Dark Phoenix vs. X-men: Last Stand
It’s been a bumpy road for Fox and their X-Men franchise. In the nearly twenty-years since these characters first hit the big screen, we’ve seen some smash-hits. In fact, X2 still holds-up as one of the best movies this genre has to offer. But for every hit, we’ve had a bomb. We’re looking at you, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Nothing sums-up this inconsistency more than X-Men: Last Stand; adapted from the iconic Dark Phoenix storyline. The film has been divisive amongst fans ever since it released back in 2006. With many criticizing how it handled its beloved source material and characters. Now, thanks to the timeline shuffle in Days of Future Past, Fox have another bite of the cherry. X-Men: Dark Phoenix is Fox’s last chance to nail this story and give fans the film they deserve. The only question is, did they get it right this time? Well, we’ve picked out four key problems with its predecessor to see if this attempt can right its wrongs.
Arguably the biggest of all Last Stand’s flaws, is that Jean Grey feels like a passenger in what should be her movie. After appearing to make the ultimate sacrifice at the end of X2, her decline should be the focal point. Instead, she was brushed aside in favour of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. Who had been the highlight of the previous two films. Logan is given significantly more to do than the Phoenix herself. Much more is made of his perspective of the ensuing chaos than of Jean's. This meant that her character was never done justice by the film’s plot. Leaving her one-dimensional and unsympathetic. It's easy to see why the die-hard fans were unhappy.
In a broad sense, Dark Phoenix is an improvement in its focus on Jean. From the very first voiceover it’s made clear that this is her story above all else. The first act in particular doubles-down on her and gives us an insight into where that rage comes from. We see her tragic childhood, her newfound family and her blossoming relationship with Scott. She immediately feels more like a fully realised character than she ever did before. You get to really understand her pain.
Unfortunately, it's let down by an over-eagerness to rush the backstory. We aren’t given nearly enough time to truly sympathise with her or develop any kind of connection to her. This isn’t helped by a bland script that doesn’t give Sophie Turner the chance to strut her stuff. She's either sad, angry or a combination of the two. It could have been helped by a few more scenes with her and the team interacting. Some insight into who she is before the Phoenix takes control. Even a bit more of her in Apocalypse would have been something. But as it happens, she still doesn’t feel relatable enough to make you care about her.
All About the Action
The original X-Men and X2 became instant classics of the superhero genre. They had everything you’d expect from this kind of movie, but it was the focus on character that made them resonate. The importance placed on the quiet moments between the mutants gave them a heart. It was deeply unusual for a comic-book movie at the time. Last Stand threw all of this out the window. Instead, opting to be a typical Hollywood blockbuster, all action and no substance. The subtle character moments were mostly abandoned in favour of bombastic set-pieces. It did make for a spectacular final battle, but was it worth it? This was disappointing because the Dark Phoenix story relies on the relationship between the X-Men. Otherwise there's no weight. This is an event that splinters the group. Drives them apart. Pushes them to their emotional limits. Sacrificing character work to show-off the usual CGI action takes away from the stakes of it all. Making the eventual pay-off feel unearned.
The remake, thankfully, learns its lesson. In terms of action, this a much slower affair than Last Stand. Once the chaos unfolds, the action takes a backseat while we are shown what these characters are going through personally. The scenes involving Hank and Charles go a long way in emotionally investing the viewer. You can sense the strain that the films events put on character relationships. Adding emphasis to everything they do going forward. We also get some much-needed smaller scenes between Jean and her fellow mutants. Seeing her back-and-forth with the likes of Xavier and Magneto make these heroes seem more human. It also shows how Jean's actions impact the rest of characters. That’s important because it explains the stakes for each individual, not just the group as a whole. Which allows each to have their own arc amongst the huge overarching story.
Death in film is a tried-and-tested way of ramping up the stakes. Adding emotion to a plot in a way that grabs the audience and evokes a reaction. When done correctly, it can shift the whole tone of a movie and provide some affecting and heartfelt moments. When done badly, it can feel like a cheap attempt to shock the viewer into caring about a non-emotive story. In the case of X-Men: Last Stand it’s the latter. The death of Charles never landed the way it was intended and seemed to do more to irk the fans than it did to draw them in. The death scene itself was actually fairly impactful, but the rest of the film did little to make it feel meaningful. In the end, it came across as a desperate attempt to add some feeling to a plot that was seriously lacking it.
Dark Phoenix falls into a similar trap, but for different reasons. The death of Raven is a major turning point in the movie. It acts as the catalyst for a lot of the plot-points going forward. It serves as motivation for the majority of the key players, as each of them adopt different ways of dealing with the loss. The first problem is that it happens far too early and with little foreshadowing. It comes seemingly out of nowhere. Also, it expects us to read into a relationship between her and Jean that isn’t really there. Mystique’s death has significance for the others, but not for Jean. In this sense, it reeks more of plot convenience than a sincere payoff.
The second problem is that it was spoiled in the trailers. The recent teasers for the movie strongly implied that Raven’s death would be a major part of the narrative. Leaving many hoping that we were being misled. Alas, no. Dark phoenix was always going to live or die by how well this twist landed, as it set the precedent for the whole plot. Spoiling it in the trailer dulled any impact that it could have had and made it a death that won’t live long in the memory.
The Dark Phoenix Story
The Dark Phoenix Saga is one of the most popular runs in Marvel Comics history. It is still regarded as one of the most influential and ambitious comic-book stories of all-time. Any big-screen adaptation was always going to be watered down to be accessible for a film audience. Last Stand might have taken it too far, though. Not only is the Dark Phoenix story boiled down to its most basic components, it isn’t even the only plot line. A large amount of screen-time is taken up by the mutant cure theme that runs parallel. Either one of these narratives could have carried its own film. Using both, gave neither the opportunity to shine. Simplifying such a complex series down to this degree left it feeling hollow and uninspired. It could have been the icing on the cake for a stellar trilogy, but it wasn’t meant to be.
One thing we can’t criticise Dark Phoenix for is not committing to the story. Jean Grey and the Phoenix are quite rightly front and centre throughout, with no side-plots crowbarred in. The Phoenix force’s cosmic origins are far more faithful than that of its predecessor, giving it more context than just a mutant gone mad. This change was a step in the right direction from Last Stand, where the Phoenix was always inside Jean. It portrays her as a good character, who is corrupted by an alien force. Whereas, Famke Janssen's version always had this evil within - it was just waiting to be unlocked. It was a strong start to what should have been a strong retelling. Sadly, it fell short.
A force such as this, floating in outer space, raises certain questions. What is it? Where does it come from? What is it doing to Jean? We get very few answers, and the ones we do are vague to say the least. While we get some hints about the destructive power it holds, we never see what it means for Jean. By the time the finale rolls around, all we know is that it's “bad”. The alien race that are pursuing it, fronted by Jessica Chastain, seem to exist to give some context. But they lack any depth beyond hunting the phoenix for their own gain. Despite the film’s efforts, by the time we get to the third act the Phoenix force feels like nothing more than a MacGuffin. It’s a real shame for a movie that had all the pieces in place.
When all is said and done, this is another misstep for Fox’s X-Men. Dark Phoenix does avoid some of the traps that Last Stand fell in to. But it isn’t enough to rescue another fumbled attempt at this fantastic story. For now, Charles, Logan and co. will rest while Marvel Studios plot their big-move into the MCU. Perhaps then we’ll get the Dark Phoenix movie that fans deserve. Third times the charm, right?