Hey There, Jean, How Are... Oh, You're Dead Again
While this film isn't technically the last word on the Fox X-Men franchise -- New Mutants might come out some day and Deadpool will live on in the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. -- Dark Phoenix marks the effective end for the film series. Even before Disney bought out 20th Century Fox there were rubmlings about the X-Films needing a shake up of some kind, and the Mouse House purchasing the studio, presumably to be able to fold the X-Men into the MCU finally, was only going to hasten that demise. Fact is, though, that if the film series had continued performing at the Box Office, Disney might not have wanted to fully reboot the franchise. Hollywood doesn't like to mess with a good thing, and if the film series could have continued cranking out hits like X-Men: Days of Future Past (pulling in a tidy $747 Mil), Dieny probably would have left the series alone.
Instead, the main films began underperforming. X-Men: Apocalypse "only" brought in $543 Million, while stand-alone films managed to be more consistently successful than the main series, with Deadpool ($783 Million), Logan ($619 Million), and Deadpool 2 ($785 Million) showing there was more life in the individual characters than in the core team-up. There's a reason, then why Deadpool will live on (and, probably, Wolverine would have as well if Hugh Jackman hadn't retired from the role) and the main X-Men will get a reboot.
Not helping the case at all, Dark Phoenix came out as the tehatrical equivalent of a wet fart, a movie everyone seemed to be ashamed of even during post-production and that no one wanted to acknowledge afterwards. Consider the fact that even way back in 2000, before the Summer Movie Reason regularly cracked out $1 Billion hits, the original X-Men managed to earn $296 Million, the bigm, fourth film of the nu-X-Men could only manage $252 Million, over $40 Million less, before it was quietly euthanized. Clearly, audiences were tired of what the Fox franchise was producing, bored of the stars and the drab storylines and the tedious action. Dark Phoenix, coming when it did, was simply proof-positive that the Fox X-Films had run out of steam.
Picking up a decade after Apocalypse, we find the X-Men hailed as heroes. Regularly called upon to aid the U.S. Government, we get to see one of their missions as the team flies up to a stranded space shuttle so they can save a few of the astronauts. Of course, this missions comes with some risk, risks that Beast and Mystique mention but Charles Xavier causally brushes aside. So then, of course, the space shuttle (which is caught is some kind of weird, spacial anomaly) blows up with Jean Grey on it. Instead of dying, though, Jean is filled up with the energy of the anomaly and lives. Everything seems fine for the girl when the team lands back on the ground, and life seemingly goes back to normal.
Except it doesn't. Jean is charged with an energy she can't understand, and this energy is causing her to have memories she hadn't remembered before, of a time when she was in a car accident (or her own making due to her powers) and accidentally killed her own mother. Racked with grief, overpowered with ungodly energy, and coursing with rage, Jean lashes out, grievously injuring Quicksilver and killing Mystique. This sends her on the run, looking for allies as the fends off attacks from the U.S. Military and and is pursued by her former team. When even Magneto, the guy who will protect any mutant, refuses to help, Jean gains assistance from Vuk (Jessica Chastain), an alien that seems to know all about this mystical energy insidie Jean. But Vuk's intentions aren't clear, and soon it becomes obvious that there's more going on that the aliens aren't the good guys. Jean will have to pick her allies careful if she's to stop this energy from falling into the wrong hands, destroying the world.
For those keeping up with the X-Men films series up to this point, you'll recall that we've already seen one version of Jean and the Phoenix energy before now: X-Men: The Last Stand. After Jean gave her life at the end of X2: X-Men United, her mutant powers somehow revived her, but they also unlocked mental blocks Charles had put in her head long ago. It seems that Jean was basically a rage-filled psycho hose-beast but by locking certain parts of her personality away (along with some of her power), Charles made her into a safe, normal mutant. There's no mention of aliens or cosmic powers in The Last Stand, just Jean being an emotional, aggro woman. Not a great look, X-Films, and fans were understandably upset that a major part of the Dark Phoenix mythos (the cosmic alien angle) was completely ditched.
The new Dark Phoenix film smartly brings back the cosmic aspect, aligning Jean more closely with her comic history. Here Charles has still mucked around in her head (as Charles is wont to do in any continuity ever) but it's more to save her from the pain of what she did as a child. Of course, the Phoenix entity that's taken over Jean wipes away the blocks which causes Jean untold emotional pain she can't process. Jean still comes across as an emotional wreck, an aggro teen girl that has to run from her pain, but at least we get a better explanation for all of it that seems more in character for Xavier.
Also an improvement is the fact that the movie focuses solely on Jean and the Phoenix energy. The third X-Men film added in the Mutant Cure storyline and basically made a movie that should have been about the Phoenix all about Magneto instead. Here, though, Jean is the primary driver of the story. She runs, she hides, she attacks, and it's who she trusts, who she brings into the story, that motivates the plot. Every side wants a piece of Jean, but in the end the decisions all trace back to the girl. Say what you will about this film otherwise (and we will in a sec), but this film is basically "The Jean Grey Story". The fact that it's called Dark Phoenix and not X-Men: Dark Phoenix tips that hand, but it also shows that this movie is as close to a female-driven story as the ensemble X-Film can get.
So Fox does get points from learning from their previous mistakes; they made an attempt to course correct this tory the second time they told it. Fact is, though, those are the only things the film (and the studio) deserve credit for because, in all other respects, this movie is a horrible slog. It starts off reasonably well, mind you, with a pretty good opening sequence out in space. But once the X-Men touch down, astronauts in hand, the movie falls aprt. Key characters are sidelined, like the always enjoyable Quicksilver (who doesn't even get to have his music video moment like he did in the previous films) and Mystique.
Honestly, the loss of Mystique is keenly felt in this film. She's been a core memeber of the team since X-Men: First Class, a driving force of the last two films, and once she's out of the picture Dark Phoenix is never able to recover her energy. The film wants use Jean in the same capacity as Mystique from the previous films, the driving force of events, but Jean Grey in this films is no Mystique, and Sophie Turner is no Jennifer Lawrence. Where Lawrence had fire and passion and real emotion in her role, Turner is a blank void, a shall that doesn't really give off strong emotions one way or the other. She's kind of okay at dull rage, but that's about it, and that leaves a deep void at the center of the film. You don't care about Jean so you don't care about the movie, either.
Not that the film gives us much reason, outside of Turner, to care about the Phoenix at all. We're never given a solid explanation for what the Phoenix Force really is as the best we're given is a quick backstory, told second-hand, set agains some particle effect CGI. Best as I can tell the Phoenix is essentially the Genesis Device from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, except as an alien entity. Why it was drawn to Jean, what it can do beyond create nifty particle effects, and why we should really fear it (or want it to stay alive) is never properly addressed in the film. Hell, by the time the credits roll we care more about Dazzler than we do Jean and the Phoenix, and Dazzler only makes a brief cameo part way into the movie.
I think the issue is that Fox really wanted their mutant films to be self-contained. They didn't take the time to introduce Apocalypse before having him appear, and die, in his own movie, and the do the same thing here, taking one of the biggest, most famous, longest epics in X-Men history, reducing it down to a single movie. Marvel slowly introduced Thanos over the course of 11 years before having him get his due in the last films of the MCU, and if Fox could have done the same here, slowly introducing us to the Phoenix before giving us an adventure all about Jean and her weird alien entity, that could have really served the story well. Trying to rush through it all in two hours, though, leaves all the heady concepts undercooked and we end up not caring one way or the other.
When I watch bad films I try to figure out what could have been done to save them. We've had a fairly full spate of X-Films of late, with not only the mainline entries but also the Deadpools and Wolverines. If they could have found a way to draw out Jean/Phoenix, maybe having them play second-fiddle in a Quicksilver film (a movie I still think Marvel should make just because Evan Peters is so good in the role) and some other one-off (The Amazing Nightcrawler, anyone?) that could have helped a lot. I don't think every movie series should be a share universe experiment to rivel the MCU. but with the cast of colorful characters and the number of stories available, the X-Men had the best shot at pulling it off, if Fox could have ever figured out what they were doing with any consistency.
Long run, I think we're all better off having the X-Men under the Disney umbrella. While I'm not a huge fan of corporate consolidation, and I think Disney should have to compromise more before they were allowed to gobble up Fox, I can't help but think that Marvel is going to do a much better job with the X-Men than fox ever could. At the very least, having watched Dark Phoenix I don't know how it could get much worse (short of a shot-for-shot remake of The Last Stand).
Continuity and Issues:
So we already covered that this time Jean has her cosmic entity, and that Charles playing in Jean's head was much more subtle and, seemingly, for better reasons. That all changed from The Last Stand. So insteadd, let's focus on a different continuity problem: at the end of Days of Future Past, Logan is going through the X-Mansion seeing familiar faces and, lo and behold, Jean is alive and well in the last 2020s. This is obviously a bit of catharsis for Logan after having killed her (in The Last Stand) and torturing himself over it all throughout The Wolverine. Fact is, though, this movie kills of Jean, creating a bit of a paradox there.
Yes, I know Jean Grey would likely come back from the dead if the movies continued onwards. This continuity is dead, though, so if you somehow put all the bits of the X-Films in chronological order, all we see is Jean go up in a cloud of cosmic energy, with the Phoenix flying off into space, and then suddenly she's back in the futuree with nothing in between to explain it. The way this film series ended leaves some serious issues we'll never be able to properly resolve. Oh well.