It seems like the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has been around forever, and you’d be forgiven for thinking so. I mean it has essentially defined an entire generation and has had such a presence in our culture, you really can’t ignore it. We at least get two films a year from them at this point but before we were utterly spoiled with intertextual wet dreams of crossovers and ensemble films, we had the X-Men.
In the early 2000s, they were kind of a big deal. During the era, the genre had yet to earn any sort of prestige till we had seen it fully actualize in 2008’s The Dark Knight but the early X-Men films were the seeds that cultivated that flourishing. The very first X-Men and a personal favourite of mine, X2 dealt with surprisingly complex issues of identity, race politics and idealism. It had enough dazzling action and cast charisma to pull audiences in and social commentary to leave them discussing it for years to come. The future of the franchise seemed bright at the time…and then it happened. I’m talking about the VFX heavy, Sentinel teasing, corny ass romantic, dogshit dumpster fire that is X-Men: The Last Stand.
In a post-Last Stand world, the franchise has arguably gotten better in time, though grave mistakes were made. I’m looking at you X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Nonetheless, things were on the up and up with First Class and Days of Future Past steering the franchise in a brave, new direction. Then, it all started to go south with X-Men: Apocalypse and now I’m starting to wonder and worry. Will X-Men: Dark Phoenix be a fitting end to this saga or will be yet another Last Stand?
After the disastrous X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Fox went on a course to rectify its mistakes by establishing a whole new series for the X-Men timeline, culminating in some serious retcons in Days of Future Past. Instead of trying to recreate the nostalgia of the previous team, the studio sought to bring about a new generation of mutants for a younger audience. In place of Patrick Stewart’s Charles Xavier, we got James McAvoy taking up the role. The magnetic gravitas of Ian McKellen’s Magneto was replaced by a spirited and more human version of the character by way of Michael Fassbender.
In terms of tonality, the old X-Men trilogy in comparison with this new post-First Class one is distinct from one another. The original trilogy, for the most part, is a more grounded affair dealing with government conspiracies, public discrimination and revolution. The post-First Class saga, on the other hand, sees serious departures from the tone established from the previous films. This younger and newer series dealt with far more fantastical and outlandish threats. In First Class, we saw the X-Men literally fight against a cabal of evil mutants trying to trigger thermonuclear annihilation by escalating the Cold War.
Days of Future Past had time travel and shapeshifting androids hellbent on eradicating mutant kind. Then, they kicked it up all the way to 11 with Apocalypse where the X-Men had to fight against a mutant god for the fate of the world. So it’s safe to say in terms of at least tone or circumstances, Dark Phoenix will definitely be nothing like The Last Stand. Based on the trailer, the film will probably play up the more cosmic and supernatural side of the Phoenix Force than have a mutant uprising using Jean Grey as their champion.
I mean the trailer literally has the team travelling to space and encountering a cosmic being so it’s clear that Dark Phoenix has no intention of recapturing the nostalgia or gritty reality of The Last Stand. That being said, the cosmetics and aesthetic differences of the film could only be skin deep. No one is complaining about The Last Stand’s setting or world, the issues have more to do with the plot and character development. In those departments, we’ll have to take a closer look at where The Last Stand went wrong and whether or not this new series is heading down the same path.
The Last Stand’s Legacy
Before we can take a look at Dark Phoenix, I think it’s important to understand where X-Men: The Last Stand missed the mark. We need to talk about Brett Ratner. Before Ratner came upon his directorial post in The Last Stand, the previous two films were helmed by director Bryan Singer who had to establish a very distinct and particular direction of the film’s plot. While X-Men and X2 weren’t perfect, one thing that the films did really well was their ability to inject a level humanity into the wider drama at play. I’d argue that a lot of the heart of the first two films rested on two characters: Wolverine and Charles Xavier.
We’ve seen his evolution in Wolverine from stoic, macho man to leader throughout the course of the two films. Fighting Stryker isn’t merely about stopping the bad guy, it’s also about finding closure about what happened to him during his Weapon X days. Charles Xavier aka Professor X is the heart of the team. Honestly, there was no way we could give every member of the X-Men a time to shine safe for maybe Rogue, Cyclops and Jean Grey. Singer however smartly positioned Charles at the moral and emotional centre of the team. We began to care for the mutants under his care because he did, mostly due to Stewart’s performance. There was a sense of warmth and empathy of the man.
Even villains like Magneto and William Stryker have interesting and complex motivations. Magneto, having been at the receiving end of persecution, wants to ensure that his people never have to feel that way again. There’s a complicated relationship between him and Xavier, hardened out of opposing methods and yet tempered with respect and longing for reconciliation. Stryker who by all means should be the “big bad military man” is also given this treatment.
His hatred for mutants stems from a very personal place. In the past, Stryker had sent his son, Jason to Charles’ school with the hopes that he would find a cure for his mutation. He withdrew him from the program when he realized that Xavier was more concerned with trying to nurture his gifts. Jason became angry and frustrated with his parents and used his ability to create mental illusions to cause his mother to commit suicide. Stryker, in turn, locked him away before using him as a weapon against mutants in X2.
When Brett Ratner came on board, things notably took a turn for the worse. Singer was supposed to do The Last Stand but went on to do Superman Returns instead. Full disclosure, I don’t have a problem with Ratner as a director or as an artist, it’s just that he wasn’t a really great fit for the role. I mean before the film, the director was best known for Rush Hour and Rush Hour 2 which are relatively small productions compared to the instalment of an established franchise. Even after the film, Ratner didn’t gain any more experience as a dramatic director, he did Tower Heist and Rush Hour 3!
The performances in the film were hammy and the lines awkwardly delivered. Jean Grey’s “I don’t wanna fix it” still curls my toes till this day and of course, we got one of the most infamous lines of the whole franchise, “I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!” Last Stand’s attempt to be culturally relevant and appealing to mass audiences robbed it of its social relevance and antagonized its pre-existing fanbase. That being said, the fault doesn’t solely rest on Ratner.
The Last Stand isn’t a movie, it’s actually two movies sawed in half and Frankensteined back together. I’ll elaborate. Recently, veteran writer Simon Kinberg opened up about where he felt Last Stand went wrong. He wanted to play up the cosmic and supernatural side of Jean Grey’s Phoenix Force. He wanted to make the film a live adaptation of the Dark Phoenix Saga as seen in the comics. The studio, however, wanted to keep it more grounded in reality with Magneto fighting against a new cure to be used against mutants. So the two came to a compromise and decided to cram the two arcs into a single film with a little over an hour and a half of screen time, and boy does it show.
At the end of the day, all the majesty and emotional stakes built up over the years were squandered in the name of having big, blockbuster moments. The relatively short runtime had forced the film to sacrifice character development in the name of said moments. The romance between Jean and Logan was rushed and forced which culminated in a death that frankly felt unearned and tacked on for the sake of a dramatic moment.
Charles Xavier the heart of the franchise got unceremoniously disintegrated for no other discernible reason beyond bringing Jean to the point of no return. The film tried to recreate a Stryker-son situation with Warren Worthington III having a mutant son, Angel while at the same time discovering a cure but that goes nowhere. Magneto drops all pretexts and fallout becomes a supervillain with him leading an invasion on a research facility on Alcatraz by pulling apart the Golden Gate Bridge.
X-Men: The Last Stand could have been a great film. It could have been a great film if the studios had opted for a more experienced director. It could have been a great film if either Kinberg and the execs had committed to either one of their visions. Instead, nobody got what they want (maybe except the investors) and now we have a bloated, hollow film. A film that banked on its goodwill and squandered it all in an attempt to shove as many nameless cool looking mutants and big action set pieces on screen. The funny thing is I actually remember having fun with The Last Stand when I first saw it in theatres in 2006 but over time my opinion of it soured from apathy to disappointment. And so we come to that fateful question: Will Dark Phoenix deliver or shall history repeat itself but this time in another timeline?
Dark Phoenix Donning
One thing that Dark Phoenix has going for it is its clear vision of what it’s setting out to be. As stated earlier, Kinberg is committed to his dreams of the adapting Dark Phoenix Saga. So at the very least, Kinberg is passionate about the project and the studio his giving him the autonomy to execute his vision. He’s even directing the damn thing himself. So there should be no compromises with the studio, no shoehorned subplots and no Magneto stealing the spotlight here. This is about one thing and one thing only: Jean Grey. This is about her being possessed by the Phoenix Force and how if she isn’t stopped the world will come to an end. Boom, simple and straight to the point. What could possibly go wrong?
Sad to say, the film is already under fire long before it hits that June release date. The initial release date for Dark Phoenix was supposed to November of last year but was instead pushed back to February 2019 due to reshoots. Apparently, these decisions were made by the studio after early test screenings last year had left fans disappointed and underwhelmed. A Reddit user, so take it with some salt, who claimed to have seen Dark Phoenix said that the film is startlingly similar to the events of X-Men: Last Stand.
From Cyclops and Jean Grey’s awkward romantic encounter in which she tells him to take off his glasses and kisses him to Magneto again fighting against Charles Xavier to flashbacks of Xavier visiting Jean as a kid to her lifting him off the ground. Again, these are just the comments of some anonymous Redditors, so who’s to say it’s true and even if it was, maybe the reshoots solved the problem.
Another X-Men: Dark Phoenix test screening, and guess what?
I now have talked to 6 people who all went to 3 different test screenings and all of them have told me the screenings were BAD. pic.twitter.com/HC8TT7XiRE
— Skyler Shuler (@Skylerhxc) January 23, 2019
Clearly not seeing that the film was pushed from February 2019 to June, once again facing production problems in response to negative early reviews. This is not good. TheDisInsider editor-in-chief and writer for The Hashtag Show, Skyler Shuler has stated on social media that he’s talked to some of the folks who attended test screenings of the film and again, the reviews are coming up sour. He posted on Twitter “Another X-Men: Dark Phoenix test screening, and guess what? I now have talked to 6 people who all went to 3 different test screenings and all of them have told me the screenings were BAD,” One viewer even said that the film had made him laugh out loud in a scene that was meant to be a serious dramatic moment. Test-screeners have also compared the major deaths in the film to be rather reminiscent of the ones seen in X-Men: Last Stand.
Based on the reactions and comments seen so far, it seems that Dark Phoenix is set to retread the familiar ground it so desperately tried to erase. In fact, some have labelled it as a grimmer and darker version of Last Stand. Great, just what we need. I’m not sure whether it’s Kinberg pushing for these creative decisions or cinematic dementia but a lot of the mistakes that Fox swore off in the finale of the original trilogy seem to have come back and haunt them. None of this is really that surprising seeing that some of the issues found in The Last Stand had already made its way into Apocalypse. An overemphasis on large action set pieces over the development of character arcs, an of out-of-nowhere Dark Phoenix reveal (which doesn’t make sense seeing that she hasn’t even been to space yet) and of course, Magneto fighting against the X-Men.
It seems as much as the Kinberg, Singer and studio have tried to distinguish themselves from the legacy of Last Stand, they just can’t seem to shake that spectre off. Nonetheless, we’ll still be going to theatres to see for ourselves if it’s any good. Perhaps the reshoots and edits have done enough to elevate the film. For now, though, it seems that history will repeat itself and Dark Phoenix is destined to be yet another The Last Stand, if not worse.