Ask almost any writer, and they’ll tell you that ending a story satisfyingly likely involves circling back to the start and bookending a narrative with a shared or similar element that was there at the beginning. With the conclusion of 20th Century Fox’s X-Men film saga as we know it in the form of Dark Phoenix, the story of the titular hero/villain provided a multitude to opportunities to address the themes that have run throughout the film series — themes such as individualism vs. community and harnessing strength for good rather than being at the mercy of your own powers. These are ideas that have at times been articulated remarkably well in many of the X-Men films and that have ensured the genuinely brilliant and nuanced aspects of the comics aren’t lost in their translation to cinema’s spectacle. This all makes it even more of a shame that these ideas are not just wasted but disregarded completely in Dark Phoenix.
The original two X-Men films from 2000 and 2003 and Wolverine’s 2017 swan song, Logan, are generally considered among the strongest of the franchise, and much has and still can be said about them. But for the purpose of comparison to Dark Phoenix, I look specifically to one of the other highlights of the saga: X-Men: First Class.
The 2011 prequel revitalized the series after X-Men Origins: Wolverine and showcased bravado and originality. These qualities run in stark contrast to Dark Phoenix, a film that — perhaps due to the specter of Bryan Singer looming over the franchise — seems intended to be safe above all else. It localizes the story around Jean Grey/Phoenix (Sophie Turner) after she absorbs a form of cosmic energy that should kill her but instead makes her more powerful. As a result, Jean comes to learn more about her origin than she was previously aware of and this causes a rift between the competing ideologies of — you guessed it — Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) that must be resolved if Jean can be saved and order can be restored to mutant/human relations.
The film rehashes familiar ideas that could be generative, but the movie has nothing interesting or worthwhile to say about its central narrative and thematic issues. After X-Men: Days of Future Past retconned the series, there was a massive amount of potential for how the story of Jean Grey/Phoenix could unfold on new terms. Dark Phoenix, the directorial debut of long-time franchise writer and producer Simon Kinberg, settles for a narrative that barely scrapes the surface of who this character is and what her story could be. It panders to the lowest common denominator of progressivism with a comment on gender inclusivity that, in a film which makes no attempt to give depth or complexity to any of its characters (female or otherwise), ends up being nothing more than a cloying one-liner rather than a signal of potential change.
X-Men: First Class, the first of the prequel series, succeeds in almost all the ways that Dark Phoenix fails. It displays confidence and flair, feels genuinely invested in its characters, and has a story with real stakes. It introduces us to the younger versions of Professor X and Magneto before they were the mostly rivals/sometimes allies that we saw in the original trilogy. While their individual and shared histories had been addressed previously, the prequel brought their origins to the forefront. It allowed the film to not only lay out their different takes on mutant/human relations — something that has always been present in the films — but to explore why they are so divided on the matter and how their experiences have molded them.
Perhaps this is a virtue of having a cast of actors new to the world of superhero films, eager to prove themselves in a tentpole film, rather than those working under the same contract they’ve been tied to for close to a decade, but the performances in First Class feel fresh, energized, and vivacious. It also didn’t hurt that they were working with richer material. It goes without saying that McAvoy and Fassbender are talented, but more than this, they play off each other well and understand the complexities of their characters. The tension between Charles and Erik’s bond and their inevitable conflict and division never comes across as convoluted or unearned. While we know that the two will come to represent competing perspectives, it’s still incredibly easy to get caught up in Charles and Erik’s early moments of camaraderie.
As Erik hunts down Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), the man responsible for murdering his family in a concentration camp, Fassbender’s natural intensity loans itself exceptionally well to a character who, even early on in his origin story, has contended with enough hurt and pain to last a lifetime. His hardness is matched by Charles’s proclivity for empathy and, while Charles’s comfortable upbringing has afforded him the ability to give people the benefit of the doubt, McAvoy doesn’t settle for playing him as naive. Charles’s instincts to try to save Erik (from himself and others) time and time again doesn’t come from a place of doe-eyed optimism but rather a genuine aim of understanding his strife.
It’s these instincts that come to define our understanding of their relationship as Charles must come to realize there is a limit to what he can do for Erik. The first half of the film, which forms their close relationship, not only sets up the shift that takes place as they begin to oppose each other, but it also constructs a different perspective of the original trilogy and deepens our understanding of how and why they so clearly care for each other even when they are rivals.
The central arc of Charles and Erik gives the film some emotional weight, and it balances this with director Matthew Vaughn‘s gusto and energy as a filmmaker. He takes advantage of the 1960s setting and leans into the influence of early James Bond films. Erik’s introduction, in particular, positions him as not exactly a spy, but certainly a lone-wolf skilled in the art of deception. From the overall cinematic influences to the details such as the production design of Shaw’s submarine, First Class works with its time period and embraces the aesthetic.
One doesn’t have to look far to see how this has come to define Vaughn’s work. Following X-Men, he went to work on Kingsman: The Secret Service in 2014 and its sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle in 2017. The films lean even further into his penchant for Bond references with the construction of a cinematic world of secret spy organizations. We can see Vaughn’s ability to construct rousing action setpieces illustrated with First Class‘s climactic Cuban Missile Crisis scene and Kingsman‘s famous church fight scene. For what it’s worth, I personally find the Kingsman films obtuse and rampantly misogynistic, but the church scene and a number of other moments have a vitality that is notable. My own feelings aside, it’s clear that viewers have responded to the Kingsman films and Vaughn’s panache as this style has spawned a franchise, with the third film in the series set for a release in 2020. It’s clear that, in X-Men films or outside of them, Vaughn’s stylized approach to action filmmaking is welcomed by audiences.
What First Class did so well was balance its heightened style with its genuine emotional resonance and character development. Dark Phoenix doesn’t even make an attempt to choose one over the other; it settles for neither. The film never takes the time to give us a reason to care about the characters or tell us something new about them. Kinberg’s direction hedges its bets at every opportunity and rather than take a risk or do something exciting, it is just plain bland. The 1990s setting is practically a throwaway as the film rarely takes the opportunity to have the slightest bit of fun with its time period.
The X-Men films frequently revisit established ideas such as the tension between mutants wanting to blend in and be accepted or wanting to embrace their powers, or the problem of revenge and Erik’s eye-for-an-eye philosophy against Charles’s bridge-building mentality, or the allegorical significance of characters ostracized for being born in a way that differs from the norm. These themes can still be relevant and interesting. First Class demonstrated that it’s possible to explore a character’s origins in ways that illuminate our understanding of them and the other films in the series. Dark Phoenix, despite working with a protagonist that is nuanced and complex, not only fails to say anything new, it doesn’t even try.