By Preston Wilder
Welcome to X-Men, the Yahoo of superhero franchises. Back in 2000 or thereabouts (which was also the year of the first X-Men movie), Yahoo wasn’t just wildly successful, it was wildly exciting. Everybody thought it was the future – and it was the future, in a way, only not as Yahoo. Bigger tech firms appeared and scooped up the internet, Google being the tech equivalent of The Avengers (and the MCU in general) which has now supplanted Professor Xavier and Co. You might be forgiven for thinking that Yahoo’s gone bust, but in fact it’s still a massive company worth billions of dollars – and X-Men too is still a major franchise, the new Dark Phoenix coming with a budget of about $200 million.
What’s the point? That’s a reasonable question – though in fact there are two selling points where the X-Universe has the edge over Tony Stark, Thor and the rest of that mob. The first (and perhaps more important) is that the X-Men work as a team. “Storm, seal those cracks!” Storm is told and swiftly ices the cracks in a spaceship, even as Nightcrawler is teleporting himself inside the spaceship and Jean Grey holds the whole thing together. The Avengers have cool gadgets and operate like an adolescent boy-gang, much of their energy devoted to insults and banter – but the X-Men don’t have gadgets, they have very specific powers; Storm, for instance, can control the weather (though she mostly ices stuff; there’s not much call for mild and pleasant weather in the middle of a superhero battle). The Avengers fight as soldiers, together but separate, but the X-People fight as a family, contributing their particular gifts to the pot – that mushy f-word getting frequently invoked in Dark Phoenix.
The second selling point relates to gender. The Avengers are a pretty male crew, though that’s now changing – but the X-Gang have always been co-ed. “The women are always saving the men around here. You might think about changing the name to ‘X-Women’,” notes Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) acerbically, speaking to wheelchair-bound Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) – who, incidentally, is now revealed as a controlling patriarch. There’s a strong gender-studies angle to the film, Professor X having brainwashed Jean Grey, a.k.a. Phoenix (Sophie Turner), in order to “protect” her – an ostensibly benign ploy that’s clearly problematic, in this day and age. Xavier thinks he knows what’s best for a woman, just like patriarchal men throughout history, etc etc. “We always tried to protect the kids from the world. We should’ve been protecting them from you!” says newly-woke Beast (Nicholas Hoult) to the increasingly beleaguered professor. Harsh!
Looking at Dark Phoenix as a socio-political object may be slightly pretentious – but it beats looking at it as a multiplex movie, where it’s sadly inadequate. Better to discuss if the shape-shifting aliens stand for female empowerment than to quote their actual dialogue, which is straight out of the movie-alien playbook: they scoff at Earthlings as “this primitive species” and make plans to “resurrect our race” with the magical thingy – the thingy in question being “the spark that gave birth to the universe”, which crawls into mutant Jean and makes her all-powerful. But will she be a ‘dark’ Phoenix, or will she opt to use her powers for good? “We’re all at war, a war with ourselves,” sighs Xavier sagely.
There’s some decent action, though the X-Youths don’t have much personality. Xavier and Magneto are still the main attraction – the latter played by Michael Fassbender, who makes Magneto’s riposte to X’s apology almost too on-target: “You’re always sorry, Charles. And there’s always a speech. But nobody cares!”. Magneto thinks he can take Phoenix, then grasps her true power so he goes to a backroom and takes his old helmet out of storage – and meanwhile Charles is wearing his own helmet, trying to read minds with the fabled Cerebro machine. (Never mind Dark Phoenix, they should’ve called it ‘Older Men in Silly Helmets’.) Visually, too, the film is bland, most of that $200 million budget clearly having gone on special effects; imaginative visuals mostly extend to leaving Jean underlit when she’s tormented – which, to be fair, is often.
That, in the end, is the most intriguing part of X-Men, and the reason why it’ll always be more weighty than the weightless MCU romps. X-People aren’t superheroes; they’re mutants, weirdos, misfits, semi-accepted by the mainstream but still likely to be hated if something goes wrong. When the franchise began in the 00s it carried a clear LGBT subtext, and some of that remains – as in talk of ‘fixing’ mutations – though times have changed and the mutants, like LGBTs, have a different relationship with society now. Alas, that doesn’t make Dark Phoenix more relevant (quite the reverse), and this rather flat, prosaic movie doesn’t have enough oomph to survive on its own merits. “This is not the end of me, or the X-Men. It’s a new beginning!” says the final voice-over – which presumably is what Yahoo also tells its stockholders at the AGM every year. You’re not fooling anyone, you know.
DIRECTED BY Simon Kinberg
STARRING Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender
US 2019 113 mins