Movie Review: X-Men — Dark Phoenix

All things come to an end, but some come to more of an end than others. X-Men: Dark Phoenix is set to be the final X-Men movie after nineteen years, so you’d think that they would swing for the fences, try something big. In Dark Phoenix, writer Simon Kinberg (TV’s The Twilight Zone) attempts to revisit the story that he famously botched in 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand. The good news: it’s nothing like that movie; the bad: it’s nothing much like anything, really. Logan was an ending but, with this addendum, nearly two decades fizzle out on the screen.

1992. The X-Men fly into space to save astronauts from solar flares but, in saving the astronauts, the telepathic and telekinetic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner, TV’s Game of Thrones) absorbs the space energy into herself. Unable to control her new powers, Jean separates herself from the group and finds solace with the somewhat sinister alien Vuk (Jessica Chastain, Molly’s Game). Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, Glass) musters the remains of his team to stop Jean before the “Phoenix” takes over her.

The “Dark Phoenix” storyline is an X-Men comics classic, but it is based on the concept of an audience caring about the character of Jean Grey. It’s no reflection on Turner’s performance, but her version of Jean was introduced as a minor character in X-Men: Apocalypse and is not given a chance to be fleshed out before the incident that possesses her here. Her history is not unique or interestingly told, and the points of difference in this incarnation of the Dark Phoenix itself are largely incoherent. Turner and the rest of her cohort are largely reduced to making poses at the camera in the vain hope that the special effects artists will do the heavy lifting for them — often literally.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix marks Kinsberg’s directorial debut, and his style is apparent immediately: this is a man devoted to the Extreme Close Up. To enhance drama, you can see every pore in Erik Lensherr’s (Michael Fassbender, The Snowman) face, and ponder the patch that a moustache can’t quite commit to. Most characters are treated to single tears running down their faces to underscore the dramas that they are party to, the x-humanity of it all. When he finally finds a groove, it is for the train climax, which features some well-choreographed mutant action; unfortunately it is not only conceptually lifted from Deadpool 2, it feels like a mid-movie set piece. Kinberg, no stranger to comic book movies, has no idea how to structure or pace the one that he has been allowed to helm. It’s not the first time that a studio has thrown away $200 million on an untested director, but it is rare that an expensive creative failure does not even attempt to say anything.

Part of this flatness and lack of momentum comes down to the third act being entirely rewritten and reshot due to studio fears that the initial climax was too similar to an undisclosed recent comic book movie. This renders the ending anonymous and underwhelming, but it also makes the final scene that much more mystifying: it is directly lifted from the conclusion to one of the more iconic non-Marvel series of the last two decades. Seven years and $1 billion in box office takings are not that easy to forget, but no one in X-Men: Dark Phoenix has really done anything to earn the emotional connection that Kinberg asks us to feel.

If the X-Men return, it will likely be under the aegis of Marvel the juggernaut, with a new cast, a new outlook, and integrated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With the majority of X-Men: Dark Phoenix smacking of contractual obligations from actors whose careers have blossomed into their choice of roles and featuring no real drama, it’s not much for the end of an era. Spotty at best but mostly indifferent, not even residual good will can make X-Men: Dark Phoenix into anything more than the death knell of a franchise that stopped caring $71 billion dollars ago.

Dark Phoenix opened in Australian cinemas on June 7, 2019.

Directed by: Simon Kinberg.

Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Kodie Smit-McPhee, Evan Peters and Jessica Chastain.

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