20 June 2019

Mutatis mutandis

Jennifer Lawrence: end of the lineJennifer Lawrence: end of the line

Or maybe, sic transit gloria Stewart. Bryan Singer has been cancelled, leaving behind only several fine films and my 1700 words about some of them and the qualities of X-Men 2, although Dark Phoenix would probably have been the end of the line after 19 years anyway. The last two X-Films were schizoid, grasping for modern qualities without much conviction about why they should bother; but on some level Singer’s films have all been about the fate of older classical inclinations in a cinema industry that wants to be a digital delivery system for the works of people like Simon Kinberg, the man who wrote Mr & Mrs Smith and somehow made Angelina Jolie look bland. Kinberg directs Dark Phoenix like a man who’s definitely going to book five rain machines for the funeral scene and so it duly transpires, despite a fine and novel opening in which the X-Men are called to action and blast off on a space rescue like Thunderbirds, a collective proactive adventure rather than any of the introvert teary moping that the Avengers films have sunk into. Once the digital images really kick in they create what they always create if left to their own devices: a weirdly miserable fug of non-thrilling excitement and studio-bound timid reticence, for reasons that have more to do with colour theory and digital images’ aggressive will to power and this era’s massive surplus of cultural production than characters and casts, despite our apparent vow of silence about saying so.

By then Dark Phoenix is being dragged backwards anyway, back to the same Phoenix Saga that was unessential cinema once already in X-Men: The Last Stand. Hardly any doubt by now that comics are irrelevant to comic book films, and Chris Claremont’s four years of careful build up on paper could hardly lead to as modest and unassuming a sense of payoff as Dark Phoenix does by chugging through the whole tragic cycle in one-hour-fifty-four, although the core of the story still has some of the voltage that Claremont put there. Jean Grey’s story takes the X-Mens usual crises of principle and mixes in the much more conventional crises of identity loved by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and of course causes a certain amount of crying, but it still involves stuff about individual change and temptation that Stan Lee understood about the characters in the first place. Kinberg cheats by having a peroxide blonde Jessica Chastain on hand as a nasty alien, relieving Jean Grey of the need to have any authentic villainous thoughts—her one unforgivable sin is an accident of temper rather than evil—but the film still deals in basic questions of personality and its flaws, issues of fate that most of the current culture has blown a fuse rather than grapple with. Just about.

That one accidental sin is to blast Raven Darkhölme sideways onto a spike and Jennifer Lawrence sideways out of her contract. Lawrence has never looked remotely happy doing these films and corralling her talents under prosthetics, and must surely have regretted signing the fateful deal in 2010. Raven’s own crisis of principle in Days Of Future Past was potent enough to justify the whole enterprise, but the accumulated slack elastic means her current easy heroism is hard to square with that crisis in the film before last and her outright turn to villainy in the film before that. It’s an arc with no affect—as good a label as any for this weird mutant storytelling, skilled craftspeople convincing themselves that sequential narratives parcelled out and arriving years apart can be willed to contain solid character arcs when no amount of arm waving actually makes it so. On some level the line from Brett Ratner to Matthew Vaughn to Simon Kinberg with Bryan Singer as a kind of overlapping interference pattern before being banished to the phantom zone contains a few truths about Blockbuster Mechanics, and so does the sight of Jennifer Lawrence spending three and a half films painted blue and directed to down-play. I hope she laughed all the way to the bank; but if so her portrayal of an actor who did not was flawless.


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