Dammit, Marvel Studios. You’ve gone and ruined these dumbass X-Men movies for me.

Don’t get me wrong, I knew they were dumb from the very first one. But they were kinda cool too. I mean, there was Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier, and . . . well, there was that. Despite all the wrongheaded moves with these flicks (and there have been a lot of wrongheaded moves), at least those elements were pretty solid. That’s probably why 2017’s Logan was actually a good movie, because they dumped all the other poorly-cast, meagerly-written characters right in the mutant graveyard.

Of course, at first, I was psyched to see them anyway.

We didn’t have as much Marvel back in the day. There was Blade a couple years earlier, then Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man a couple years later. But if you wanted any of Stan and Jack’s other creations, you pretty much had to go back to those shitty TV shows from the 70s. Yeah, yeah, they didn’t seem that shitty back then, but we were young and didn’t know any better. We were just happy to see the Hulk get pissed off, flex his bodybuilder muscles, and flip over a car before wandering down the road while that sad piano music played.

Then runaway Marie hid in the back of bar-brawler Logan’s truck . . . or, Rogue met Wolverine, and they kicked off a new age of superheroes. It was the year 2000, and the geek world would never be the same again.

No, Anna Paquin was never right for Rogue, and Halle Berry always seemed like she was slummin’ as Storm. Too bad, because (other than Wolvie) they were two of my favorite characters. But the rest of them at least looked mostly right, if not a bit interchangeable. For a bunch of movies about folks that were very different from the rest of us, there’s a lot of kinda same-y good-looking brown-haired hetero-dudes scattered through this series, with their only problems seeming to be whatever conflict the scripts require them to face.   

Oh, I forgot to mention that Ian McKellan was stellar as Magneto – he’s a bit Shakespearean, so he’s got some acting range beyond the words on the script – and what’s-his-face from that Assassin’s Creed flick is a pretty good younger version . . .

Because we eventually got younger versions of them, whether we wanted them or not. Or maybe it was alternate versions, I’m not even sure anymore. In Days of Future Past, most of the original movies’ casts interacted with their new, younger versions . . . I think . . . all except for Wolverine, because he could live forever, or never get old, due to the Adamantium that made up his skeleton, or some shit. I tried to forget that none of the newer actors looked like the older actors, or seemed to age evenly or appropriately. That, and . . . well, time travel.

It was all just stupid. It was fun, but it was stupid fun. This is why you don’t fuck with things like time and parallel dimensions in movies, not unless you’re really on point. I guess you’re picking up my general vibe here, that these movies are not on point.

At least not for source material that was so good.  

I grew up with this stuff, man. I was an awkward, no-sport-playing, no-booty-getting little weirdo who got the shit kicked out of him on a regular basis. I didn’t give a rip about football teams, or basketball players, because those were the kinds of bastards shoving me into lockers and dunking my face in high school toilets. But Marvel gave me protagonists who were freaks, heroes that were social rejects because of the very things that made them heroes. Mutants, dude. These folks might be able to create fireballs or walk through walls . . . but they were never really welcome in the world, nor were they all that slick with the opposite (or even the same) sex.  

How the hell would I not be into that?

Here’s just some of their storylines . . .

* A band of mercenaries have already slaughtered a sewer-dwelling group of mutants known as the Morlocks when they go after the X-Men. One of the originals, Angel, is found crucified and has to have his wings amputated, while Psylocke must fend off what seems to be a sexual assault from another mutant. It was scary and violent as hell.

* Rogue was a teenage badass who had damn-near killed Ms. Marvel (that’s the current theatrical Captain Marvel, in case you were curious). Marvel was super-powerful, like she is now, and Rogue sucked the powers out of her so hard that she basically left a shell of who she used to be. In the process, it messed Rogue up so bad that she was hearing voices and carrying parts of Marvel in her head. It was so bad that she showed up on Charles’ doorstep to beg for help. Needless to say, it was really tense when she became a member of the team and started fighting beside the other X-Men.

* Mutants are naturally a metaphor for any kind of minority that’s dealing with prejudice and oppression. Well, in one of Marvel Comics’ earliest graphic novels, a charismatic preacher starts thumping his Bible, convincing his followers to lynch and murder mutants in service to God. If they wanna survive, the “good” and the “bad” mutants have to join together and stand their ground. I’m not sure anything in comics could get more topical than that, no matter when the story is told.  

But my favorite one was referred to as the Dark Phoenix Saga . . .

The story was told over an extended period of time, beginning with The Uncanny X-Men #101 -108, 1976 – 1977, and concluding in issues #129-138, 1980 . . .

Returning from an encounter in space, Jean Grey is exposed to the deadly radiation of a solar flare. Her abilities, which include telepathy and telekinesis, amp up to nearly godlike levels. She takes on the new identity of Phoenix and continues to do superhero stuff with her teammates for a while. But it becomes obvious that her powers are too great to control. She consumes a star, which causes the destruction of an entire solar system, killing five billion innocent people. The other X-Men try to defend her when an alien race seeks justice, but she has a sudden realization of what she’s become.

She chooses to kill herself to save the universe from the Dark Phoenix.

There’s former Avengers in the story, plus the Kree and Skrull empires. The overall arc involved a bunch of complications, some of them a bit convoluted, and it took a few years to get where it was going. But the final result of all of that . . .

Damn.

It was kinda how Marvel Studios played the Thanos saga. In a way that was fulfilling and tragic, full of pathos, laughter, tears, and cheers. Events in the first three phases had built up over a ten-year period, reaching into the individual films of numerous characters in diverse areas of the expanding Marvel universe. In the final product, when the shit hit the fan in ENDGAME, every major character (and many of the minor ones) had meaningful parts to play before the credits rolled.

For those of us who didn’t get laid that much in high school, this movie was like a volcanic comic book orgasm all over the silver screen. The entire week after that first viewing was like one long post-coital cigarette. But now, with the onanistic afterglow fading, we’ve gotta come back down to this shit.  

They really dicked it up the first time, these X-Men movies. I mean, the first two, yeah, they worked alright. You know, outside of massive changes to the storylines. All of that Stryker business in X-Men United, that was basically the “charismatic preacher” plot I was telling you about . . . and it was okay. Then the ending, with Jean stuck in the bottom of a lake after saving her teammates, that was her solar flare. Kinda clumsy, but had the next movie brought her back with a crazy increase in her power, then built the rest of it up over a couple films . . . maybe.

But no.

Honestly, I can’t even talk about the third X-Men movie.

Several years later they came back with X-Men: First Class. Despite my major disappointment with the previous one, I lowered my expectations and managed to enjoy it. I mean, it had Kevin Bacon playing a Nazi douchebag, so there’s that. Besides, by this time we’d had two forgettable Hulk movies and an exceptionally shitty Spider-man movie (only one of these films had actually been done by Marvel Studios), so I was getting used to disappointment. At least there wasn’t a Saturday Night Fever homage with Xavier in his wheelchair.

There was Days of Future Past, which was okay, and then that poor man’s Thanos character in X-Men: Apocalypse. Again, not much more than dumbass fun from an increasingly dumbass series. No shame in that, I guess, since I unapologetically enjoy every one of the Fast and the Furious movies. Except that Marvel Studios had officially started their reign with Iron Man in 2008. They had already begun to show the world how their stories should be done. Yeah, none of those first few were perfect either, but you could see their world building itself.

And now Fox had decided to try their hand at the Phoenix story again.

Yeah, I’ll admit it, I got a little excited. I should have known better, but I never go into a theater wanting to be disappointed. I’ve been known to play elaborate games with my own brain just to trick myself into liking a movie. Hey, look, it’s not directed by Michael Bay, that’s a bonus! Or, hey, at least that preachy old bastard who runs the self-checkout cash registers at work doesn’t have a cameo role. There’s no limit to the bullshit I’ll tell myself to feel my movie-viewing budget hasn’t been wasted.

Had I known that the same dude who wrote their first attempt at Phoenix was writing this one . . . I dunno, man. Yeah, I’m a writer myself, so I don’t wanna take a huge peanut-filled shit all over someone else’s work. But really? Like, didn’t you guys learn anything the first time? If nothing else, didn’t you learn to leave the writer alone so he can work? Because, apparently, he said that he wanted to do it right this time. Well, good news, pal. You weren’t the factor that fucked it up. I mean, you didn’t help, but I wouldn’t blame you for the final product. Not entirely, anyway. Though there are concerns that might have been remedied by a sturdier script.

Like when an out-of-control Jean Grey seeks Magneto, retired now and living on some kinda mutant hippie commune. She’s covered in blood because – spoiler alert, if anyone cares – she’s just killed his old flame, Mystique. She doesn’t tell him, of course, but asks how to make the killing stop . . . because, I guess, there’s no other person in the whole fucking world she could ask this question. Magneto is a changed man, though. He tells her that his entire life was all about vengeance, but he realized that it did no good. To prove his change of heart, when the military helicopters show up to take her away, he protects them from her wrath and helps them to get away uninjured.

Ten minutes later, when Hank shows up to tell him about Mystique: I’m gonna kill the bitch.

Or how the entire mutant population is okay with the world. Kids are flashing their X-Men action figures and asking for autographs. Charles is hanging out with the president. Hell, there’s probably reality shows about mutants now. Then one incident happens with Jean – one incident – and the president has stopped taking Chuck’s calls and everyone’s talking about internment camps.

How about some character development that you don’t just ditch as soon as the plot dictates it? How about some gradual progression here, folks? Like, maybe someone doesn’t get on an elevator with a mutie, or some racist-looking old white dude says he always figured they’d turn on him. Instead, you go right for the Dachau. Yeah, there’s the runtime to think about (and this son-of-a-bitch already seemed a bit long), but jeez. The whole damn thing felt like a DC movie.

But it’s Marvel Studios, man, that’s what did it. We’ve been getting these movies now that actually have everything that most of the old superhero movies lacked. There’s a plan, first of all. There are back stories that are more than just fill-in-the-blanks. There’s humanity, and smaller, quiet moments where characters can just breathe and let us get to know them. There’s character development, goddammit.

Yeah, Jean looks as good in that white t-shirt as Black Widow does in those leather pants. But that might not be the best selling point to have in common with your Marvel competition. If I wanted to see good actors wasted in green screen roles, I’d just stay home and watch the Star Wars prequel trilogy over and over again. At least that has Darth Maul and pod races. I smiled a couple times, but I never really felt invested in Dark Phoenix. Most of this left me feeling entertained but hollow.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate it. While I was in the theater, I managed to lose myself in the sights and sounds coming from the screen. It was alright to see these characters again, probably for one of the last times before Marvel gets a crack at them. It’ll probably be a while before we start to see my favorite mutants again, though it will happen. It’s gonna be hard to replace Jackman and Stewart, no doubt. But, in the right hands, I think it’s all gonna be even better. And that’s what I kept thinking as I watched the Dark Phoenix exploding again . . . this isn’t the official version.        

– j. meredith

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