Few franchises run for 19 years and fewer still get a second bite of the cherry with a soft reboot once the first run of adventures has burnt out. Bryan Singer, now notorious in Hollywood on account of his sexual deviance rather than filmmaking abilities; a hack in decline since his breakout hit The Usual Suspects; launched the series and made a well received sequel. He absented himself from the third film to make a long and boring pastiche of Richard Donner’s Superman movies, the first sign his powers were on the wane, which was picked up by fellow #metoo posterboy and point and click man, Brett Ratner.
The Last Stand combined a cure for mutants A-story with a truncated and perfunctory telling of the celebrated Dark Phoenix arc – Jean Grey absorbing celestial energy and becoming an unstoppable walking Chernobyl. And who co-wrote that much loathed adaptation? Simon Kinberg: the last of the original (and failed) creative team who now returns to have another go in the series topping (or should that be toppling?) Dark Phoenix.
X-Men fans may think it’s extraordinary that Kinberg is in a position to do this at all, given his lacklustre pedigree, but his ascent to the summit tells a different reboot story, namely how the series were briefly revitalised before the old guard hijacked that good work and returned the franchise to rank mediocrity, guaranteeing decline and irrelevance.
2011’s X-Men: First Class, the best in the series, was directed by Matthew Vaughn and scripted by Jane Goldman; the two making a ‘60s set prequel that had style, heft, and a superior cast to the original run who leant gravitas to the characters, particularly Michael Fassbender’s take on a young, vengeful Nazi hunting Magneto.
In what turned out to the mother of all franchise false hopes, there was speculation that Vaughn and Goldman would return to flesh out a new trilogy, but for reasons movie making science can not discern, the series mutated, as cells sometimes do to produce cancer, and Bryan Singer, buoyed by fan nostalgia and entitlement, bounded back into the stage to slowly undo Vaughn’s good work.
Not content with that, he brought his old collaborators with him, and thus, just two movies later, we’re offered Dark Phoenix as a desperate, attention seeking tag on to the confusing Days of Future Past and the camp and thin Apocalypse.
Singer, now persona non grata, though sadly not on account of his movies, was not invited to return for this instalment. Kinberg was presumably thought to the ideal choice on account of being familiar with the series and the story, but his reserved and flat treatment leaves you scratching your head, wondering who thought it could be otherwise.
The money men apparently believed Simon when he told them that after 13 years of careful analysis he understood where his last treatment went wrong, and he could fix it on a second pass. But the final draft, though excluding all sub-plots, is a strangely low key, simplified take on the story, divested of high emotion and style, that, mechanical in execution, manages to make this existential threat to all life on Earth feel like a little local difficulty between old friends.
There’s not a single new idea in Dark Phoenix. From the ongoing and now fully played out battle of ideas between Xavier and Magneto, to the damaged mutant struggling with her potential, we’ve seen and heard it all before, though once, when Matthew Vaughn was in town, with considerably more human interest.
The alleged climax to the series is a lethargic affair, in which the entire cast appear to be carrying out a contractual obligation rather than putting the seal on their First Class characterisations. In fairness to them, Kinberg’s script gives them nothing to do bar reminisce and remonstrate. There’s little or no psychological dimension to their dilemma, just placeholder scene after placeholder scene, punctuated with a nebulous alien threat who’ve taken inspiration from Star Trek’s Genesis Device, and what would have been crowdpleasing setpieces had a overzealous editor not torn them to shreds with his adamantium scissors.
What should have been a big send off for a beloved set of characters is, instead, a muted, small scale affair, that lacks the precision in execution or grandiosity of thought to be anything other than another episode in a series that chose to look inward and repeat itself, rather than expanding its scope and its idea to carry further movies. Perhaps it’s best then, that this trailblazer for superhero saturation ends here.