Courtesy of Fox
Not long ago, the idea of superhero films making big bucks at the box office wasn’t a guaranteed slam dunk. Sure you had the OG Christopher Reeves suiting up as “Superman” or Tim Burton’s 1989 classic “Batman.” But after a string of misses in the early to late nineties, wearing spandex and fighting cartoony villains wasn’t a safe investment (no thanks to 1998’s “Batman and Robin”).
Then came the summer of 2000 and with it a fresh crop of unknown actors and a studio desperate to carve out their identity. That film was Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” and its financial success made the superhero entertainment business lucrative again. And now, after 12 movies and a timeline of events that don’t add up or hardly make any sense, “Dark Phoenix” arrives on the heels of the Fox/Disney merger and serves as a conclusion to this iteration of ironclad heroes known legally as Mutants (though I’m sure the characters will be rebooted and ingested into Kevin Feige’s Marvel Cinematic Universe in the coming years).
“Dark Phoenix” is also the directorial debut of Simon Kinberg, who oversaw writing duties for the previous “X-Men” films, and his take on the characters distinctly improves on the debacle that was “X-Men: Apocalypse” - but somehow “Dark Phoenix” has no finality to it. All the performers look bored in their poses, and give no weight other than their contract demands they be invested. Even a re-tooled and reshot third act only musters a fraction of the excitement this series used to embody.
This is of no fault to the talented cast who seem left to wonder where this franchise is going next (This was made years ago, so I doubt the film was pitched as “The Finale” before Disney came into the picture) and so it feels rushed. Taking a page or two from the most identifiable narrative arch in the “X-Men” canon, Kinberg tackles the Phoenix storyline, and considering Sophie Turner just turned a few heads on “Game of Thrones” - it’s easy to see why the filmmakers would throw her front and center.
The film starts with a horrific car accident in which an eight-year old Jean Grey witnesses the death of her parents (If we had a dime for everytime a superhero film opened with a car crash, perhaps we could make better films then this). Cut too Dr. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy continuing to give it his all) promising her a better life with kids who resemble her special abilities at his school for gifted youngsters - and the rest is almost history. Now it’s 1992, and the X-Men are considered the good-guys again and the president even has a phone labeled X to recruit them on a dime.
That he does when a maiden space shuttle voyage goes haywire in orbit, sending our team of heroes after them. There’s the blue and beastly Hank (Nicholas Hoult), the other blue and not so beastly Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence); the all grown up Jean (Turner) her lazer-eye shooting boyfriend Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Alexandra Shipp’s weather conjuring Storm, Evan Peters vastly underutilized rapid-fire Quicksilver, and the teleporting shape-shifter NightCrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who together try to salvage what they can of the shuttle crew, and before you can say “Shazam!” - Jean is caught in the middle of some cosmic gobbledegook which absorbs in her body quicker than a sponge. Though, the reason for this slime in space is never explained.
WE do know that you probably don’t want the power Jean’s recently been given, as a batch of alien lifeforms (again, the film never explains who or why these creatures come to earth) touchdown and take over the body of poor Jessica Chastain, using her as a vessel to convince Jean to use her powers for evil, because well, there has to be stakes right?
However, In “X-Men: Dark Phoenix” - which, yes features Michael Fassbender returning as the metal wielding Magneto (god bless him) - there are no stakes. Kingberg would rather spend $200 million bucks on muddily CGI sequences in favor of a powerful character arch. This series used to have heart and you’d actually be invested in the characters. Here, the movie merely exists in the same stratosphere of other, better, superhero films. And now, when one of the main characters is given the axe in a battle midway through, it gave me no emotions. Not only did I not care about said death, but the whole thing felt like an afterthought. And lines like “My emotions make me stronger” mine as well have been poached from the bad screenwriters handbook.
It’s not all atrocious, as Turner elevates Jean far more than “Dark Phoenix” deserves, and when you consider how lackluster “X-Men: The Last Stand” was (which borrowed the Phoenix storyline as well) that’s something to celebrate. Even Fassbender and McAvoy share more than a few touching moments that hark back to the glory days of what is arguably the best film in the franchise: “X-Men: First Class.”
But alas, those days are gone. Wolverine was given a dramatic and well deserved send-off in “Logan” - while “First Class” and “Days of Future Past” peaked the series. Hell, “Dark Phoenix” barely registers on the radar - which is a shame, because this franchise used to be the standard. Now it’s just buried in ashes.