Film Review – Dark Phoenix
It’s crazy to think that the X-Men movie franchise, which helped kick start the superhero boom as we now know it, first appeared on screen nineteen years ago. Things have changed a lot since then. Seeing people that can shoot lasers out of their eyes or control the weather with ease was once inconceivable but is now commonplace. The franchise played an important part in shaping the modern blockbuster. Dark Phoenix (2019) plays like a curtain call (thanks to the Disney acquisition of 20th Century Fox, the studio that owned the rights to the property). Sadly, what should have been a fond farewell turned out to be a lukewarm fadeout.
Dark Phoenix is not a terrible movie – within the franchise as a whole it sits somewhere in the middle of the “X” films. It doesn’t hit rock bottom like X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), but it’s not particularly great either. It has some bright spots, but it’s also messy with a thin plot, stiff dialogue, and character development that doesn’t go anywhere significant. It also doesn’t help that the narrative once again tries to adapt the story of the “Dark Phoenix Saga” – a long and complex affair in the comics – within the confines of a two-hour film. Simon Kinberg, who wrote the screenplay and makes his debut as director, already tackled this exact same premise when he co-wrote the screenplay to X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) which garnered middling returns, to say the least. You know what they say, “At first you don’t succeed…”
This time we find the X-Men, led by Professor Xavier (James McAvoy), beloved by society. Once, mutants were seen as outsiders but are now embraced as heroes. Things take a drastic turn when, in the middle of a rescue mission in space, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) comes into contact with a mysterious solar flare that absorbs into her body, granting her nearly unlimited power. Jean has difficulty controlling her newly acquired gifts, unleashing a hidden rage that has the potential to devastate the entire planet. Seeing that Jean needs help, Xavier enlists the rest of the X-Men: Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to help her before it’s too late. Things get complicated when Xavier’s old friend and nemesis Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) tries to stop her himself, as well as an unknown alien race (led by Jessica Chastain’s blond-haired commander) that enters the fray with their own nefarious agenda.
The first half of Dark Phoenix is the weakest, with long stretches of Jean struggling with herself. Many of her outbursts involve her warning people to stay away, them not listening to her, and then her lashing out with physical violence. For someone who seems so tormented, we never quite understand what it is she’s fighting against. Is it the power of the solar flare inside of her, or is it her childhood trauma coming back to haunt her? Jean’s past and her relationship with Xavier (as a mentor) and Cyclops (as a love interest) doesn’t have much emotional weight. Her connection with Xavier is treated with importance, but their resolution comes off more as a gimmick than an authentic progression. And don’t get me started on the alien race; we learn so little about them that they end up being nothing but mindless bodies for the X-Men to fight against. God bless Jessica Chastain, who tries her best to add some gravitas to a nothing character.
But let me back up and talk about what Dark Phoenix does right. Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, and Michael Fassbender all turn in the best performances. Turner shows she has the screen presence to carry a film, having the ability to physically show the torment that is happening inside of Jean. The relationship between Professor Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr has always been one of the better aspects of the franchise, with Xavier promoting peace and Lehnsherr promoting vengeance. While calling each other “old friend,” has gotten stale over the years, seeing the two characters play off one another has always worked well. Michael Fassbender (as Lehnsherr) seems on the brink of putting out a memorable performance but is always held back by the restrictions of having to play one part of a larger whole. Fassbender is one of our finest actors, and his character is one of the most fascinating within the entire “X-Universe.” He deserves his own story with a fully developed character arc. If we can get it with Wolverine/Logan, why can’t we with Magneto?
The second half gets significantly better, as the production decides to do away with the uninteresting character work and instead settles on good old action. If we can’t be satisfied by the characters or dramatic stakes, at least the action is good enough to prevent us from being bored. For a film that tries to be big and grand, many of the set pieces takes place within small confines: a neighborhood street, the lobby of a hotel, etc. But the direction and special effects maintain our attention. The best action scene is easily the train sequence, in which our heroes get to really flex their superpower muscles against the alien race. I especially liked the work done with Magneto, who uses everything metallic (from throwing doors to firing guns) to fight against the enemy. A special shout out should go to Hans Zimmer, who provides his usual thumping and energetic score to liven things up. The excitement of the final act has a lot to do with Zimmer’s contribution.
All good things must come to an end. There is no doubt that this corner of the superhero genre has played a crucial role in how movies are made today, but Dark Phoenix shows a franchise that has run out of gas. There are moments of legitimate excitement, but they are hampered by problems that weigh the entire narrative down. As a punctuation mark to this franchise, it doesn’t go out with a bang as much as it slows down to a stop.