X-Men: Dark Phoenix
Director – Simon Kinberg
Cast – Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Jessica Chastain
Rating – 1.5/5
X-Men: Dark Phoenix is so inconsiderate of cinematic laws that under different circumstances, it could have passed off as a maverick work. Sadly, as it stands, it is a uniquely bizarre experience; dispassionately performed, ineptly scripted and an absolute disgrace to the legacy of the once formidable X-Men film franchise.
For it to arrive during Pride Month is especially disappointing. Regardless of your feelings about Bryan Singer – a reprehensible man by most accounts – at least he used his X-Men movies as a vessel to unpack his anxieties about sexuality, about alienation; and as an excuse to revisit his fascination with World War 2.
But Dark Phoenix has little substance to it. Directed by long-time X-Men writer and in-house talent for 20th Century Fox, Simon Kinberg, it is the purported final film in the franchise, with the intention being to integrate these characters – played by different actors – into the Marvel Cinematic Universe next.
As far as send-offs go, Dark Phoenix is particularly anaemic; not a patch on the recent Avengers: Endgame, or even Logan. Unlike its predecessors – the fabulous X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past, and even the forgettable X-Men: Apocalypse – Dark Phoenix has no sense of time or place, despite being set in the ‘90s.
It’s set in a world that finally seems to have accepted mutants; and after decades of fighting for his kind, Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) seems to be content. His school for Gifted Youngsters is packed, the American president has him on speed-dial, and after an early rescue mission set in space, his X-Men are given a heroes’ welcome. Just a couple months ago they were declared persona non grata!
But there are fractures emerging among the group. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) – the only remaining members of the First Class – are looking to move on. The new recruits – Cyclops, Storm, Nightcrawler – are struggling to fit into the pre-established dynamic. Ironically for a series of films that were once applauded for treating every character with respect, and for emphasizing their individuality, the X-Men franchise has sort of settled into a mould. In that early rescue mission, none of the young X-Men seems to have any agency; they take orders from Mystique instead.
Jean Grey, for no apparent reason other than to kick-start the plot, decides to go rogue after taking a solar blast to the face. She no longer wishes to be a ‘scared little girl answering to a man in a chair’ but, as she is told by a bafflingly wasted Jessica Chastain, ‘the most powerful creature on the planet’.
Sensing her uncontrollable power, Charles attempts to restrain her, which leads us to the scene that the trailer – in a blatant act of self-sabotage – spoiled so stupendously. For the sake of those of you who’ve made the wise decision to avoid that trailer, I won’t spoil it here. But suffice to say that it is the single greatest example of the sort of train-wreck this movie is.
And speaking of train-wrecks, Dark Phoenix ends with one of the most ridiculous final showdowns in recent memory – reportedly re-shot extensively – set aboard a moving train that continues rumbling along despite a dozen or so super-powered mutants systematically destroying it. It comes to a screeching halt only after being engulfed in a blaze of blinding CGI. However accidental, it is the truest metaphor that Kinberg has written.
Part of the problem is the complete absence of conflict. For a film so obsessed with villains, Dark Phoenix doesn’t appear to have any. Of course, on paper, Chastain’s thinly sketched character is the ‘antagonist’, but all she does is whisper unenthusiastically in Jean’s ear a couple of times, like Iago serving his notice period.
Meanwhile, Charles wastes everyone’s time by trying to convince them that he’s the real villain of the story for trying to influence Jean, who, in case you were too distracted (or disinterested) to notice, is the actual and only villain of the film. That she would be capable of such cruelty; that she would be so easily corruptible, despite never showing signs of it before, is something that I simply cannot wrap my head around. Charles’ tendency to try and control his subordinates – especially women – could’ve made for interesting drama, but Kinberg skirts around the idea as if it’s diseased.
I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a couple of days, someone writes a well-researched story about the messy production of this film, which is sure to have been compromised by corporate interference and a complete lack of faith by the studio. No amount of money – and no one can deny that Dark Phoenix looks like a million (or $200 million) bucks – can compensate for a poor screenplay, and overpaid actors with little interest in their roles. To provide yet another example of the kind of farce that Dark Phoenix is, Sophie Turner, who plays the title character for God’s sake, is only the fifth-billed in the end credits, after McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Hoult and Lawrence, who’s in it for like 10 minutes.
All this – the noisy action, the tone-deaf performances and the utter lack of drama – is heightened by a relentless, wall-to-wall score by Hans Zimmer, who’d previously threatened to never do a superhero movie again, but chose to break his word… for this. His open rehash of some of his previous work – most notably Interstellar, Dunkirk and the Da Vinci Code – is emblematic of the disarray that Dark Phoenix finds itself in.
With tremendous disappointment, we, therefore, commit this Phoenix’s body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. This time, there will be no resurrection.