A film review by Craig J. Koban June 15, 2019


2019, PG-13, 121 mins.


Sophie Turner as Jean Grey / Dark Phoenix  /  James McAvoy as Charles Xavier / Professor X  /  Michael Fassbender as Erik Lensherr / Magneto  /  Jennifer Lawrence as Raven Darkholme / Mystique  /  Jessica Chastain as Lilandra Neramani  /  Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy / Beast  /  Evan Peters as Peter Maximoff / Quicksilver  /  Tye Sheridan as Scott Summers / Cyclops  /  Kodi Smit-McPhee as Kurt Wagner / Nightcrawler  /  Alexandra Shipp as Ororo Munroe / Storm

Written and directed by Simon Kinberg

There's an unintentionally hilarious - and quite meta - line of dialogue uttered during DARK PHOENIX, the twelfth installment in Fox's X-MEN-centric film franchise and the direct sequel to 2016's X-MEN: APOCALYPSE.  

During this scene we see former mass human murdering mutant turned at peace with himself communal hippie once again turned hostile Erik "Magneto" Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) getting fed up with frenemy Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his rhetoric, and bluntly tells him "You're always sorry, Charles.  And there's always a speech.  And nobody cares." 

That last part pretty much sums up my feelings about this latest effort in 20th Century Fox's (soon to be Disney's) Marvel Comics inspired X-MEN cinematic universe.  

I found it inordinately hard to really care about anyone and anything in DARK PHOENIX, mostly because this sequel feels like one last pathetic grasp to return this series to past glory days, only instead falling flat and disappointingly short.  Leaving my screening I was whisked back to my memories of the franchise introductory chapter from nearly 20 years ago in Bryan Singer's X-MEN, which came out long before super hero shared universes were even a popular entity at the box office.  That film spawned sequels ranging from serviceable to superb, leading up to a soft series reboot in 2011's X-MEN FIRST CLASS, which ended up retrofitting and seriously messing around with an already convoluted timeline.  DARK PHOENIX is not the complete qualitative dumpster fire I was expecting going in.  It contains some committed performances and embraces (for lack of better descriptor) its comic bookiness.  But the resulting film is still messily constructed, lazily scripted, and half heartedly directed.  Plus, it feels like such a wasteful effort in trying to repurpose an iconic comic book storyline that was already attempted in a previous X-MEN film with equally spotty end results. 



The X-MEN were last seen battling a centuries old mutant in Apocalypse in an entry that had strong potential, but inevitably and mournfully contained a titular villain that was sort of ill defined and not totally compelling on the page.  This time writer/director Simon Kinberg (writer of many of the previous X-MEN films and replacing Singer behind the camera, in his feature film directorial debut) wants to explore the classic "Dark Phoenix" comic book narrative by writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne, which is considered Holy Grail material by many Marvel Comics readers.  DARK PHOENIX, as mentioned, is the second attempt at appropriating this storyline to the big screen after 2005's X-MEN: LAST STAND, a sequel that was panned by most (myself excluded).  Ironically enough, Kinberg was also part of the creative team behind THE LAST STAND, so I can understand his willingness to want to revisit this beloved material and pay it off more faithfully and successfully.  Yet, what makes DARK PHOENIX all the more unacceptably substandard is the fact that it feels like Kinberg and company are attempting cram a trilogy's worthy of epic storytelling into one barely two hour film, leaving the whole affair being undercooked and rushed. 

The movie at least opens with some modest promise, during which time we are given a prologue in the past that re-introduces us to telepathic mutant Jean Grey as a child that's involved in a horrific car accident that kills her mother and injured her father...all of which was caused by her maturing powers going haywire.  Professor Xavier swoops in and takes the traumatized Grey to his school for gifted youngsters, and we then flashfoward to the present (1992, more on this series headache inducing timeline in a bit), where she (Sophie Turner) has become a fully fledged team member of the X-Men, which have become beloved heroes in the public eye.  Early in the film the team - Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) - journey out into space to rescue a stranded space shuttle crew, and while orbiting the Earth Jean accidentally absorbs a massive cosmic cloud that later gives her godlike powers and a very dark and evil nasty streak that she can't control.   

As she comes back home after this successful mission she comes to fully realize what a damaging force she has become to not only herself, but to others around her.  Her plight is not assisted by the emergence of an alien - disguised as a human (how original!) - named Vok (an utterly wasted Jessica Chastain), who tries to fan the flame of Jean's ever escalating turn to the mutant dark side.  When Jean psychotically snaps after a violent confrontation with Xavier and her fellow X-Men, she goes on the run, trying to find solace and refuge with her former enemy in Magneto, who now leaves a peaceful retirement in a mutant refugee camp well away from the rest of humanity (how Magneto managed to escaped prosecution and lifelong imprisonment for his heinous crimes in the previous X-MEN outings and instead lives freely is never once explored or explained here).  Unfortunately for her, Magneto shuns her away when he learns about her hostile turn for the worse, which leads to him coming out of retirement and complicating things immensely.

I'm not even sure where to even begin with dissecting what went wrong with DARK PHOENIX.  Lets start with something simple (or...maybe not so simple), like its 1990s setting.  The previous X-MEN films had fun exploring their respective past decades, but DARK PHOENIX contains virtually no endearing nods or winks to its 1992 era settings, which seems like a creative waste.  Plus, I simply don't understand the aging process of the characters here when compared relatively to the past sequels and established timeline.  X-MEN: FIRST CLASS established Magneto as a 12-year-old Holocaust survivor born in 1930, which means that - according to simple math - he should be 62-years-old in DARK PHOENIX, but no attempt whatsoever has been made to even modestly apply some aging makeup to Fassbender or any of the other characters.  This baddie looks as young as he did in 1960's set FIRST CLASS.  This is either attributed to sloppy filmmaking and lazy production values...or just a fundamental lack of caring on the maker's part. 

Speaking of production values, DARK PHOENIX looks uninspired and pretty inexpensive looking despite its whopping $200 million price tag.  For example, APOCALYPSE set up very cool and semi-comics accurate costumes for the team during its finale.  DARK PHOENIX oddly abandons that and gives them cheap looking jumpsuits that look like bad cosplays.  To be fair, there are instances of visual ingenuity here and there, but for the most part this sequel boasts VFX that seem well below the type of upper echelon levels that we should all be frankly expecting from films like this being banked by massive studio capitol.  Now, the film did undergo some pretty well publicized - and I'm guessing costly - reshoots, which obviously ballooned the budget here.  The reshoots don't necessarily stick out negatively and strongly in the final product, but the overall ho-hum nature of the film's aesthetic look does.  More often than not, DARK PHOENIX has the appearance of a semi-polished television series, but it's woefully not up to the same previously established cinematic standards of the X-MEN feature films. 

Aside from that, the writing in DARK PHOENIX really betrays it too, especially for how clunky and clumsy the screenplay execution is here.  Previous franchise iterations always worked well on thematic levels, using the mutants and their relationship to mankind as a parable about race relations.  That whole subtext of these super hero outsiders trying to gain an acceptance by fearful humans gave the X-MEN films an intriguing soul and absorbing narrative trajectory, which is pretty much abandoned in DARK PHOENIX.  The film opts to focus on the plight of Jean Grey, who was just briefly introduced in the last X-MEN film and not enough for us to care for her hellish turn in this story.  The prologue hints at hidden character depths and a complicated relationship to Xavier, but it's so glossed over and hastily constructed that we never really grow to appreciate this young woman being ravaged and consumed by an awesome power she can't control.  The alien antagonists  (led by a mostly sleepwalking through her role Chastain) are such groan-inducing letdowns as well, which are barely developed and defined as a truly awe inspiring cosmic threat.  They're essentially a mechanical construction of the plot designed to move it forward...and not much else. 

Everything builds towards a reasonably exciting, but too little, too late climax on board a runaway train that involves Xavier, Magneto and team once again becoming impromptu allies to thwart this alien menace and stop Jean before she does more irreparable harm.  Even though this section is the only time the film seems to be developing a propulsive heartbeat, it nevertheless is built upon obligatory franchise arcs that stymies whatever strong emotional payoff this final act wants to have.  And the performances are a decided mixed bag as well, with the always reliable Fassbender and McAvoy leading the charge, imparting what class they can on an already low stakes and malnourished script.  Sophie Turner is also decent as the doomed Jean Grey, even though she goes on a character journey that could have been better formed and nurtured over multiple films.  Jennifer Lawrence, as she did in the last X-MEN outing, seems strangely stiff and mannered in DARK PHOENIX; she's capable and established as one of our greatest actresses working today, but all of the energy seems zapped out her work as Mystique.  It's a contractual commitment level of presence by the Oscar winner here, and not much else. 

The big elephant in the room is the recent acquisition of Fox by Disney, which left the X-MEN movie saga in a precarious pre-release position.  With the nagging and inescapable notion that the House of Mouse will absolutely reboot this series under the larger MCU, it's hard to overcome the mindset that DARK PHOENIX is simply not required viewing in hindsight.  And it's sad to report that DARK PHOENIX is kind of lifelessly anticlimactic and, worst of all, a pretty dull and lackluster swan song for this current Fox crop of mutant filled blockbusters.  These well established characters certainly deserved a finer sense of closure and a memorable send off.  DARK PHOENIX isn't so much categorically awful as much as it is bland and disposable.  I'm quite sure, though, that the X-MEN will triumphantly rise from the ashes like...ya know...and see greener movie pastures as part of the MCU, leaving this film feeling like a throwaway placeholder effort for betters things to come.

  H O M E