X-Men: Dark Phoenix, 2019.
Directed by Simon Kinberg.
Starring Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Jessica Chastain, Tye Sheridan, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Evan Peters and Alexandra Shipp.
Jean Grey grapples with her identity, and her relationship with the X-Men, as she struggles to harness the Phoenix force within her.
As the latest, and possibly final, entry in the X-Men franchise winds its way into cinemas, there’s an elephant in the room. Well, it’s not an elephant exactly, but an annoyingly chirpy mouse and his accompanying multi-billion dollar juggernaut of pop culture domination. These characters have been under the stewardship of 20th Century Fox since they first came to the big screen 20 years ago, but now they’re in the hands of Disney, putting them in something of an uncertain limbo.
But before they go, there’s the surprisingly solid Dark Phoenix. Coming in the wake of X-Men: Apocalypse – a CGI spectacular of emptiness – this was a film tasked with reworking one of the franchise’s most notoriously bungled plots in the shape of Jean Grey’s transformation into the titular foe, which was sidelined in the widely derided – but actually okay – X-Men: The Last Stand. Stepping into the director’s chair for the first time, long-term X-Men scribe Simon Kinberg is up to the challenge.
As the film begins, the team established at the end of Apocalypse heads off to rescue a shuttle in orbit (“We’re doing space missions now? Cool,” quips Evan Peters’ Quicksilver) that risks disaster as a result of a solar flare. The rescue is carried out, but almost at the cost of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), who absorbs the force of the flare. Back on Earth, it becomes clear something inside her has changed, and that force is manipulated by a shapeshifting alien (Jessica Chastain), causing Jean to spiral further out of control.
There’s a refreshing simplicity to Dark Phoenix at a time when superhero movies are becoming increasingly complex. Without the time-bending plotting of Days of Future Past or the incoherent carnage of Apocalypse, Kinberg is able to craft a more character-driven comic book adventure. This is very much a film about the fracturing and splintering of Jean’s psyche, ably played by Turner, visibly relishing her promotion to leading lady as much as she enjoyed taking her rightful place on the throne of Winterfell.
Meanwhile, questions are also asked of James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier, whom the movie positions as a leader basking in the glory of his team’s successes – now lauded as heroes after years of persecution. He’s arrogant and irresponsible, making bad decisions that put the lives of his team members in danger, pitting him against the more moderate and careful Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), who are effectively the generals leading the young team into action.
Kinberg grounds Dark Phoenix as the story of both Jean and Charles being challenged by the consequences of their actions and it allows the two of them to deliver some of the best performances the franchise has seen to date. Turner, in particular, excels in what is effectively a dual role as a scared adolescent dealing with explosive physical and emotional changes – that one’s for you, obvious metaphor fans! – and the uber-confident, powerful Phoenix, rising from the ashes of her tragic past.
But that’s not to say that the film scrimps on the action. The set pieces are controlled and striking, with an early scene providing a neat twist on the now trademark Quicksilver bullet time sequences and Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Nightcrawler dealing out brutality that tests the limits of a family-friendly classification. Kinberg’s love for the characters and their powers shines through clearly as his direction possesses the carefree joy of a delighted kid getting to play with toys he has always coveted from the other side of the room.
And as much as this is a film about spectacle and excitement, there’s also something bittersweet about it. Whether it was initially intended as such or not, Dark Phoenix is ultimately a movie that understands its status as a farewell to characters who have thrilled audiences for two decades. There’s closure for Charles and his frenemy Magneto (Michael Fassbender) in a tenderly played scene, while all of the central characters get neat bows tied on their narrative arcs. If the heavily reconstructed final act occasionally bears the tangled hallmarks of the ‘Land of the Reshoots’, it’s only to ensure that the conclusion is satisfying, which it largely is.
This is a film asked to serve a lot of purposes and, as such, it occasionally feels a little frenetic and scrappy. This doesn’t bear the precise gloss of an X2 or a Days of Future Past and it doesn’t feel destined to be a memorable chapter of the current superhero boom. However, it is a well-engineered and expertly performed story that brings to an end a franchise that arguably doesn’t get enough credit for helping to transform iconic characters from the page to the screen, with much of their colour still intact. If Dark Phoenix is the last we see of these mutants for a while, it’s a fitting final chapter.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.