“Dark Phoenix” represents a very disappointing end to 20 years of X-Men movie storytelling,
Poorly paced, humorless, and devoid even of memorable or distinctive visuals, it wastes both the talents of its stars and the potential of its revered source material.
That waste is maybe what’s most heartbreaking here. It’s the clearest sign that the franchise and the filmmakers behind it have lost their way, lost their sense of what made the best of these films work so well.
What’s it about?
“Dark Phoenix” primarily unfolds in 1992, nine years after the events of “X-Men: Apocalypse.”
Much has changed in that time. Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his X-Men are world-renowned heroes and celebrities.
Thus, when a U.S. Space Shuttle mission goes awry and the astronauts need saving, its Xavier’s personal line to the President that rings. Over the reservations of Hank “Beast” McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) and Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), the professor sends the X-Men to the rescue.
Only things don’t go quite as planned. Yes, the astronauts are saved, but one X-Men member, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), comes back changed.
Her telepathic and telekinetic powers are suddenly amplified far beyond anything the world has seen. As a result, she struggles both with her control and with long-buried childhood memories colored with desire and rage.
Jean’s burgeoning transformation sets into motion revelations, tragedy, and ultimately a battle for her destiny and that of the X-Men. What none of them know is that other forces are at work both within and outside of the young mutant, forces that hope to use her new power for their own ends.
Persistence of poor vision
Of course, this isn’t the first time filmmakers have tried to bring the seminal “Dark Phoenix Saga” from Marvel Comics to life in a movie. It’s just about the only thing memorable about 2006’s “X-Men: The Last Stand,” one of the franchise’s most poorly received entries.
But 2014’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past” erased the events of “Last Stand” from continuity. That little trick opened a window for longtime X-Men screenwriter Simon Kinberg to try again with “Dark Phoenix,” to get it right this time.
Sadly, this “Dark Phoenix” fails to improve upon the earlier effort. “The Last Stand,” at least, aimed to recreate the visual style of its predecessors to deliver what was supposed to be a rousing grand finale of a trilogy. It aimed high and fell hard, but at least it was ambitious.
“Dark Phoenix,” on the other hand, tones everything down to the point of drab. To tell its “darker” story, the film sidelines any elements from previous entries that delivered any sense of fun. Even the action feels constrained and scaled down.
Whether that was a deliberate stylistic choice as part of an effort to tell a more “intimate” story or just an over-correction from the excess of “Apocalypse,” it backfires badly. When even the action in an “X-Men” film fails to impress, you know you’ve gone far, far off the rails.
Cast is wasted
There’s no visual sense of time period, as there has been in these films going back to “X-Men: First Class.” There’s no humor, either – sorry, Quicksilver fans, but Evan Peters doesn’t get much to do here, and he’s not the only one.
Truth be told, the whole cast is wasted in this effort. The film’s inconsistent pacing — first rushed, then slowed to a crawl before finally stumbling to resolution — denies opportunities for them to have meaningful scenes together.
The scenes we do get between McAvoy and Fassbender, or Lawrence and Hoult, scenes that should pay off years of emotional investment fans have in these versions of the characters, feel obligatory and fall flat.
All about one
It all adds up to an ill-conceived mess that you can trace back to a single bad decision.
When they’ve been good, the “X-Men” films have been ensemble pieces that relied on the cast as a whole to carry the film. The best ones were never about just one X-Man (except for the spin-offs — Logan, Deadpool, etc.).
It’s been about the family and everyone in the family given a palpable emotional stake in their futures. Even “The Last Stand” made an effort at this, though the results there were also disappointing.
In contrast, “Dark Phoenix” shifts almost all the dramatic weight to one underdeveloped character and pushes everyone else into a reactive role. This was apparently a deliberate, calculated choice. The film’s title, without the “X-Men” prefix that almost all the others in the series have had, stands as proof.
The choice proves disastrous. Yes, the one character’s evolution tears the family apart, but when that evolution occurs before the character can earn our emotional investment, it’s very difficult to care how that evolution unfolds.
If as a fan you feel you must see “Dark Phoenix” just to see how the story ends, wait to watch it at home. There’s just not enough enjoyable here to justify paying the price of admission.
Looking for an upside? Between this film and “X-Men: Apocalypse,” Disney and Marvel Studios, who now control the rights to the characters, have a veritable road map charting what not to do when it’s their turn to bring the X-Men to life on screen.
Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, and Jessica Chastain. Directed by Simon Kinberg.
Running time: 113 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action including some gunplay, disturbing images, and brief strong language.