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
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
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.
production values, DARK PHOENIX looks uninspired and pretty inexpensive
looking despite its whopping $200 million price tag.
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.
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
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.