Dark Phoenix is a fitting end, if it is the end, to the X-Men franchise
After nearly 20 years and a dozen X-Men movies, it's widely assumed that the mutant superhero team will be put to bed after the release of this week's Dark Phoenix. Dark Phoenix was the last big X-Men movie to start production before the sale of 20th Century Fox (who licensed the characters from Marvel) to Disney (who now owns Marvel). It wasn't necessarily planned as a series finale, but that's how it's playing out, despite some half-bittersweet, half-desperate narration in the film that designates it as a "new beginning."
Dark Phoenix presents a smaller, more intimate version of the X-Men, with a running time under two hours, a minimum of comic relief, and an attempt at telling a more character-driven story. After the time-traveling, portal-hopping scope of X-Men: Days of Future Past and critically acclaimed grit of Logan, the series is ending closer to where it began. The first X-Men movie, from way back in the summer of 2000, ran just 104 minutes, eschewed Batman & Robin-style outlandishness, and was forced to employ a mid-range budget judiciously. The result was a superhero movie that, whether by creative spark or simple necessity, emphasized character over spectacle. A 2003 sequel was beloved, but since then, the series has lost its luster for a lot of fans who were enticed elsewhere by the extremely well-managed and fan-calibrated Marvel Cinematic Universe.
That MCU explosion has left the trailblazing X-Men somewhat underappreciated, even as the series has stayed creatively fresh. Though the dominant aesthetic of the series comes from since-disgraced filmmaker Bryan Singer, the X-Men movies have accommodated plenty of stylistic detours: Matthew Vaughn's zippy prequel X-Men: First Class (which brought the series back from the brink and introduced much of the current cast); James Mangold's two movies about hirsute, indestructible Wolverine (Hugh Jackman); and the irreverent ultraviolence of the Deadpool pictures. Even Singer's movies have some range; Days of Future Past and X-Men: Apocalypse embrace a comics-like palette of bright blues, pinks, and purples, contrasting with the grounding of his first two films.
In some ways, the series has been a victim of its own best moments. Movies like Logan or Deadpool are sometimes dismissed as true X-Men high points due to their tenuous connection to main-series continuity. Basically, they don't count because they're too good. But even the spinoff movies are plainly referential to each other, and make the series as a whole more eclectic. The MCU has trained some viewers to view eclecticism as inconsistency, but sometimes a lack of meticulous planning gives filmmakers more breathing room. It also makes the X-Men movies, with shifting styles, timelines, and performers, an accurate simulation of the comic book experience: unruly continuity that tangles inspired moments with ill-advised ones.
As such, there have been some low moments — one of which Dark Phoenix revisits. It re-adapts the famous comics storyline wherein powerful telepath Jean Grey (here played by Sophie Turner) fuses with an alien entity that amps up her powers, previously seen in 2006's mostly terrible X-Men: The Last Stand. As before, Jean eventually takes a bad turn, much to the despair of her mentor Professor X (James McAvoy), her long-time boyfriend, Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), and, in this telling, her shapeshifting friend Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence).
Dark Phoenix is better than The Last Stand; it's not as overstuffed or coarse. But Jean's transformation feels just as rushed, both within the movie and the broader series. These versions of Jean and Cyclops, along with Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), were just introduced in X-Men: Apocalypse, and now they're supposed to be facing their greatest challenge as a team.
Even in its limitations, Dark Phoenix stands out from other superhero movies. It strikes a somber tone, and though there are a couple of exciting sequences of the X-Men using their powers together, much of it consists of talky dialogue face-offs. The movie's best scene has Jean turning up at the mutant-homeland island established by Magneto (Michael Fassbender), hoping for advice (or absolution?) over her newfound lust for vengeance. But writer-director Simon Kinberg, an old hand at X-Men screenplays (including The Last Stand!), doesn't often find dramatic inspiration in his staging apart from some evocative close-ups. He leans hard on an ominous Hans Zimmer score and the natural gravity of his actors, resulting in a movie that's serious but not especially affecting. The series ends recalling its strengths, but not fully embodying them.
In keeping with the scattered, unplanned nature of the franchise though, Dark Phoenix is technically not the final Fox X-Men movie. At the very least, a spinoff called The New Mutants is due out next year, after many delays and possible reshoots. Even after that, Disney will presumably want to move forward with another Deadpool sequel at some point, and any direct continuation of that series would in some way extend the X-Men world (unless they flat-out have him world-jump into the MCU, which would be an odd move for a series with such meticulously managed continuity). It would be a shame if all that remained of this long-running cinematic universe was the self-referential antics of a wisecracking, non-mutant mercenary.
Then again, if Deadpool somehow wound up rescuing Colossus, Beast, or Magneto from being rebooted, recast, and reconfigured into the MCU, it would be a perfect turn for this series: unplanned, illogical, and a delightful surprise.