X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)
A Phoenix will rise. The X-Men will fall.
And fall hard, they have. In this tragic swansong to Fox’s X-Men saga that began in 2000, and helped cultivate newfound respect for comic-book adaptations, it couldn’t be more ironic that we’d find ourselves ending on such a low.
Set in 1992, the plot of Dark Phoenix focuses on Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), a member of the well-respected X-Men team of heroes, consisting of talented mutants, led by Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). During a rescue mission in space, Jean finds herself overwhelmed by a solar-flare like energy (think Green Lantern’s Parallax) that miraculously fails to kill her, instead, making her considerably more powerful. Her newfound strength brings up her childhood traumas, most notably a car crash from 1975 that killed her parents, which she accidentally caused by her telekinesis. Overwhelmed with power, rage, and grief, Jean is approached by Vuk (Jessica Chastain), a manipulative shape-shifting alien who desires the power within Jean, and with the two working together, the very future of the X-Men is at stake …
Yawns. I did a lot of that during the course of Dark Phoenix. As a fan of the X-Men comics, the beloved ’90’s animated show, and the film franchise with its spin-offs, even with a few average sprinklings, I never really expected we’d get to this shoddy level. I mean, if we’re talking the core entries, most would cite the third outing, X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), as the nadir, but there’s enough in that one to let it slide as throwaway entertainment. If context helps, while I don’t think too highly of its director, Brett Ratner, he did okay, considering the circumstances surrounding its production, with Ratner being brought in as a last-minute replacement for Matthew Vaughn, who’d later get a shot at the property with his slick, zesty prequel X-Men: First Class (2011). Here, there’s simply no excuse.
The guilty party in question is one Simon Kinberg, who’s bitten off way more than he can chew with his feature-directing debut, which he also wrote and produced. In a selfish, self-promoting move that repeats the awfully similar trajectory of David S. Goyer, who shepherded the Blade trilogy (1998-2004) as writer, producer and then director, Kinberg has clearly chosen a successful IP as an easy in to prove he can direct a full-length film. And sure, bravo, mission accomplished, for getting the movie in the theatres, but somehow, I feel quality storytelling and respect for the characters wasn’t at the top of his priority list.
Since Dark Phoenix’s release, it’s become public knowledge that the production was fraught with problems, including daily rewrites and an entirely reshot third act, which, originally, was too similar to the climax of Marvel Studios’ juggernaut Captain Marvel (2019). Once again, though, there’s simply no excuse. If you look at the likes of what Francis Ford Coppola went through on Apocalypse Now (1979) — i.e., rewrites, reshoots and going insane — it’s a crazy kinda miracle that the end result is a cohesive and revered masterpiece. Same goes to Ridley Scott who pulled through on the well-received Gladiator (2000), with day-to-day rewrites and mounting pressures from nervous studio heads who thought a swords-n-sandals pic would be ‘box office poison.’ The difference with these is that 1) there were talented, dedicated scribes working away on these projects and 2) the directors were proven and could thrive under creative pressures. Here Dark Phoenix feels like a vanity project for Simon Kinberg who’d maybe hoped that this film would give him a bigger spotlight in Hollywood, even if it’s made him a prime target for pop culture fans. Worse than all this, though — Kinberg’s had 13 years to get the darn story right.
Disgruntled with the way The Last Stand turned out back in 2006 — which, by the way, Kinberg co-wrote with Zak Penn, Ready Player One (2018) — in particular, its Dark Phoenix subplot (yep, we’ve been down this path before), Kinberg figured he could do the story justice all on his own. If this and the resulting product (I don’t even feel like calling it a ‘film’) doesn’t demonstrate the ego of the man, I don’t know what could. Kinberg has claimed that he loved Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s Dark Phoenix comic book saga when he was younger and just couldn’t let it go — so why the hell is none of this passion up on screen?
Just look to the cast and you’ll see a woeful collection of glazed-eyed, cash-in style performances. Can you blame them? I could not recognize any of the beloved characters I’ve gotten to know since this franchise began. Reflecting on this, I felt like Mark Hamill in his upfront rejection of Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2018) script in which he famously said of Luke Skywalker’s arc, ‘I fundamentally disagree with every choice you’ve made for this character.’
McAvoy’s Charles Xavier has gone from being a warm, comforting presence to an absolute self-righteous jerk. Erik ‘Magneto’ Lehnsherr, having been superbly portrayed by Michael Fassbender, Assassin’s Creed (2016), as an absolute badass with deep, emotional wounds, now looks like little more than a David Copperfield knock-off. Jean Grey’s just weird and cranky, Hank ‘Beast’ McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) is stupid when he’s meant to be the smartest one in the room, Scott ‘Cyclops’ Summers’ (Tye Sheridan) emotional beats fail to register, and Raven ‘Mystique’ Darkhölme (Jennifer Lawrence), well, she gets to give the professor a ‘piece of her mind’ in an eye-rolling feminist moment where she suggests changing their name from the X-Men to X-Women.
Hell, J-Law’s performance is so perfunctory; it’s only outdone by the incredibly dull Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty (2012), who once spoke of doing consistently challenging and interesting work. Even Halston Sage, Paper Towns (2015), is utterly wasted in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo as Dazzler. The best thing I can say about the cast and the way cinematographer Mauro Fiore, The Equalizer (2014), has captured them is that I got to see Sophie Turner’s radiant beauty in well-lit close-ups, making up for any dulled shots from the final season of HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011-19).
I will also say that there are moments of unintended hilarity, whether it be Magneto’s constipated expression while trying to push a helicopter to safety, Mystique’s unconvincing ‘Don’t do it Jean,’ akin to the campy Sega shooting game The House of the Dead 2, or Professor X’s sleep-walk up the stairs. If this funny stuff happened more consistently, we could’ve had a so-bad-it’s-good classic on our hands.
One positive that caught me by surprise was the music score, which is actually quite epic and could almost create the illusion of a good time at the movies. The central theme called ‘Gap’ has the urgent rhythm of a train propelling towards some cosmic purpose, totally running counter to the actual experience of the narrative. When the credit appeared for legendary composer Hans Zimmer, Blade Runner 2049 (2017), it finally made sense, seeing as he’s made a career of elevating the soundscapes of films both great and err … not so great.
Believe me. I wanted to like this movie. I was hoping it’ll at least be a fun ride where I can tell others that ‘the special effects and action managed to satisfy,’ but it’s not. This film could not be deader on arrival if it tried. Meanwhile, with Disney’s acquisition of Fox, the X-Men in this form are no more and the one project I was looking forward to the most, the completed but yet to be released horror one-shot The New Mutants, still sits on the shelf. I feel now more than ever, by the time it comes out, it could be neutered in an attempt to broaden its audience and make up for the inevitable financial losses on Dark Phoenix.
The injustice to all on this tail end of the franchise – the fans, cast, and crew — is a sad saga indeed.
1 / 5 – Don’t Waste Your Time
Reviewed by Steve Ramsie
X-Men: Dark Phoenix is released through 20th Century Fox Australia