Film Review – Dark Phoenix (2019)
It is the end of an era. After 19 years, 12 films, 2 Phoenix Sagas, and only 1 Wolverine, The X-Men franchise is finished. With Dark Phoenix, the X-Men prequels wrap up the franchise before the inevitable Disney/MCU reboot. However, I cannot imagine this groundbreaking franchise ending with any less of a whimper. Honestly, it makes me sad. This franchise changed superhero movies in the same way that Batman (1989) did. It is heartbreaking to see it fizzle out with a final note as weak as Dark Phoenix.
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Simon Kinberg
Written By: Simon Kinberg
When a rescue mission for NASA goes awry, Jean Grey (Turner) is attacked by a mysterious cosmic force. This force quickly controls Jean and unleashes her powers in a devastating way. Jean is soon approached by a mysterious figure (Chastain) who wishes to corrupt Jean and her new powers.
Struggling with the means he used to protect Jean, Charles Xavier (McAvoy) struggles to hold the team together. It’s up to Cyclops (Sheridan), Beast (Hoult), and Magneto (Fassbender) to put aside their differences for the sake of Jean or for the sake of humanity.
X-Men (2000) changed how we look at superhero movies. The film is famous for its rejection of the “classic” costumes for a leather-fetish redesign. It is also famous for causing a decent amount of uproar for hiring the 6′ 3″ Hugh Jackman to play the 5′ 3″ Wolverine. Among other things, however, it proved that classic comic book storylines could be adapted in a meaningful, modern way. It also proved that an ensemble superhero movie could be made and be good, long before the ensemble was in high demand.
X-Men was the first bonafide superhero blockbuster since Batman (1989). The film’s success gave Marvel the legs it needed to pull itself out of bankruptcy. The X-Men ran so that Spider-Man could swing onto the screen in 2002. In fact, if not for the success of the X-Men in 2000, Iron Man and the Avengers probably never would have taken to the screen. The film gets lost in the avalanche of Marvel films over the past twenty years, but the X-Men franchise is the foundation on which they were all built.
The X-Men franchise has been a constant since 2000, and has lasted far longer than any of its competition. However, Dark Phoenix brings that run to an end. With Disney’s recent purchase of Fox, the Franchise that fathered them all has been forced into early retirement. It’s sad, but at the same time, I want to see Wolverine fight the Hulk so I’ll find a way to get passed it.
The Old(ish) Guard is Tired
Jennifer Lawrence is to this franchise what Harrison Ford was to Star Wars. J-Law signed onto X-Men: First Class right before her big Hollywood breakthrough, as did McAvoy, Fassbender, and Hoult. The four have been part of the X-Men prequels since their beginning in 2011, and they are tired of the work. However, Jennifer Lawrence has always been the big unknown when it came to making Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix. Actors get tired, especially if they require hours of blue make-up before each shoot. Unfortunately, you can see this fatigue in their performances.
When it comes to Lawrence and Fassbender, this fatigue presents itself in how little they have to do with the movie. Magneto doesn’t even get an introduction until halfway through the movie’s runtime, and Lawrence has very few scenes throughout. It was a big surprise when they announced their return for Dark Phoenix, but it turns out it wasn’t much of a return at all.
Hoult, on the other hand, has one of the cringiest dramatic scenes in the whole franchise. While the bulk of this cringiness comes from poor written dialogue and direction, it is also very visibly phoned in by Hoult. Jennifer Lawrence’s dramatic scenes in both Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix both suffer from this fatigue as well.
A Producer at the Wheel
Longtime X-Men producer Simon Kinberg takes over the reins of the franchise for its final installment. This is horribly reminiscent of the time that producer Brett Ratner took over the reins in 2006. Unfortunately, the end result is almost exactly the same. Neither producer knows how to tackle a genuine human story, and neither has the narrative talent to tackle the X-Men’s most iconic storyline.
What’s worse is that Dark Phoenix is written and directed by Kinberg. This film falls apart in the same vein as Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. It’s not that the ideas presented in the story are bad, but guided by only one man too involved in his own work, they never flesh out. Dark Phoenix feels like Kinberg was throwing boiled noodles at the storyboard wall, hoping to see what stuck. There are so many iconic X-Men ideas in this movie, but none are ever explored to their potential. Instead, Kinberg rushes the story from action piece to action piece without creating any real motives or human connection.
The worst of it is that Kinberg’s take on the Dark Phoenix Saga parallels Ratner’s almost exactly. Jean’s backstory and arc are unchanged, it is merely the B-plot secondary characters around her that are different. The problems with Jean in The Last Stand are duplicated with Jean in Dark Phoenix. Fox has once again missed the mark by making the motive behind every one of Jean’s choices stem from cosmic mutant magic rather than anything that would make sense.
An Inconsistent Timeline
The biggest problem with the last two installments in the X-Men prequels is the constant decade hopping. This shift makes sense between First Class and Days of Future Past. It feels unnecessary, but still works in X-Men: Apocalypse. In Dark Phoenix, however, it makes no sense. The characters in this film are only eight years younger than their X-Men (2008) counterparts. Yet, they haven’t aged much since the previous film, set ten years earlier. This causes jarring problems with suspension of disbelief, especially when the older characters haven’t aged at all in thirty years either.
The jumping from decade to decade also makes the story non-nonsensical at the start. The story throws us into the characters and their world at a point we are unfamiliar with. Despite a mutant obliterating entire cities in the previous film, and an entire franchise about how humans fear mutants, the X-Men are celebrity heroes at the start of Dark Phoenix. The problem is that the audience never saw this leap in how the X-Men got to where the story begins.
A major criticism of Infinity War and Endgame has been that characters have no introduction. However, the previous MCU films have always done a good job of putting heroes exactly in the position they need to be at the end of one movie so they can get a running start in the next. Infinity War wasn’t jarring, because the MCU pushed everyone towards either Thanos or the Infinity Stones for nearly a decade.
With Dark Phoenix the audience is thrown into a world that the previous installments give no context for. It doesn’t make sense to see the X-Men as celebrated heroes, because we’ve only seen them be feared. The story never hits its narrative beats because the audience has to find the X-Men’s place in a new context right as the film throws that context out of the window and goes back to the same old-same old.
What Are There Powers Again?
Storm’s powers make no sense. As the previous five movies with Storm in them have shown, Storm controls the weather. In Dark Phoenix Storm learns how to skip the weather part. There are at least three different shots of Storm creating ice cubes or creating ice with her powers. This would be fine if there wasn’t already a character in the X-Men franchise whose sole power was to do things with ice and snow. In addition, Storm also channels the power of Thor and starts shooting lightning from her hands sans Thunder Clouds.
There are also some tertiary characters with Magneto who’s powers appear to be whatever moves the plot along best at that particular moment. This would be okay if Jessica Chastain and her mysterious friends didn’t also happen to have unexplained powers. The only difference is that Magneto’s friends consistently have their unexplained powers, while Jessica Chastain’s only have them when they aren’t fighting main characters.
As I have bashed on this movie’s narrative failures, I’d like to highlight one of its successes. This film has the best X-Men action outside of Logan (2017). Magneto, in particular, gets to do some of the coolest fighting with his powers since the prison escape in X2. While this in no way completely redeems the movie, it keeps you entertained enough to not completely loathe it.
Dark Phoenix brings nothing new to either the Dark Phoenix Saga or The X-Men Franchise. The film does a lot of things, but none of them particularly well. The film instead relies on clunky dialogue and shallow characterizations to rush its story along. Simon Kinberg may have been a good producer for the franchise, but this film once again proves that career producers should stay far away from both writing and directing. As the franchise’s final installation, Dark Phoenix flounders. The X-Men Franchise is ultimately a has been and the glory days of X2 and Days of Future Past are too far gone.
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