At The Movies - Reduced To Ash
By Jordan Bosch
The X-Men franchise at Fox should have ended with Logan, and nothing convinces me more of that than seeing Dark Phoenix.
It’s not that the movie is particularly terrible as much as its existence is completely unwarranted and pointless. It’s in the most unenviable position of following not only the best X-Men movie but one of the greatest films of the genre, while preceding an inevitable reboot at the hands of Disney -meaning it’s that much harder to stir up any investment.
Add to that, Dark Phoenix is pathetically vying for attention by adapting one of the best known storylines from the X-Men comics, one that had already been unsuccessfully attempted in 2006.
Thus it feels like a remake of one of the worst X-Men movies, which gives it an association that can’t be doing it any favours. All of which the final product has to contend with and overcome, and it doesn’t. It’s merely spinning its wheels, desperately trying to cling on to some relevancy it no longer has.
Set in the early 1990’s, another ten years after the previous movie (because this series has the most ridiculous timeline), a mission by the X-Men to rescue astronauts from a rocket consumed by a mysterious solar flare results in enhanced abilities in Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) that seem to have uncontrollable, catastrophic repercussions. This combined with the discovery that Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) had intentionally inhibited her mental capabilities, hiding unpleasant memories from her causes her to abandon the X-Men and subsequently come under the wing of a malevolent alien shapeshifter (Jessica Chastain) encouraging her to give in to these destructive impulses.
Screenwriter Simon Kinberg is in the directors’ chair for the first time on this movie, and for a debut effort, it’s mostly competent but bland. There’s never really any compelling editing or compositional choices (in fact there are a few questionable ones, particularly with regards to the death of a major character), the scale is unassuming, the action set-pieces are really standard, and while individual scenes play out evenly, the pacing of the story itself lags. The third act battle feels like it belongs in the second, and the climax is unusually swift and quite underwhelming -it might be the least energetic of any of these movies.
At no point does the central conflict feel like it has the gravity it deserves, both in the world of the movie and external from that as an interpretation of such a famous storyline.
As far as the cast is concerned, this movie was the real test of Sophie Turner’s capabilities as an actress outside of Game of Thrones. She’s ostensibly the movies’ lead character, and demonstrates the necessary skill and confidence to carry a film -just not this one. Her performance is good and interesting, but it can’t quite overpower the lack of sufficient investment in a character who was only introduced one movie ago in a supporting role that mostly existed to set up this film.
She needed more time to be ingratiated to the audience, as did these new incarnations of Cyclops, Storm, and Nightcrawler, played again by Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, and an underutilized Kodi Smitt-McPhee (also Evan Peters’ Quicksilver, relegated to almost being a background character). McAvoy and Nicholas Hoult return, with the former somewhat forcibly framed in a negative light with an inorganic ego and luxury to go along with his manipulativeness. And Jennifer Lawrence, who hasn’t really been invested in this series since 2014, puts in more of an effort than she did in Apocalypse for reasons that become clear as the movie goes along, but still doesn’t seem all that eager to be there.
Once again, the shining light of these movies proves to be Michael Fassbender, whose Magneto has no real purpose being in Dark Phoenix apart from obligation, yet still manages to be the best part of it.
However, equally needless is Jessica Chastain, playing a staggeringly dull villain way beneath her talents.
Perhaps most depressingly though, this movie occasionally lives in the shadow of X-Men: The Last Stand. Given the story, it’s unavoidable - even opening on an incredibly similar note. And while Kinberg is certainly better at his job than Brett Ratner, and Dark Phoenix never reaches the lowest points of that film, it’s hard not to notice story and character beats the earlier movie executed better.
There were more stakes, memorable moments, the performances of Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, and an oft-forgotten Kelsey Grammer to carry through the messy storytelling, and a resolution that was structurally flawed but dramatically resonant. It also remembered that X-Men is an allegory, posing a challenging notion in its’ incongruent second plot. In Dark Phoenix, there’s lip service to some potentially interesting politics in how the government that’s nice to mutants is quick to turn on them after one proves dangerous, but this film isn’t really interested in its politics for a change.
There’s relatively little attention given to the mutants’ status as a minority class. Dark Phoenix is aware it’s the end of a series, giving a real degree of finality to its closing scenes, but even apart from the rest of the movie, it’s a very lame send-off. Consider that Dark Phoenix is still tangentially connected to the X-Men movies that began with the inaugural film in 2000 -that’s a nearly twenty year series!
And though X-Men was never a consistently good franchise, that longevity deserves to come to an end in a more meaningful way. Both Days of Future Past and Logan gave their endings more weight, more emotional pay-off to a long-running continuity. Dark Phoenix goes out with a sputter. Even as just an ending to this mini-series as begun in First Class, it’s really disappointing.
In a time when superhero movies are more popular and lucrative than ever, nobody was really anticipating Dark Phoenix.
It was so clearly Fox’s last attempt to keep their version of the X-Men franchise on life support before Disney got their hands on it. When you look at the good X-Men movies: X2, First Class, Days of Future Past, Logan, there’s a tangible passion behind them that you don’t get from Dark Phoenix; a movie too hooked on chasing a glimmer of its former glory to be anything of much value in its own right.