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Francis Fukuyama

Rage Against: X-Men – Dark Phoenix (2019)

Dark Phoenix is not quite the coda to the X-Men franchise that you might have expected going in.

For quite some time now, general feeling among a large swathe of the movie going audience invested in comic book cinema has been the belief that Dark Phoenix would be a significant let down. Despite the critical successes, even taking into account their flaws, of X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past, X-Men: Apocalypse was a strong case of diminishing returns (critically and financially as it turns out) which took a lot of air out of the X-Men balloon when it came to enthusiasm for the next generation of the franchise – having established new versions of Jean Grey, Cyclops, Storm etc… to help presumably carry the X-Men saga into a new era. With Bryan Singer no longer involved in the production due to the allegations against him, and long-term writer Simon Kinberg making his directorial debut, plus the usual report of reshoots of the final act and the film’s release being pushed back over half a year, the omens for Dark Phoenix outdoing Apocalypse and providing a satisfying end to this iteration of the saga were low. Perhaps the biggest surprise about Dark Phoenix, in which case, is that it *is* a better film than Apocalypse and just about accomplishes what it sets out to do.

Let me state this clearly for the record: Dark Phoenix is not a great X-Men film, or comic-book movie in general. When up against the heights of the medium, be it the Marvel Cinematic Universe at its peak or The Dark Knight trilogy, Dark Phoenix cannot compete. It is at times noisy. It can be unintentionally funny in how overwrought the central story finds itself. It suffers from some of the worst villains in the entirety of comic book cinema. It ignores elements of its own continuity and numerous character arcs for expediency. Plus it lacks a great deal of depth when it comes to the underpinnings geopolitical and social aspects that made the X-Men films more than just effects-driven spectacles. It focuses so tightly on one character journey in particular that much of the saga’s entertaining subtext is rejected. Yet despite all of this, it is not incoherent. It is a better adaptation of ‘The Dark Phoenix Saga’, the 1980 comic story from Chris Claremont and John Byrne, than X-Men: The Last Stand gave us. It does manage to give key characters Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr, as well as Jean Grey of course, dramatic through-lines which tether to the core narrative in a satisfying way.

And, perhaps as best it could, Dark Phoenix gives a level of closure to the X-Men franchise that we can probably live with.

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The Middle Age of Laddism: Men Behaving Badly (Series 5, 6 + Last Orders)

Celebrated 1990’s British sitcom Men Behaving Badly recently returned to UK Netflix, which feels like a good opportunity to explore a show which helped define its decade, series by series. Has it stood the test of time?

Men Behaving Badly, across its final two series, sees the misadventures of Gary Strang and Tony Smart slide out of the laddism culture they propagated and into the earliest vestiges of comfortable middle age. You can feel the show doing the same along with them.

In the year 1996, Men Behaving Badly was at its cultural peak as Series 5 began to dawn, but this coincided with a significant cultural challenger to the New Lad thanks to, just two weeks after the series premiered, the arrival of the Spice Girls. Their debut single ‘Wannabe’ hit the charts in July of that year and launched the single biggest musical sensation in Britain since The Beatles over three decades earlier. Where in the swinging Sixties, Beatlemania sent legions of young people into paroxysms of excitement, the Cool Britannia of the 90’s saw the impact of ‘Girl Power’ and Geri Halliwell dressed in a Union Jack mini-skirt, the impending dawn of New Labour, the most liberal government in decades, and the Austin Powers franchise which threw everything back to a halcyon age of British ‘coolness’, injected this time with a call to female empowerment in a Britain filled with a renewed sense of optimism as it sailed toward a new century and a new millennium.

In retrospect, two men deep into their thirties swigging lager, frequently chanting “wa-hey!”, displaying disrespectful and sexist attitudes to women, indulging in infidelity and becoming almost disturbingly obsessed with sex, feels starkly retrograde in the face of the changing face of British popular culture in the late-1990’s. Men Behaving Badly was still popular, and Series 5 remains enjoyable, but it is clear that the show has passed its Series 4 peak at the true apex of lad culture, and in some respects had said everything it had to say. Writer Simon Nye spends the last few seasons continuing to mellow both Gary and Tony, not to mention their relationships with endlessly patient women in their lives Dorothy and Deborah, beginning the process of moving the show to being about not just two mates ‘and their birds’, but two couples who grow ever closer as friends and, to a degree, a dysfunctional, surrogate family. By the end of Series 6 and Last Orders, the final three concluding specials, Dorothy and Deborah feel as integral to the storytelling as Gary and Tony. Their importance grows as these two men, in their own way, slowly and surely begin to grow up.

By the final episode, Delivery, there is an argument that you could start calling this show People Behaving Responsibly.

Alias – ‘The Prophecy’ (1×16)

If The Box was the episode which transformed first season of Alias from a narrative perspective, The Prophecy is the episode which sees Alias finally embrace the fact it exists on a fine line of two distinctive genres.

It is hard to look past The Prophecy as perhaps the most important episode of Season 1 of Alias, indeed it may well be one of the most important episodes of the entire series. The Prophecy is the episode which embraces and contextualises the Rambaldi mythology in a way JJ Abrams’ series has thus far been hesitant to do. John Eisendrath’s script acknowledges that the reveal at the end of Page 47, which saw the key page of Milo Rambaldi’s 500-year old manuscript unveil an image of our heroine Sydney Bristow, was a moment Alias could never come back from. 

This was the moment Alias becomes as much science-fiction as it has been pure, pulpy espionage.