Excelsi-bore! My World of Flops Case File #129/My Year of Flops II #26 Dark Phoenix
Usually when a movie flops big time, the people involved often make a big show of pretending that it did not fail as spectacularly, and as publicly, and as incontrovertibly as it clearly did. They’ll say that the jury is still out and that there’s still plenty of time for people to find the movie and embrace it. Or they’ll cling to the idea, delusional or not, that while not many people might have seen the movie, the ones that did really loved it, with the kind of passion that can turn flops into word-of-mouth sleepers. Alternately, they’ll blame critics for poisoning audiences against their films.
Sometimes, however, a movie will be such a huge, notorious flop that its cast and crew and the studio bleeding money because of its unfortunate existence have no choice but to publicly acknowledge that, for all their hopes and dreams, the universe had unmistakably rejected their vision, and rejected it forcefully.
That happened with recent My World of Flops subject Serenity, when the distributor publicly acknowledged that while they really thought the movie was not terrible, honestly they didn’t, critics and focus group respondents felt strongly otherwise so there was no use throwing good money after bad where this turkey, I mean, misunderstood sleeper, was concerned.
On a similar note, when Dark Phoenix shocked no one with a staggeringly unimpressive first week box office haul the film’s writer, director and producer, Simon Kinberg, took public responsibility for the film’s staggering failure while producer-in-name only Lauren Schuler-Donner tweeted, then deleted, “Save your condolences. I had zero, nothing to do with Dark Phoenix. Or Apocalypse. Or New Mutants.”
That is what the young people call “shade” or a “sick burn” or “distancing yourself publicly from a very unsuccessful movie for the sake of your career” while Fox took an even bolder stance by stating that every single person involved with green-lighting Dark Phoenix was high on legal California marijuana at the time, and has not only been fired but blackballed from the industry.
Dark Phoenix was supposed to end this cycle of X-Men movies, which began in a pre-Iron Man, pre-MCU world with 2000’s X-Men, on a triumphant note that would build on everything that came before it, the way Avengers: Endgame paid off the twenty-one films that preceded it in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Instead, the blockbuster sequels functioned as the Goofus and Gallant of superhero team-up series-enders. Marvel beamed with pride over its three-hour-plus pop culture event, challenging an impressed and obsessed world, “Gaze in child-like awe and wonder at the magnificent conclusion of the greatest overlapping narrative in human history! Throw your money at our God-like creation! We are the champions of the box office! All others must prostrate themselves before us!”
Fox, in sharp contrast, adjusted its tie nervously, Rodney Dangerfield-style, and stammered to an underwhelmed and an unimpressed public, “Don’t mind us, we’re just finishing out our little story with a movie that, honestly, you do NOT have to pay attention to, especially its box-office. And the reviews. And the public response. Just kind of pretend Dark Phoenix, or whatever we’re calling it, doesn’t exist, and hey, who do you think will be the next Wolverine, huh? And what about Logan, that was good, right?”
Dark Phoenix’s failure would look terrible regardless of the context. Being released around the same time as a similar superhero opus with a good shot at becoming the top-grossing film in history makes the movie’s failure seem much worse.
Dark Phoenix made a lot of big mistakes, beginning with loosely adapting “The Dark Phoenix Saga”, a revered comic book arc that was previously the inspiration for Brett Ratner’s 2006 X-Men: The Last Stand, a previous nadir for the franchise. Considering the scathing public and critical response to X-Men: The Last Stand, and its reputation as the worst X-Men movie, it’s perplexing that Dark Phoenix also brings back X-Men: The Last Stand screenwriter Simon Kinberg.
By all accounts, Fox wanted to right the ship after the critical and commercial under-performance of 2017’s X-Men: Apocalypse, which Kinberg wrote and produced as well. But trying to correct the mistakes of X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men: Apocalypse by hiring those films’ scribe to write and produce and direct a new take on the Dark Phoenix saga is like trying to atone for The Phantom Menace by making Jar Jar Binks the hero of a follow-up: deeply counter-productive and counter-intuitive.
A motion picture that ends the saga of the X-Men with a muted fart sound, Dark Phoenix stars Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, a powerful telepath who absorbs an incredible burst of mysterious energy while saving her fellow X-men and some astronauts in outer space.
This energy transforms Jean from the inside out. It changes her in a profound and lasting way, making her darker, angrier, less able and willing to control her all-consuming rage. It unleashes the dark id within Jean, unleashing a dangerous, even deadly new alter-ego.
This alarms patriarch Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy), who used his own extraordinary mental powers to mess around with Jean’s formative memories, causing her to forget the role she played in her mother’s death. As Jean Grey explores her dark powers and sinister moods she falls under the sway of Vuk (Jessica Chastain), a single-minded alien out to use Jean’s powers for nefarious purposes.
The actor who comes off best in Dark Phoenix never appears in it. Indeed, he dominated my thoughts about the movie precisely because he never shows up, rather than favoring the proceedings with a clearly contractually obligated cameo, as he has in the past.
I’m talking of course about Patrick Stewart, the heavyweight thespian who became synonymous with another beloved pop culture icon after rising to nerd Godhood as a beloved Star Trek commander, a triumph I like to call “pulling a T.J Hooker.”
The outsized specter of Stewart’s appropriately beloved take on Professor X haunts McAvoy’s every moment onscreen, downgrading his performance from “acceptable/good enough” to “hopelessly, appallingly inferior.”
When Stewart’s Professor Xavier behaved in a complicated or unsympathetic fashion, we marveled at what a complex, deep, fascinating and Shakespearean character Stewart and his collaborators had created. When McAvoy does something unlikeable, controlling or unethical, in sharp contrast, he just seems like a fucking dick. An asshole. A bald-headed jerk.
The team behind Dark Phoenix reportedly wanted to correct the lumbering franchise’s course following Apocalypse by avoiding the violence, mind-numbing spectacle and epic scope of the Bryan Singer-directed misfire by making something more intimate and small-scale, rooted in complicated emotions and relationships instead of giant set-pieces in outer space and around the world.
In other words, they wanted to make a Jean Grey version of Logan, an X-Men movie with a pitch-black, diamond-hard core of genuine tragedy, a newfangled, old-fashioned superhero noir about famous superheroes pulled in dark, disorienting directions by powers and forces beyond their control.
The problem is that you need substance to do tragedy. You need a heart and soul to pull off Film Noir. You need characters the audience cares about even as they do despicable and loathsome things to make that kind of a tricky, challenging, tonally bleak bummer. And Dark Phoenix has no heart. It has no soul. There’s curious inertness where passionate fire should reside.
Also, it’s hard to do tough guy tragedy when one of your main characters, Dr. Hank McCoy/The Beast, is an erudite sexy blue werewolf man. Bear in mind, I think that Nicholas Hoult does a fine job as the movie’s resident sexy blue erudite werewolf man. He’s infinitely superior to Kelsey Grammer, who played the character in Last Stand, but there’s no denying that he’s playing a sexy erudite blue werewolf man and when he springs into action the werewolf growls he makes are straight out of Teen Wolf Too.
True, Logan had its own sexy werewolf man in the form of Wolverine. But Hugh Jackman transformed his crazy mutant werewolf man into a stoic, iconic archetypal anti-hero on par with Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name whereas even at his best, Hoult’s furry motherfucker is just a sexy erudite blue werewolf man.
Jackman may have been a handsome, tall Australian song and dance man in real life but onscreen Jackson IS Wolverine. He fucking owns that character the same way Patrick Stewart owns Professor X. McAvoy, by comparison, can’t help but come off like a flopsweat-addled beneficiary of nepotism who takes over when his dad is on vacation and everyone suffers for the substitution.
Where Endgame underlined what a moving and intense journey we’d gone on with characters like Iron Man and Captain America, the parade of forgettable performances and fuzzy characters in Dark Phoenix highlight just how completely this new cast of mutants have failed to put their own stamp on their characters and the material.
Poor Tye Sheridan, who was so good in Mud and Tree of Life, continues to make Cyclops/Scott Summers the most consistently boring straight man in superhero cinema. Between this and Ready Player One Sheridan should stay the fuck away from elephantine blockbusters that require him to wear a dumb visor.
Ever since I learned of the existence of Dazzler, a superhero based on Bo Derek and the brainchild of an only-in-the-70s collaboration between Marvel and debauched disco kings Casablanca Records, I’ve vaguely wondered what the character would like like onscreen. Dazzler finally makes her screen debut here, played by actress and singer Halston Sage, and while the idea of Dazzler here is irresistible—a club kid who has amazing, clean MDMA and also superpowers—her minute-long, dialogue-free cameo is predictably and characteristically anti-climactic.
For me, half of the appeal of X-Men movies lies in seeing the funky new powers of crazy new mutants. I accordingly got excited by the introduction of a new mutant with sentient dreadlocks he uses in fights. Who IS this crazy dreadlock guy, I wondered. What are his hopes, his dreams? What are his political views? Is there a Mrs. Crazy Dreadlocks Guy?
Alas, I never got answers because crazy dreadlocks guy never even gets a single line of dialogue.
That is far from the only disappointment in Dark Phoenix. I was predictably disappointed that Dark Phoenix is not good. But I was also disappointed that it’s not bad in a more distinctive or intense or memorable way. This isn’t Battlefield Earth or Jupiter Ascending. It’s just another superhero movie that doesn’t work.
Perhaps that’s Dark Phoenix’s biggest crime, its most unforgivable transgression: Endgame was the movie of the moment, but also a movie for all time, that people will be talking about, if only as a massive commercial enterprise and milestone, for decades to come while Dark Phoenix, despite the place it holds in the X-Men universe, is most assuredly just another movie, and a decidedly “meh” shrug of a movie at that.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure
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