Long before the idea of a Cinematic Universe was even a glint in Tony Stark’s eyes, X-Men was the turn-of-the-century movie that proved superhero outings could be so much more than big-screen gambles with the potential to sink a star’s career.
Instead, it catapulted Hugh Jackman to superstardom and spawned a 12 film arc which spans the gamut of watchability.
Now, almost 20 years later, the X-Men franchise is at an end. The House of Mouse has come calling, and it now means that 20th Century Fox will be handing over the reins. Dark Phoenix is their final farewell to Charles Xavier’s alumni.
It’s disappointing, then, that Dark Phoenix is hell-bent on being the loudest and most jarring of death knells. Far from a triumphant goodbye, it is the weakest film of the entire series and one which goes out with the most indifferent of whimpers. If you’ve sat through 2006’s The Last Stand then you’ll know that this is no mean feat.
Set in 1992, it sees the mutants heading into space to rescue a space shuttle which is at risk of being destroyed by a solar flare. The mission is a success, but it almost results in the death of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), who inadvertently absorbs the force of the flare.
As the crew return to Earth, it becomes clear that all is not well with Grey – she’s being manipulated at the hands of a shape-shifting alien (Jessica Chastain).
Turner, in her biggest post Game of Thrones role to date, is one of the film’s few high points. It’s clear that she relishes portraying Grey’s descent into apparent villainy, but it’s always peppered with shades of the character’s complex past and strongly reflects how her fellow mutants are unwilling to accept that she’s totally turned to the dark side.
But she is let down by an endless onslaught of explosive battles that start promisingly, before descending into a string of increasingly tiresome tear-ups . After a trip to trace her family roots goes dangerously wrong, she dispatches one of her mutant cohorts with gory glee before making a swift exit.
As the action ramps up, it is impossible to separate one fight from the next and even a scene that sees Magneto (Michael Fassbender) questioning his loyalties becomes increasingly hard to care about.
Frustratingly, the film also fails to capitalise on some of its most interesting side plots. One explores the role of Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) as his team are finally heralded as heroes after years of widespread persecution. Far from being the all-powerful leader, Xavier becomes egotistical and makes a series of dodgy decisions that effectively endanger his band of mutants. It’s never fully expanded, and instead ties up with McAvoy delivering cliched platitudes at the film’s end.
Still, long-term fans will still find much to admire among the strong chemistry of the mutants, who are often well-served by Simon Kinberg’s script – a moment of rare greatness sees Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) rightly putting Xavier in his place as she questions the gender politics of the group’s name.
For the most part, however, Dark Phoenix is a deeply disappointing end to the X-Men franchise, and one which abandons all signs of early promise in favour of tedious spectacle.
We can only hope that the Marvel Cinematic Universe provides the the fresh start that this beleaguered franchise desperately needs.