An unusual contradiction of expectations await the arrival of “Dark Phoenix.” For reasons motivated more by corporate hegemony than pure storytelling, the 12th entry in the “X-Men” franchise is essentially the last under the 21st Century Fox umbrella, following the studio’s acquisition by Disney earlier this March.
So, suddenly and somewhat startlingly, “Dark Phoenix’s” responsibilities are multiple, not the least of which is to provide a sense of finality. Depending on where your franchise loyalties lie, that may not be nearly as important as fixing the mistakes of 2006’s Brett Ratner-directed “X-Men: The Last Stand”; after “Days of Future Past” – still the most memorable of this recent run of “X-Men” extravaganzas – nuked its timeline in 2014 in ways we still don’t quite understand, the franchise had a clean slate to revisit the beloved Dark Phoenix comics storyline, and to tell it the right way.
It’s a bit incredible, then, that “Dark Phoenix” – written and directed by Simon Kinberg, his directorial debut – repeats many of that movie’s mistakes, its flaws accentuated when it comes to its focus. Maybe at another stage of this movie’s development, Kinberg learned his lesson from 13 years ago (he also co-wrote the script to the 2006 disaster) and created a story worthy of its titanic figure.
Instead what we get is essentially a 100-minute-long set piece that emotionally climaxes much too early and with barely any foreplay, the product of a chronologically messy decade for the franchise that has produced stories more or less isolated from one another, but with an overlapping, ever-growing set of characters ranging in importance.
At this point in the re-time-shuffled X-Men story – ostensibly taking place in the ‘80s, though one look at the characters makes that impossible to believe, unless it’s simply a trait of all mutants to age much slower – mutants have been largely accepted. A one-way line between Professor Xavier and the president has been established, and the team uses its powers when they are needed to avert disaster.
Humans used to be the enemy; suddenly everyone is singing kumbaya, though it’s resulted in a splintering among the team.
Most of the key figures from this timeline have returned – Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique, Nicholas Hoult’s Beast, James McAvoy’s Xavier and Michael Fassbender’s Magneto – along with some fresher heroes we’re meant to remember despite only have been introduced to them in 2017’s “X-Men: Apocalypse”—heavy air quotes on “introduced.”
Sophie Turner’s young Jean Grey is one of those characters the movie would like to believe we’re already invested in, though it’s clear Kinberg and Co. are relying heavily on Turner’s “Game of Thrones”-manifested popularity. So when she gets caught in a solar flare while on a mission to save a group of astronauts stranded in space, we don’t share her team’s horror as she is imbued with an indie movie budget’s worth of CGI razzle-dazzle.
More acutely, the power-via-cosmos-spectacle is an early sign that Kinberg isn’t all that interested in telling the story of an X-Woman (the movie finally gets in on the social commentary) breaking bad of her own accord.
The attraction of the X-Men has always been in its power as pop culture-invading allegory; namely, mutant as the unwelcomed, misunderstood immigrant (how would a President Trump respond?). With “Dark Phoenix,” it’s no mistake that the “X-Men” moniker is absent (though it does come across as a plea not to associate this mess with some of the franchise’s high points). The movie is most interesting – when you can dig past its general lack of filmmaking creativity or all-out spectacle – as an allegory of men bottling up feminine power.
In that regard, though, it’s an immense ask of the audience to reconcile its foundational themes with what Kinberg’s screenplay seems more interested in; namely Xavier’s arc as well-intentioned X-Men patriarch to a figure who needs to have a questionable amount of control.
There are seeds of enticing ideas at work in “Dark Phoenix” – their mere existence ensures this isn’t the very worst of the dozen films in the franchise – but they rarely harmonize with a story that feels, if not bloated with subplots, then hastily bringing them to ill-fitting, rushed ends. This is supposedly an antihero’s origin, journey and conclusion, and it’s because of a distractingly obvious lack of care that I still don’t know whether “antihero” is even the right thing to refer to what Jean becomes as.
The dark turn for the central X-Men member (and the movies tries and fails to match that darkness in tone) finds itself playing second, sometimes third, fiddle to wrapping up what is one of the most influential and pioneering franchises of contemporary superhero cinema as we know it, along with Sam Raimi’s web-slinging trilogy.
It’s that business that relegates her – to levels disarmingly reminiscent of the 2006 misfire – to little more than a tool for another force. The movie’s finale will draw connections with “Captain Marvel,” though it’s a jarring bit of self-realization in the narrative, akin to stumbling drunk to your front door and not troubling yourself with how you got there. If there’s one thing this movie should have feared, it’s the audience asking, “So…what does it mean to be the Dark Phoenix?”
Kinberg’s story never considers the question. It’s a messy concoction of themes at odds with intention, and at worst a fundamental misunderstanding of what has made these movies so special at their highest points (even the reliably entertaining powers of Evan Peters’s Quiksilver are strangely shunted). And that’s before the Terminator-esque antagonists are introduced, led by a Jessica Chastain that looks as utterly bored as her hair is platinum.
Like Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen as the once and future iterations of Xavier and Magneto, McAvoy and Fassbender have been this iteration’s consistently best assets. What used to be evidence that the X-Men movies were taking the kind of approach that would make good use of their talents has become an uneasy feeling of, “Wait, what’s that actor doing in a movie like this?” There might not be anything more emblematic for this rollercoaster ride of a series that has enchanted as often as it’s dulled.
“Dark Phoenix” generally does more of the latter than the former, but the screenplay also provides as best a conclusion to the young Xavier-Magneto story as we probably could have expected. It begs the question: Were they the focus all along, with Jean, Beast, Cyclops, Storm and everyone else simply the mutant friends we made along the way? It almost feels like the movie paying its dues to that pair of actors, making sure their time in the blockbuster world has been worth it. If there’s one high bar the X-Men’s eventual introduction into the MCU has yet to meet, it’s the symmetrical gravitas four actors brought to those two roles, as important as any for the series’s relevance aside from one beer-drinking, adamantium-clawed icon.
There were never clear signs that these films were building to some grand conclusion – no real indication that they are puzzle pieces in a larger story – but I can’t shake the feeling of what a well-considered, appropriately-structured finale a la “Avengers: Endgame” would have looked like for these heroes we’ve been watching for years. “Dark Phoenix” is what happens when there’s tension between a desire to play the long game, but not wanting to invest in it—the seasoned Hollywood producer stepping behind the plate having seen what it takes to hit the home run, and possessing none of the skill for himself.
“Dark Phoenix” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action including some gunplay, disturbing images and brief strong language.
Starring: Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence
Directed by Simon Kinberg