X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: James McAvoy (Split), Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave), Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games), Nicholas Hoult (Mad Max: Fury Road), Sophie Turner (Game of Thrones), Tye Sheridan (Ready Player One), Alexandra Shipp (Love, Simon), Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road), Evan Peters (American Horror Story), Jessica Chastain (Molly’s Game)

Writer/Director: Simon Kinberg (X-Men: Days of Future Past)

Runtime: 1 hour 54 minutes

Release Date: 5th June (UK), 7th June (US)

And so this is how the X-Men franchise comes to an end. After helping usher in the dawn of the modern superhero movie, the franchise has represented some of the best and worst the genre has had to offer, expanding and revolutionising in some entries whilst feeling like an outdated relic in others. With the property now officially back in the hands of Disney as part of their quest to create a monopoly on pop culture, 20th Century Fox has exhaled their last gasp of air (not counting the long-delayed The New Mutants) in the form of Dark Phoenix. What was at one point meant to be a new beginning for the franchise must now serve as its conclusion, and the final result is an absolute train wreck. It pains me to say it, but I think it’s true: X-Men: Dark Phoenix might just be the worst film in the franchise to date. Yes, worse than the one where Wolverine has his memory erased by amnesia bullets.

Picking up yet another decade after the prior instalment Apocalypse, Dark Phoenix was from the beginning made as something of a reprieve for the mishandling of “The Dark Phoenix Saga” in The Last Stand (a film co-written by this entry’s writer/director, so that’s totally reassuring). With this attempt, the filmmakers have learnt that this epic and beloved storyline from the comics deserves a film to itself, and not as a disparate subplot in an otherwise unrelated plot. Unfortunately, that’s about the only thing they’ve learnt. The screenplay is an utter shambles on every level, with its impatient pace and structural instability quickly allowing the story to unwittingly fall foul to every mistake The Last Stand made and more. There’s barely a moment to breathe from the word go as we are bounded from one plot point to another and characters disgorge horrendous dialogue. Most spoken words are just plain exposition, and any sense of character introspection takes the form of them just blurting out how they feel about themselves and others.

Barring a throwaway subplot about the progressing-but-precarious state of human-mutant relations (which seems to jump from “mutants are now superheroes and give speeches at the White House” to “let’s round them up at gunpoint and lock them in concentration camps” and back in less than a day), it doesn’t even thematically feel like an X-Men film anymore. If you removed the recognisable characters and iconography, this would just be a below-average alien invasion movie, and its slapdash attempt to cap off the franchise (on top of just being a rip-off of The Dark Knight Rises) feels cheap and unearned when the story it tells relates in no way to the themes and characters it began with. There are many adjectives one could use to describe Dark Phoenix, but the easiest and most damaging is that it’s boring, and I should not be saying that about the movie where a team of superpowered civil rights metaphors fights their friend possessed by a cosmic entity and a swarm of bullet-absorbing extraterrestrials.

The X-Men have always thrived in character-driven narratives, with their storylines centring their disparate personalities and interpersonal relationships no matter how outlandish or grandiose. That’s why “The Dark Phoenix Saga” in the comics was so effective in how it busted a hole in the team’s heart, and the lack of that character focus is why now both of its adaptations have fallen so short. Apocalypse did a subpar job of introducing the revamped X-Men line-up and the film does practically nothing to develop them or the remaining players from First Class. Sophie Turner is saddled with even less to work with than Famke Jannsen’s Jean Grey, and though she gives it her all in her performance the material is lacking on every level. We as an audience have barely gotten to know this version of Jean before her transformation into Dark Phoenix, and once again the shift lacks impact when she’s already been established as a troubled loner struggling with her powers as opposed to the comics’ more startling leap of “timid girl next door” to “vengeful intergalactic fire goddess”. But at least Turner has some character dynamics to play with, as the rest of the core team are nothing more than cardboard cut-outs here. Despite his relationship with Jean, Tye Sheridan’s Cyclops is given very little to do, whilst Alexandra Shipp’s Storm and Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Nightcrawler are basically just roster fillers. Even Quicksilver is shoved off to the sideline for most of the film with little fanfare (probably because they realised his powers make him a living deus ex machina), which is a shame considering Evan Peters is the only cast member who still looks like he’s having any fun.

When it comes to the returning cast, James McAvoy is given the most precedence in his final turn as Charles Xavier, but even he seems tired at this point. His character seems to have taken a sudden turn between instalments, capitulating to government requests and refusing to acknowledge his mistakes, and it not only lacks solid motivation but it feels totally out of step for the character; it gives him an arc, but an incredibly contrived one. Michael Fassbender doesn’t enter the picture until about halfway through as Magneto as he goes through yet another “I’ve reformed my ways but find myself pulled back into the conflict for revenge” plotline. Fassbender is as good as ever but he just doesn’t have much to do, barely even sharing much screen time with Xavier. Nicholas Hoult is kind of just there as Beast when he’s not acting totally out of character, whilst once more Jennifer Lawrence looks she’d rather be anywhere else than playing Mystique again. The only new major character is Jessica Chastain as the film’s villain Vuk, and the fact I couldn’t remember the character’s name until the credits should tell you all you need to know. Chastain’s talents feel utterly wasted as this bland and underdeveloped antagonist, with her and her fellow alien invaders lacking anything distinctive in their design or motivation; they’re basically just the Romulans from JJ Abrams’ Star Trek combined with tired Invasion of the Body Snatchers tropes. And people said Apocalypse was a forgettable and clichéd villain!

Longtime writer/producer of the series Simon Kinberg makes his feature directorial debut with Dark Phoenix, and his lack of experience behind the camera is blatantly evident. Everything about the direction in this film, down to even the basic blocking of scenes, is passable at best or amateurish at worst. There is a severe lack of action sequences throughout, and all of them in the first two acts are poorly choreographed and severely lacking in imagination, blinking by so fast and with little fanfare that they barely serve as a respite from the endless plodding exposition. Proceedings then take a sudden turn for the mean-spirited in the third act’s climactic train sequence (which was entirely and obviously cobbled together in reshoots by the second unit director), which is just a cavalcade of nonsensical CGI carnage so uncharacteristically violent that it makes Man of Steel look happy-go-lucky. On top of that, everything else about the film’s aesthetics is just plain awful. The cinematography is workmanlike and has a horribly oversaturated colour palette, the visual effects are mostly just an underwhelming cavalcade of outdated particle effects, the production design completely fails to capture the 1990s setting like the previous entries did for their decades, Hans Zimmer’s score is so indistinctive that it could have been composed by any number of his protégés and imitators, and the Frank Quitely-inspired X-Men costumes look so unappealing on camera that they’ll make you beg for the return of the old black leather uniforms.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix is an unmitigated disaster of a final entry to a tumultuous franchise that somehow laps The Last Stand’s dire attempt at the storyline. There isn’t a single element in this film that is salvageable, and the only reason it isn’t getting a lower score is because it isn’t actively offensive. In a year so full of long-running franchises coming to momentous conclusions, this 19-year-old saga that helped revolutionise superheroes on film and gave us some of the finest examples of the genre here receives the cinematic equivalent of a pauper’s funeral; an unceremonious, barebones affair that can’t pay proper tribute to a series so full of good memories. Once they’ve scraped away the aforementioned leftovers that is The New Mutants, I think it’s best that Marvel let the students of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters mourn for a while before being reborn inside their cinematic universe. And who knows? Maybe, one day after the dust settles, we will get a good version of “The Dark Phoenix Saga” on screen. Third time’s the charm, right?



Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

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