Synopsis – Jean Grey begins to develop incredible powers that corrupt and turn her into a Dark Phoenix. Now the X-Men will have to decide if the life of a team member is worth more than all the people living in the world.
My Take – While superhero films nowadays, especially from the Marvel Studios, are confirmed to reap in box office gold, it’s easy to forget that the X-Men franchise are the ones who deserve credit for this stature.
Beginning with their first release all the way back in 2000, in a time when superhero films were often considered laughable and a major gamble, the kind of projects known directors and actors would usually avoid being associated to, director Bryan Singer‘s film managed to breathe life into a stagnant genre.
With 12 films under the kitty, including the spin offs lead by Hugh Jackman‘s Wolverine and Ryan Reynold‘s Deadpool, this latest installment acts as the final entry to the series as 20th Century Fox merges with Disney, hereby actively sending their previously owned characters (including the Fantastic Four) into the MCU fold.
In my opinion, a shame, as the characters’ disassociation with other Marvel characters provided them the opportunity to operate more autonomously.
Unfortunately, as a swan song, this revisit of a story line that was already told, albeit rather poorly in The Last Stand (2006), amidst multiple re-shoots and changes, has become so mediocre that it almost sets the genre back twenty years.
Sure, the film has some spectacular-looking action sequences, and has some decent acting going on, but despite the epic nature of the plot it is adapting, the whole project comes off as callow from start to finish. With the most frustrating thing about the film being its dullness for a series finale. Instead of going for an all-out a triumphant flourishing end, it chooses to stay on a whimpering route, and stay flat till the end credits roll in.
Set in 1992, the story follows the X-Men, a superhero team, which consisting of mutants, a subspecies of humans who are born with superhuman abilities activated by the X-Gene, led by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and comprises of Raven aka Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Hank McCoy aka Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Scott aka Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner).
After their successful stint of saving the world in X-Men: Apocalypse (2016), the mutants and the humans now live in harmony with the X-Men celebrated as heroes. When a NASA mission goes awry, the president of the United States of America directly contacts Charles for his assistance. While the X-Men have never performed a space mission before, keeping the larger picture in mind, he agrees, despite the threats it poses.
However, during the mission, Jean ends up taking the brunt of an alien cosmic energy which unlocks her darkest secrets and unleashes an uncontrollable dark side. As the team struggles to contain her, Vuk (Jessica Chastain), the leader of a mysterious group emerges, all ready to embrace the newly arisen Dark Phoenix, converging to threaten the entire existence of life on earth.
Long-time X-Men writer Simon Kinberg marks his directorial debut here, and makes sure there is a decent amount of good seeded throughout the film, at least at first glance. Although the film has been almost universally written off as a complete and utter train-wreck, those watching it might struggle to find anything awry in the entire first act, which sets the somber tone, maintains it and builds the sense of menace and impending doom all the way through to a second act twist (for some) which is delivered with just the right amount of gravitas.
Compared to the previous films, the film also offers an intriguing darker take on Charles Xavier, who is usually portrayed as an unequivocally good, devoted to his young charges and leading the fight for a better, more unbiased world. Paired with a fascinating, almost petulant performance from McAvoy, the film reminds us that, sometimes, the road to Hell on Earth is paved with good intentions.
Director Kinberg also proves more than equal to the task of whipping up fantastically thrilling action sequences, especially the climax. He peppers the film with plenty of lovely imagery and aesthetic touches: from Jean’s hair taking on a life of its own when she’s in Phoenix mode, to Quicksilver speed-climbing a whirlwind of debris to Nightcrawler’s teleportation.
Add to that Hans Zimmer‘s powerful score that is deserving of a better film than this, but draws some emotion even when the story and characterization cannot. However, the problem with the film isn’t so much that it’s bad, it’s just not good, exactly. The biggest one comes from an under-cooked story, which despite its potential settles for something neater and less challenging.
Here, director Kinberg’s narrative choices aren’t without foundation; everything he’s doing, plot-wise, in the film draws from the rich, decades-old history of the X-Men comics. But he’s pulling in elements from all over the timeline and lobbing them at an audience that probably lacks his encyclopedic knowledge. As a result, it feels half-hearted in its pursuit of a darker, edgier film, while it may be bloody and “dark”, it’s hesitant to have messy consequences.
While X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), wrapped up the continuity that began with the 2000 film, the major flaw in this grim dark tale of identity and sacrifice is that no character carries with them the baggage of the previous installments. As a result, the intended dramatic weight of Jean’s transformation is largely missing.
To invest in a narrative we need to understand how each of them got there. Sophie Turner’s time as the character has thus far amounted to a minor supporting role in the last film, Apocalypse, which was the fourth in the series directed by Bryan Singer. Here, director Kinberg has at his disposal a talented ensemble who have been absorbed into the series over various reboots, but the younger cast has never really managed to make those characters their own.
As a result, when she begins to wrestle with her new powers, it’s hard to get too worked up about the death and destruction she starts dealing out. Even her romance with Cyclops feels flat. The script for some reason also leans on previously forgotten connections, such as a relationship between Beast and Mystique.
There is never an explanation, not even from Vuk and the aliens who have been studying the force for a long time, of why Jean’s cosmic force cares about carnal pleasure or desire or anger or wrath or how it even knows human emotions, but it does.
We also get a peek at Genosha, a mutant safe haven under the governance of Erik aka Magneto, but we don’t linger there enough to understand its point.
As for the overall look of the film, the film seems completely uninterested in the chance to do anything significant with this film’s time period outside of some needle drops. The overqualified cast do their best to inject some passion into the proceedings.
James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender still providing the strongest offerings, afforded a respectful arc to the characters they’ve invested in over the last four films. Jessica Chastain is a brilliant casting, but is here for no real reason. If the screenplay had supported her better, Chastain could have transformed Vuk into a properly sympathetic antagonist; instead, she’s stuck in the key of one-dimensional supervillain. Nicholas Hoult and Jennifer Lawrence are gravely wasted.
The younger cast fare the worst, with Sophie Turner doing her absolute best despite simply not having the character backdrop to support what befalls her character, whilst Tye Sheridan offers some of the best we’ve seen from Cyclops.
Kodi Smit-McPhee and Alexandra Shipp seem to be having fun, but none of them really go anywhere because, well, they simply haven’t had the time invested in them. Evan Peters is also surprisingly underutilized here. On the whole, ‘X-Men: Dark Phoenix’ is a disappointingly middling installment which fails to act as a fitting perfunctory farewell to a long running series.
Directed – Simon Kinberg
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 113 minutes