OnScreen Review: "X-Men: Dark Phoenix"

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  • Ken Jones, Chief Film Critic

The X-Men franchise is the granddaddy of the modern-day superhero genre. Sure, before the X-Men there was Superman and Batman, but the arrival of 2000’s X-Men ushered in the age of comic book movies that has come to dominate cineplexes in the 21st century. The X-Men movies are such a mixed bag that they could be roughly representative of all comic book movies, with some of the very best the genre has to offer, some good-to-average entries, and some of the worst you will find in the genre. Sadly, Dark Phoenix is closer to the latter end of that spectrum.

When I reviewed the disappointing X-Men: Apocalypse, I wrote, “Perhaps new directing blood and some new talent on camera will give future X-Men films a boost of energy and quality similar to what X-Men: First Class provided back in 2011.” That new director ended up being Simon Kinberg, stepping into the director’s chair for the first time after having written or co-written three previous X-Men movies: Last Stand, Days of Future Past, and Apocalypse. By my count, that makes him 1 for 3 in producing quality X-Men content, and the fact that he already had a stab at telling the Dark Phoenix story in Last Stand makes him a confusing choice for director. As a director, he does not bring the energy boost and quality boost I was hoping for.

The Dark Phoenix story is a cherished and beloved comic book plot that helped make the X-Men comic books reach a new level of popularity when it was written. On screen though, it has proved difficult to get right for some reason. This time around, Kinberg and his crew fares arguably worse than X-Men: The Last Stand did in telling the story, something I never thought I’d say. Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is possessed by the Phoenix, an extraterrestrial force (even though it seemed as though possessed that power at the end of Apocalypse), that makes her the most powerful mutant on the planet. Another alien race, the D’Bari, led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain), seeks to harness the power of the Phoenix, which destroyed their home planet, and use it to conquer Earth. I was curious about Jessica Chastain being in the movie, and having seen it, I have even more questions about why she chose to be in this movie and what drew her to this role in the first place.

A character is killed off early in the movie, and it is the least surprising death imaginable given the importance of the character relative to the acting/celebrity status of the person portraying the character. On top of that, Magneto (Michael Fassbender) doesn’t even appear until over an hour into the movie. Given how integral the Professor X/Magneto relationship has been to the X-Men franchise, there is scant little interaction between the two of them until the third act ramps up. Professor X (James McAvoy) has managed to create a working relationship with the US government in this movie, which quickly sours when Jean Grey becomes a threat. It’s amazing how quickly the movie descends into tactical units and holding facilities for mutants. One thing that Kinberg and others have shown over the last two X-Men movies is that they do not handle global threats well.

By the way, this film takes place in 1992, which is incredible when you consider that X-Men: First Class featured some of these same characters dealing with the Cuban missile crisis in the 1960s and have barely aged in the 30 year span between these two movies. By 1992, Fassbender’s Magneto is supposed to be only eight years younger than Ian McKellen’s Magneto from the first X-Men movie; McKellen was 61 in 2000, Fassbender is 42 now.

The biggest disappointment with this movie is that it bungles the Dark Phoenix story again. They attempt to root it more in the comic book origins of the story, but it doesn’t help. The film attempts to make Turner’s Jean Grey the central character of the film, but her story is muddled by her own personal backstory and the blending in of the D’Bari story threads into it all. Apparently, a massive amount of the final act of this movie was changed because it was too similar to Captain Marvel, but, frankly, copying the ending of Captain Marvel is probably preferable to what we get. Also, the D’Bari vacillate between being impervious to gunshots to being completely vulnerable to them.

With the release of Dark Phoenix, we now have a dozen movies in the X-Men universe, with an apparently unlucky 13th in the form of The New Mutants, a film that has been pushed back at least three times now. Things are trending in the wrong direction here. Dark Phoenix is the movie equivalent of a former boxing champion who stays around and takes about five more fights than he should because he needs the money after spending too much of his fortune instead of saving it in his earlier years. With X-Men: Apocalyse and now Dark Phoenix, it is clear that the X-Men franchise, which once set the tone for the genre, has been surpassed by nearly everyone else. It’s a sad sight to see.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars