-film as an associate producer. And yeah, I suppose in some respects I will always be that 13-year-old kid, thrilled to just be seeing these personal characters realized. And that kid deserves better.
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I'm not going to read this right now because I'm going to see Dark Phoenix (probably not in the theater), even knowing it's terrible. But I love your subtitle enough that I had to comment here as a placeholder until I can actually read your post.