By Dushyant Shekhawat Jun. 06, 2019
The X-Men series wasn’t always playing catch-up to its cooler Marvel cousins. But in a post-MCU entertainment landscape, can the longest-running active superhero franchise recapture the magic of its earliest instalments?
This year has been a year of endings for popular franchises. Some of them went out with a bang, like Avengers: Endgame, which, to be accurate, went out with a cosmic finger snap. Others went out with a whimper, à la Game of Thrones, whose finale was marked by the grumblings of unsatisfied fans. But X-Men: Dark Phoenix doesn’t fall into either of these categories; instead, it merely fizzles out. Neither a classic nor a catastrophe, it fades into the middle ground in the same way Fox’s X-Men franchise has between the bottom-rung Warner Bros’ DC Universe and the undisputed leader of superhero franchises, Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The X-Men series wasn’t always playing catch-up to its cooler Marvel cousins. At the dawn of the millennium, Bryan Singer’s X-Men was the film that laid the groundwork for the pop culture behemoths that would follow in its wake. With its first instalment coming all the way back in 2000, this makes X-Men the longest-running active superhero franchise today. The nearly two-decade-long journey finally comes to an end with Dark Phoenix, and it departs an entertainment landscape drastically different from the one in which it made its debut.
At some point during its run, X-Men stopped being the gold standard for comic book adaptations on the silver screen. The widely panned conclusion to the initial trilogy, 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, marked the beginning of the end. Despite a soft reboot in 2011 with X:Men: First Class, which introduced an all-new cast and restarted the story’s timeline, the franchise could never wrest back pole position from the MCU, which by that point had begun introducing characters like Thor and Captain America, who would go on to become emblems of audiences’ superhero obsession in the coming years.
What happened next for the MCU is well-documented – those films became the greatest box office successes of the century. Meanwhile, the X-Men universe seemed to have gone off on a meandering path, with its highs (X-Men: Days of Future Past), lows (X-Men: Apocalypse), and surprisingly enjoyable spin-offs (Logan, Deadpool). This spectre of the franchise’s chequered past seems to hang over Dark Phoenix as well, which has its own strengths and weaknesses on display for all to see.
Themes of belonging, and the ideological conflict between frenemies Professor X and Magneto have been the central narrative thread for this franchise since its first film, 19 years ago, and they return for what feels like the umpteenth time in Dark Phoenix.
Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: There’s very little in Dark Phoenix that we haven’t already seen before, both from the X-Men series in particular and the superhero genre in general. Themes of belonging, and the ideological conflict between frenemies Professor X and Magneto have been the central narrative thread for this franchise since its first film, 19 years ago, and they return for what feels like the umpteenth time in Dark Phoenix. These philosophical questions had greater resonance in the earlier instalments, when the characters were more clearly etched out. This time however, the younger generation of mutants, including Sophie Turner’s titular Jean Grey, who becomes Dark Phoenix, aren’t given enough screen time to make the audience care about what they’re going through.
But true to the win-some-lose-some nature of the franchise, Dark Phoenix also shines in parts. Honestly, any film that boasts a cast with actors in the league of Academy Award winners Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence, BAFTA winner James McAvoy, and Oscar nominee Michael Fassbender is going to be intensely watchable, even if Chastain and Fassbender in particular feel a little underused. While Turner doesn’t deliver the tour de force performance you’d expect from someone playing the character the movie is named after, she does manage to channel the vulnerability she spent years portraying as Sansa Stark on Game of Thrones to convincingly depict Jean Grey’s unravelling. There are suitably impressive CGI set-pieces and nuanced developments to the series’ moral lodestones, McAvoy’s Professor X and Fassbender’s Magneto. If it hadn’t been for the MCU completely rewriting the rules of comic book adaptations, Dark Phoenix may have been a standout film. As things stand, it’s a serviceable conclusion to a long-running franchise.