Every Hero Has A Dark Side
Loosely based on the Dark Phoenix storyline in the X-Men comics, the events of this film are set 9 years after the events in X-Men: Apocalypse. The X-Men are now a publically approved group, with a direct line to the President. While undertaking a rescue mission in the earth’s orbit, Jean Grey [Turner] is hit by an anomaly but survives. This triggers a brief debate between Beast [Hoult], Mystique [Lawrence] and Professor Xavier [McAvoy], who question the extents mutants are pushed to maintain public approval. But Jean is far from alright and begins to suffer uncontrollable mood swings and surges of energy that begin to unlock repressed memories of her past. All the while a mysterious entity named Vuk [Chastain] with a hidden agenda approaches Jean.
It’s worth noting, before we go any deeper into this review, that the director of this release also served as writer for the heavily castigated X-Men: The Last Stand – which also attempted to cover this comic arc. Granted, Kinberg has served as producer on several decent films but his writing credits leave a lot to be desired but with this release he has been gifted full autonomy as writer, producer and director (his cinematic debut) and it is finally transparently clear that his abilities are not up to the task. Littered with fairly uninspired action sequences and excessive use of extreme close-ups, there is a distinct lack of visual flare. On top of that we also have the production design. While I didn’t much care for X-Men: Days Of Future Past or Apocalypse, I could sort of see the references to their respective period settings but this is very much 1992 in name only. If you take something like Captain Marvel for a second, that was a decent example of a film that mostly understood the era and represented it with a playful mirth and wink in its eye. If you had told me this movie was set five years ago, I could have arguably believed it. And then we have the writing itself which is absolutely shocking. The dialogue is atrocious, the story bounces around mercilessly and the world-building is remarkably plain. In other words, the responsibility fell to Kinberg and he has failed on almost every count. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Dark Phoenix is a turgid, thoroughly boring affair, taking a franchise that has trundled along for nearly twenty years and serves up one of its most unremarkable offerings. X-Men Origins: Wolverine was very badly made and frustrated fans, Apocalypse had spectacle but lacked heart or consequence but Dark Phoenix may be the first X-Men film to feel truly dull. Disney purchasing Fox and merging the franchise with the MCU means this is all very likely irrelevant and what should be a fitting send-off (in the way that Avengers: Endgame was) is little more than another bloated outing.
To my mind, there are two redeeming points to this feature. The first is the score work, which was also one of the only positive points about The Last Stand. I enjoyed the motif work and themes but was incredibly shocked to learn that they were composed by Hans “I’ll never score a superhero movie ever again” Zimmer. Which then made me question how much I actually enjoyed the soundtrack because the foreboding strings were thoroughly fitting and pleasant, elevating the entirely mediocre on-screen antics but knowing it was Zimmer, I feel like it could have done more; difficult to say. The second point is the actors. I genuinely have to commend almost everyone involved for the solid performances they worked out of an incredibly flat lacklustre script. Turner, especially, was very impressive even if the story didn’t afford her the necessary logic leaps between tortured, conflicted young woman and straight-up murder-happy psychopath. In truth, even the best chef in the world can only do so much with a handful of second rate ingredients but when you have painful one-liners, erratic narrative leaps and stupid developments (at one point a shuttle is spinning out of control in space but after Cyclops blasts the thruster it stops within two rotations.. that’s not just terrible physics, it’s nonsense), it was never going to end well for anyone.
**semi-spoilery comments mid-paragraph**
What struck me is how unambitious the film is, from the visual effects to the costumes, I couldn’t help but wonder how this movie ended up costing 200 million dollars. And then it became evidently clear; reshoots, tonnes and tonnes of reshoots. Other than the messy story, erratic character priorities and boring action set-pieces, the mighty hand of Disney is present throughout. Not direct interference but as fallout from the acquisition of Fox meaning plot elements and seeds for potential sequels had to be reworked. One of the more obvious examples is the antagonists. Considering the X-Men universe has been kind of grounded on Earth up until now, the film introduces an unspecified shape-shifting alien race who have been chasing the galactic phoenix force and wish to harness it for themselves. Only, they haven’t just been chasing this force, they’ve also been on earth for some time waiting to infiltrate and take over; which is a complete contradiction. I wouldn’t be surprised if the aliens in question were supposed to be Skrulls until Marvel took them back for their own movies. This means we have Jessica Chastain in a completely wasted non-role, attempting to manipulate Jean for very blunt ends with a very ill-defined set of abilities.
While it’s one of the biggest X-Men comic arcs, the dark phoenix saga is supposed to be an enormous emotional culmination but with the lead up this film had, this story was always going to be fighting an uphill battle to produce a satisfactory conclusion. As it stands, Jean is first introduced in Apocalypse, where she isn’t really given much to do but because she’s Jean Grey and everyone is waiting for her to inevitably turn evil, it is demonstrated that she has some sort of inert Phoenix power buried deep down inside her. Yet somehow, in the course of three years, this instalment forgets this development and claims the force is a purely separate entity/ability. Well, I say “claims,” the film never goes into a great amount of detail about much of anything. Another reason this story has never been depicted well, is the continued assumption that the more interesting story isn’t the individual searching for their past with an uncontrollable power but the people who put a few barriers in an attempt to control her. It’s as if we had a Wolverine story about Colonel Stryker. Sure, it’s an important factor to the story but it’s not the main crux and not where the central and relatable emotional core lies.
Overall, this entire effort feels tired, apathetic, lazy and a victim of multiple poor drafts. While I have saluted a fair few of these releases, Dark Phoenix serves as a reminder that Fox may have helped jump-start the superhero resurgence in the early 2000s but it had no real idea how to properly cultivate and develop it, throwing multiple efforts at the wall, hoping something would stick. What’s most disappointing is that the best end to this story was released two years ago but instead it limped on until it finally coughed up this mess, destined to be forgotten once the inevitable reboots roll out.
7th June 2019
The Scene To Look Out For:
The film opening with the X-Men being established as beloved celebrities is weird. Not only because a central conceit of the X-Men is fear of the other, the outsider hiding within, etc. So to start them out of the shadows is a bold choice. More so than that, Jean commits two brief on-screen attacks (where I believe only one life is lost) and within a scene or two an entire taskforce is released. Which means the story races from cheering fans with signs and X-Men action figures to internment facilities in a few days; I know the descent of humanity into depravity takes minimal prompting but this is pretty breakneck. Oh, and that mean, misguided, evil, anti-mutant faction coming to take our heroes away is called the MCU. Subtle Fox, real subtle.
I’ve always praised both McAvoy and Fassbender for their portrayals of Xavier and Magneto respectively but I can never understand why zero attempt is made to make them age. It’s never established that mutants age differently (other than Mystique) so why do these men, who grew up during World War II, somehow look thirty years younger than they should!? I can suspend disbelief about so much in this movie but I honestly can’t let that go.
“And by the way, the women are always saving the men around here so you might want to think about changing the name to X-Women”
In A Few Words:
“A very unsatisfactory close to an incredibly marred and violently fluctuating franchise”