Movie Review: ‘Dark Phoenix’ is a new low for the X-Men
Director: Simon Kinberg
Writers: Simon Kingberg, John Byrne (story “The Dark Phoenix Saga”), Chris Claremont (story “The Dark Phoenix Saga”), Dave Cockrum (story “The Dark Phoenix Saga”)
Stars: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Jessica Chastain, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner
Synopsis: Jean Grey begins to develop incredible powers that corrupt and turn her into a Dark Phoenix. Now the X-Men will have to decide if the life of a team member is worth more than all the people living in the world.
It feels like the X-Men franchise has been hanging on by a thread for a few years now. The series’ most popular character, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, took his final bow with 2017’s beloved Logan and X-Men: Apocalypse was met with critical jeers and a disappointing domestic box office haul. This iteration of the franchise’s fate was basically decided when Disney scooped up Fox and, with it, the X-Men. Dark Phoenix always felt like a bit of an afterthought in the eyes of the public. I never would have guessed that it would have felt like just as much an afterthought to the studio, filmmakers, and performers. Dark Phoenix is a shell of a film, full of half-baked ruminations, stilted characters and dialogue, muddled motivations, and frustrating directorial shortcomings. Like the mythical phoenix, the X-Men have been reduced to ash. Unfortunately for these heroes, there is no hope for them to rise from the debris.
Dark Phoenix takes place, primarily, in 1992, 30 years after the events of X-Men: First Class, when we were first introduced to the James McAcvoy and Michael Fassbender versions of Professor Xavier and Magneto. One could point out that it makes no sense that these characters look essentially the same as they did 30 years ago and are supposed to look like 60-year-old Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan in 8 years, but the X-Men franchise has made it abundantly clear that continuity is the last thing on anyone’s mind when it comes to this series, and that’s mostly fine. It is important to look at these films, at least partly, in a vacuum. After a miraculous survival from a dangerous accident in outer space, Jean Grey (AKA the titular Dark Phoenix) returns to Earth with her powers extremely amplified. The remainder of the surprisingly thinly-plotted film is spent following two factions searching for Jean as she struggles to cope with her new, almost limitless power.
The crux of the X-Men has always been the treatment of mutants by non-mutants (especially the government), with Professor X and Magneto originally conceived as proxies for Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Dark Phoenix immediately establishes that 1992 is a period of peace between Professor X’s colleagues and the government. In fact, Xavier’s office has a direct line to the office of the President. This is a story about individuals coping with past and future choices, not about a marginalized group looking for equality. The idea of a more personal, small-scale conflict seems good on paper, but this rehash of the much-maligned X-Men: The Last Stand manages to not only fumble the story, once again, but it reaches depths that even Brett Ratner’s film couldn’t.
There is a sense of apathy looming over nearly every part of Dark Phoenix, with no one more apathetic than Jennifer Lawrence, a terrific actress who checked out of this franchise long ago. There are still some performers really going for it (especially Michael Fassbender, who has been the standout since his introduction), but there have been no truly refreshing changes in the foundation of the series (outside of Logan, perhaps, a film that operates better when you don’t consider it a part of the connected universe of films) in almost a decade. The series has been handed off to a younger cast far too quickly with an expectation that we understand the characters because of the actors that played older versions of the same characters in Bryan Singer’s X-Films. We know little of Jean Grey, the film’s main character played by Sophie Turner. She was the deus ex machina of Apocalypse and has had little done to develop her narrative or thematic thread. Dark Phoenix does a bit of this, early on, with a flashback to her childhood, but her story is rote and tired.
With her motivations and trials halfheartedly established, we understand that Jean is easily corruptible, looking for guidance and desperate for someone who truly has her best interests at heart. Attempting to steal her new powers and destroy the world is Jessica Chastain’s character, credited as Vuk. Vuk is an alien creature who has taken over the body of a human and whose motivation and backstory is apparently not important to writer/director Simon Kinberg. We are to understand that she is bad and that is supposed to be enough, apparently. She is merely a disruptive force, trying to push Jean away from the teachings of Professor X, who has raised her since she was a child but whose motivations Jean now seems weary of. This is another example of the movie trying to operate as a meditative one, focusing primarily of Jean’s psyche, not nearly as interested in one-off villains. And that would all be great if we weren’t also treated to monotonous set pieces set on city streets and sometimes excruciating dialogue (Kinberg continues to try to beat his own record for the least effective, most cringeworthy use of an expletive in a PG-13 movie. Sadly, I don’t know that he can ever beat, “I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!” from The Last Stand). Every time the film gets any sort of momentum, something drags it back down into the muck. I know the greatest antagonist of the film is supposed to be Jean Grey’s own psyche, but can we at least give two-time Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain something to do? Anything at all?
In traditional superhero movie fashion, the film wraps up with its biggest set piece, this one set on a train. The action here is genuinely clever and has character, something that the rest of the film is lacking. When the final battle is the best part of your movie (it is usually the worst part of a big blockbuster like this), something has probably gone wrong. Perhaps the infamous reshoot of the film’s ending forced the scale of the grand finale to shrink a bit, but that can be good, and it is in line with what the rest of the film seems to be striving for. Is it a great finale? No, but it feels as close to successfully capturing a vision as the film gets.
Overall, Dark Phoenix is probably the worst entry into the X-Men franchise since the abysmal X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It has been a downhill ride for the last decade of X-Men team-up films, with everything from performances, to make-up, to production design, to direction gradually getting worse. It is abundantly clear that this series has run out of steam, even if there was a whiff of a unique type of storytelling. After nearly two decades, the X-Men will finally be out of the grasp of Bryan Singer. You can’t convince me that isn’t a good thing. So, take a few years off, Professor X, and we’ll see you when Mickey decides that the stench of Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix has worn off.
Overall Grade: D+
Hear our podcast review on Episode 329, coming soon.