X-Men: Dark Phoenix, 2019.
Written and Directed by Simon Kinberg.
Starring Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Jessica Chastain. Nicholas Hoult, Evan Peters, Tye Sheridan, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, Daniel Cudmore, Lamar Johnson, Kota Eberhardt, Scott Shepherd, Summer Fontana, Ato Essandoh, Gregg Lowe, Andrew Stehlin, and Brian d’Arcy James.
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.
Dark Phoenix takes place in 1992 (the year is pretty meaningless considering absolutely nothing in the movie evokes the time period and no one has aged) starts off with the X-Men pulling off a rescue mission in space. Currently, the superheroes are enough in the good graces of human beings to coexist, so much to the point where James McAvoy’s always outstanding Charles Xavier has a direct line to the president for collaboration and carrying out joint tasks with the government. That’s all well and good, but this opening sequence is blatantly written and directed by someone inexperienced; Simon Kinberg may be a well-known producer and scriber, especially on this 20 years-running franchise coming to a close, but he seems to lack the wherewithal on how to structure or present a movie.
There is next to no connection emotionally to this space rescue mission, yet it’s treated like the climax to any blockbuster, complete with an overbearing musical score and disorienting theatrics. If you walked into Dark Phoenix playing on your neighbor’s television during the introduction, you would be forgiven for assuming that the ending is near. And I wish I could say that the script and flow of the narrative get better, but there also seems to be a huge chunk of story missing, as if the movie has no middle act. There is a huge action sequence around halfway through that occurs, that admittedly is fairly exciting and fun to watch, but feels as if it should be followed up by some cooldown character-driven beats and dialogue rather than jumping straight into the final battle.
For as bleak as things may sound already, I’m not here to tell you that Dark Phoenix is the depressing disaster or hilarious trainwreck you may have expected going in. It’s still not good (and that’s coming from an X-Men apologist that gave Apocalypse a passing grade), but it’s mostly just wasted potential. Gripes with the execution of the daring rescue aside, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is exposed to a cosmic blast that grants her enhanced abilities beyond what Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Professor Xavier can scientifically and supernaturally comprehend. The side effects manifest in anger and rage (both of which are difficult to keep under control once she learns of something upsetting regarding her past and the X-Men), and also desire (she seems to be horny for Tye Sheridan’s Cyclops, and not just because they already have a romance going on. One character even comments that she’s thirsty).
Without giving away too many details, driving the conflict is a big lie, but one that can also be perceived as protecting Jean from overwhelming trauma. She already had trouble controlling her powers as a child as a result, so it’s understandable why a certain character would want to do whatever is necessary to limit her power. The dynamic also takes this character and paints them in a morally compromised light which is intriguing considering they are generally portrayed as saintlike. In other words, the ingredients are here for a character-driven superhero extravaganza (the likes of which made the original trilogy so popular and the first two films of this continuation of the franchise also catch on), but the script never commits to getting inside the head of anyone, whether it be Jean who is now trying to find her place in the world or the characters trying to come to terms with their past decisions/mistakes.
There are so many aspects taking focus away from Jean’s character arc it’s a chore in itself to recount them all. Most unnecessary is Jessica Chastain running around as part of an alien race with her own army of indestructible beings (they can also assume the identities of anyone they touch similar to the group from Captain Marvel); she’s the most generic kind of villain with boring motives and needs to go. At the very least, Dark Phoenix needs to be split up into two movies, introducing her villain towards the end. Even the romance that should theoretically be at the center of the movie is given no time, and some people might be unable to buy into it in the first place factoring in that Apocalypse didn’t set much of this up well while Dark Phoenix doesn’t organically transition the series into the story being told. Take Jennifer Lawrence returning as Raven; she has limited screen time and appears disinterested in everything going on.
The saving grace here is the battle sequences, which is really no surprise for X-Men movies. Unfortunately, the film does feel the need to also serve as a greatest hits packages of these movies, but if we’re going to see Xavier and Magneto (Michael Fassbender, basically doing a glorified cameo) use their respective mutants to fight it out once again, it’s lovely of the filmmakers to at least give us awesome visuals such as dozens and dozens of guns being levitated off the ground firing into one of the aforementioned aliens. Jean’s meltdowns also do a good job at illustrating just how powerful and destructive she is (although the CGI is beyond weak and needs to be better for a movie of this size). First-half chaos also benefits from containing fewer characters, thus having more intimacy to the damage being done; one major character death is done as well as can be considering the drop off in quality the series has gone through.
The hard truth is that it’s going to benefit the franchise in the long run now being owned by Disney, whether they choose to reboot the whole thing or continue on. Recent X-Men movies always have spectacle and Dark Phoenix delivers on that front (there’s only one action sequence that is badly directed, mostly because it constantly cuts around to numerous characters, juggling too much), but they are getting crushed in the department of emotional storytelling for their universe (discounting Logan which is the greatest comic book film ever made). To be fair, just about every other cinematic universe gets wrong what Marvel gets right. Monopolization is never a good thing, but at least we might get some legitimately good X-Men movies again that I can recommend for more than exciting set-pieces that really get the feel of these superpowers right.
Both Dark Phoenix and Captain Marvel are superheroine blockbusters that deal with similar themes (emotions making someone stronger, not weaker), bestow the character with godly powers that could decimate any other character in their respective universes, boast familiar aesthetic styles, introduce a new species, and take place in the 90s. The comparisons are impossible to notice, but Dark Phoenix is Captain Meh.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com