**Minor spoilers for Dark Phoenix below; if you care, don't say you weren't warned**
Dark Phoenix, a film which, judging by the box office returns, very few of you have actually seen, is the final film in Fox's X-Men franchise (not counting that New Mutants film which may or may not be a collective fever dream and whose hopes for an actual theatrical release if it does exist are dimming by the day). It's not very good, and though not the worst of the various X-Men films (it's more coherent than the Wolverine origin movie and, really, X-Men: Apocalypse; it also sidesteps some of the problems that bedevil Last Stand even as it repeats some others), in adapting the "Dark Phoenix Saga" for a second time, it continues to display a fundamental ignorance of what makes that story so great on the part of Dark Phoenix writer/director/producer (and Last Stand co-writer) Simon Kinberg (hot tip, things "The Dark Phoenix Saga" isn't about: Jean's childhood trauma, Professor Xavier's hubris, Magneto). But while many of the films' flaws are clearly Kinberg's doing (notably the sequences which are, inexplicably, almost beat-for-beat recreations of similar sequences in Last Stand), many of the flaws are inherited, and not entirely the fault of the film, as they are endemic of the franchise as a whole. Which is to say, the X-Men movies just aren't very fun and exciting. Or, at least, just aren't very fun and exciting in the context of modern superhero movies.
When X-Men debuted in 2000, it was not the first superhero movie, but it was, effectively, the first superhero team movie, and as such, it worked as something of a testing ground for that type of film: could a movie be made with multiple super-powered characters and not be budget-breaking mess of a film? The answer was yes, and the follow-up sequel, X2: X-Men United broke further ground by presenting some of the first truly notable super-powered action sequences of the franchise, especially for the time (chiefly Nightcrawler's attack on the White House in the film's opening moments, and Wolverine's berserker assault on Stryker's forces as they infiltrate the mansion), while also dipping its toes into a higher level of serialization than the average sequel (in its climatic death of Jean Grey, followed by the closing tease of a Phoenix-like image flying over the site of her death).
But these early X-Men films also predate the release of 2008's Iron Man & The Dark Knight, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the subsequent domination of pop culture by superhero narratives, and as such, everyone involved isn't quite sure how the more overtly comic book-y parts of the stories and character they're adapting will play with a larger, non-hardcore audience. So instead of colorful costumes, the X-Men wear black leather suits. Wolverine never puts on a mask. The Phoenix is the result of a psychic break in Jean's mind, not a cosmic force. And all throughout, the films keep front and center the central metaphor at the heart of the X-Men, the "mutants as oppressed other", fighting to protect a world that fear and hates them, mainlining the most serious, dramatic elements of the mythos, as though to assure audiences these movies are more than goofy kids stories and it's okay to like them.
And while those thematic elements of the X-Men are absolutely critical to their success as a comic book and a required element of any adaptation of the concept, the comic book stories still have a sense of fun about them, a touch of the absurd and the fantastic. The stakes may be high, but the tone doesn't have to always be dour. Even at the climax of the most tragic X-Men story, the comic book "Dark Phoenix Saga" features a metal man hurling a self-healing hairy guy with claws at a purple mohawked alien on a habitable section of the moon, and that juxtaposition, between the high drama and the fantastical genre trappings, is what makes comics great. Yet from the beginning, the X-Men films have always seemed ashamed of their comic book roots, downplaying the fun & fantastical aspects of the source material while desperately highlighting the more "grownup" dramatic elements.
Which, in a pre MCU world, was understandable. But since those early X-Men films were released, pop culture has changed. We now live in a world where two of the highest grossing films of all time feature as a central character an over-sized Grimace alien who uses colorful space gems to wipe out half the population of the universe with the snap of his fingers, yet the X-Men films remain afraid to put their characters in anything resembling a superhero costume for more than a few brief moments. The films of the MCU are bright but not fluffy, energetic & quick-witted, capable of tackling stakes both high & low and finding the right balance between theme, characterization, and superhero action. They are not always faithful adaptations of their comic book inspirations, beat-for-beat, but they capture the spirit of the stories they're adapting, both the dramatic and the absurd. They are a close approximation to a live-action comic book and, most of all, even when at their darkest, they're still fun to watch. When was the last time an X-Men movie (X-Men, not Deadpool) was fun for more than a scene or two?
Arguably, it was during X-Men First Class, the zippy, relatively-light, and, yes, fun, mid-franchise reboot of the series (though flawed, it may very well be, ultimately, my favorite of all the X-Men films; X2 is more important, in terms of showing that comic book movies can believably do big screen action, and objectively a better-made film, but these days, given the choice, I'm probably more likely to sit down and rewatch First Class again). Released about a year before The Avengers, the culmination of the first phase of the MCU, and following the twin failures of The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, First Class seemed like an attempt to both resuscitate the franchise and liven it up, to incorporate the newfound thinking about how much "comic book" a general audience will accept in their superhero movies. It still told a story about important themes, and was plenty dark (like the original film, it opens at a concentration camp), but it wasn't self-important and afraid to have fun. It seemed like a step in a necessary direction for the franchise.
Which speaks to another larger problem with the films as a whole: as much as X-Men was proof-of-concept on superhero team films, the X-Men movies are rarely about their titular *team*. Instead, they're about a few central characters (Wolverine, Professor X, Magneto, Jean Grey, Mystique and, early on, a version of Rogue) who are surrounded by other characters who comic book readers probably recognize and do the work of mentally filling in some characterization, but who play thoroughly supporting roles, at best, in the movies. Again, this is in sharp contrast to how the Marvel Cinematic Universe operates. In part because of how the MCU is built (with characters operating in both solo films and collectively as a group), the Avengers characters when appearing in Avengers movies are more than the sum of their parts - there's a sense of who the Avengers are, as a team, and how they work together (and sometimes don't), and everyone is involved in that, to some extent.
Whereas in the X-Men films, everyone who isn't one of a handful of central characters is mostly there just to react to or spark reactions in whomever is the central character of a given movie. Storm, for example, is a bedrock X-Men character in the comics, one who has under her belt story arcs and character development on par with that of Wolverine or Professor X or Jean Grey. In the movies, she exists mostly to shoot lightning at things (even when played by Academy Award winner Halle Berry). Luis, the comic relief sidekick from the Ant-Man movies, has a more developed on-screen character in two movies than Storm does in five (and don't even get me started on the films' treatment of Cyclops...).
(It's worth pausing here for a moment and acknowledging the specter of Bryan Singer in all this, who returned to the franchise he abandoned to make a similarly drab and turgid Superman movie with Days of Future Past. By all accounts, he is a terrible garbage person of the highest order, even if a court of law has yet to declare him as such, and the more the extent of just how terrible his actions are becomes apparent, the harder it becomes to separate the art from the artist. And while Singer hasn't directed all of the X-Men films, they all exist, to some extent, within the confines of his (drab & turgid) vision for the universe, and I'd be lying if I said that hasn't colored some of my recent impressions & reevaluations of the films).
Following Days of Future Past and the return of Bryan Singer, there is X-Men: Apocalypse, a film more open to its comic book roots than any previous one (Apocalypse is a very comic book villain). But it's also a mess. Apocalypse's ultimate goals are...unclear, Magneto (because we can't not have a film without Magneto, apparently) gets yet another hero-villain-hero arc, Mystique is now just one of the X-Men (because Jennifer Lawrence is now a megastar and she definitely can't not be in the movie at this point), and the rest of the promising younger cast (including future Dark Phoenix Sophie Turner) are mostly wasted (in large part because the film needs to make room for arcs for Xavier, Mystique & Magneto, and introduce a bunch of other one-note characters to stand next to Apocalypse). The best part of the movie, arguably, is its closing minutes, in which Mystique prepares to lead the X-Men in a Danger Room session while they are wearing colorful costumes representative of their comic book looks, which, combined with use of characters like Apocalypse & Psylocke in the otherwise disappointing film, suggested that, perhaps, Fox had finally learned their lesson and were willing to steer into the more fun, stylized elements of the franchise, to match the tone the MCU had been using for years, had finally shed its seeming embarrassment of its source material.
But Dark Phoenix instead steers away from all that. The final Apocalypse costumes are gone, replaced, in a sort of sartorial ouroboros, by a look inspired by the Frank Quietly-designed New X-Men uniforms which were, in turn, inspired by the more utilitarian, color-less uniforms of the original film. There are aliens in this adaptation of "Dark Phoenix", and a more cosmic origin for the Phoenix Force (the X-Men even get to go into near-outer space!), but the film remains firmly grounded and earthbound, despite opening a few months after general audiences spent billions of dollars seeing movie where Hawkeye, of all characters, tries to trade his soul on an alien world to the specter of a villain with a red skull. Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique, of course, remains front & center until she's killed off to close out the first act (because it's apparently impossible to adapt "Dark Phoenix"for film without killing off a notable character at the end of the first act), at which point Magneto, who also has nothing to do with the comic book Dark Phoenix saga but is now in charge of a version of the island nation of Genosha which the film couldn't be bothered to identify as such but exists nonetheless because Michael Fassbender demanded it, enters the fray, in order to be on hand for such classic action sequences as "the X-Men try to cross a street" and a climax which is probably the movie's best sequence but which also features inexplicable moments like Nightcrawler going on a killing spree while also instilling a disquieting sense of deja vu regarding the climax of The Last Stand. At least Wolverine doesn't kill Jean at the end of this one.
And so, Dark Phoenix concludes the film saga of the X-Men (at least for now), a middling movie suffering not only from the specific flaws of its adaptation, but from the larger flaws of its lethargic & lackluster franchise, a franchise with a confused relationship with its source material, beholden to the fame of stars playing characters who the creators believe demand the full attention of every script to the detriment of other characters with as much potential to be just as interesting & engaging, embarrassed to embrace the very elements that make these stories fun & unique in their telling. The end result is a franchise containing many films which are, on the whole, okay, a few, perhaps, that I even respect (including Logan, a film which is one of the best of the franchise but isn't really an X-Men film), but very few that I love, or even enjoy revisiting for more than the few standout scenes of each, despite all of them being based on my single favorite group of characters.
A popular meme amongst older comic book fans these days, those of us who grew up in an age when reading comic books and liking these characters was something you kept hidden from everyone else, when the world at large had yet to discover the unique charms of these modern myths, is to say something along the lines of "if I could go back in time and tell my younger self he'd one day live in a world where a movie based on the Avengers was the most popular film out there, he'd think I was crazy!". If I was to go back in time to, say, my thirteen year old self, I don't know which he'd have the harder time believing: that in the future, he'd live in a world where not one, but *twelve* movies had been made based on the X-Men and their characters, or that his adult self was mostly indifferent to all but a few of them.