X-Men: Dark Phoenix
It’s curious that the recent comic book craze was started unknowingly by X-Men (2000) nearly 20 years ago. That franchise has gained momentum as the studios around Fox developed their own sustaining cinematic universes. Curiously, Fox has been incapable of grasping the success of the X-Men films leading its long term strategy to waver as more installments were demanded. This has led X-Men to semi-reboot itself with X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) and dole out a few spin-offs like The Wolverine (2013), Logan (2017), and Deadpool (2016). Dark Phoenix (2019) is the latest outing for the Disney-fied Fox studio, and it looks to be the last of this long running franchise as the House of Mouse gobbles them up.
Dark Phoenix finds all our heroes in peaceful states. Mutants are no longer persecuted by the government, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) frequently collaborates with the President in salvage missions and is lauded for it, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) has finally settled into a leadership/mentor role in Xavier’s school, and the young members of the superhero squad are finally melding together as a team. However, during a mission saving a space-ship crew outside of the atmosphere, X-woman Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) absorbs some unknown and alien power into her body, leading her powers to be exacerbated and her to lose control of them. Her instability shakes up the alliances and balance that the world had finally found. Meanwhile an alien race comes to earth (personified by Jessica Chastain) to exploit Jean Grey’s newfound power.
This story and narrative have previously been told in X-Men: Last Stand (2006), but that film’s monumental failure is a big reason that led Fox to reboot the franchise and try again. This new take on the “Dark Phoenix” saga is a better take, but by no means the send-off this milestone franchise deserved. The film was shot before the Disney and Fox merger was confirmed, and yet there is an underlying feeling of half-energy, where the storytelling and cast have lost motivation for the survival of this series. There seemed to be an intent to build an entire new story and precedence for characters in this film, disregarding the decades of work already done by the handful of films preceding it. What’s the point of being in a franchise if you don’t build up on character trajectories?
Simon Kingberg, who has been a screenwriter in many of the previous X-Men films, makes his directing debut here, but he brings about a certain fear and caution that contrasts with the demands of blockbuster audiences. The result is a timid outing, not seeking to delve into symbolism (as the first X-Men films did with racism), or to shower viewers with too much CGI fights (as the latter leaned to). This causes the arc and climax of the film to feel like a sigh rather than a bang. The script was no less bold, with recycled dialogue the likes of “they fear you because they don’t understand you,” or “your powers are a gift” which cause you to half-snooze in your seat. The film had a previously big showdown in space for its finale, however, for some reason, Fox decided to perform reshoots and the final confrontation seems like a middle-of-the-movie-fight instead, bringing about a huge sense of anti-climax.
Chastain is sprinkled in the film randomly and is completely wasted, seeming more like the villain of the third installment of a cheesy 90s franchise than the fabulous performer we all know her to be. Sophie Turner herself seems very confused with the direction her character is supposed to go in: is she evil? Is she good? In the hands of a good director this would have been a delicious grey area to explore, however, with the timid and seemingly confused Kingberg, a certain volatility akin to a pinball machine is inserted instead. Only the old guard of Michael Fassbender, Nicholas Hoult, and James McAvoy bring any sense of passion and understanding into this film, largely due to the ignorance given to their characters in this instalment, giving them more of a free rein.
The result is that Dark Phoenix is by no means terrible, but rather leaves you indifferent as the credits roll. By the time you get home you’re wont to have forgotten about it entirely. With the power that comic-book films have in modern culture, the culmination of a franchise must go for a gut punch and a slam-dunk, not the whimpering and cowering flick Kinberg and Fox delivered.