(Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox via EPK.tv)
DARK PHOENIX— 1 STAR
When I reviewed X-Men: Days of Future Past a little over five years ago, I opened with this:
“No movie franchise can last forever. Either time passes where performers age and tastes change, or the franchise itself arrives at a saturation point or moment of collapse where it just doesn’t work like it first did and can no longer continue. When those franchises stumble, flame out, or fail, you are left with a combination of unfinished business, unrealized expectations, and wasted potential. In most cases, those failures came from becoming too large for their own good and straying from their modest roots.”
Whereas Days of Future Past was a face-lifting and jump-starting franchise savior, Dark Phoenix following X-Men: Apocalypse has become the moment of collapse. And it’s not solely because Fox was bought by Disney. Simon Kinberg and company have run out of juice to tell an interesting story sufficiently after multiple chances. When you watch this new movie and actually miss the gaudy theatrics of X-Men: The Last Stand because it at least tried, that’s a very surprising and telling thing.
Stepping up from the screenwriter’s seat to the director’s chair for the first time with the industry disavowment of Bryan Singer, Simon Kinberg tries one more time (he wrote X-Men: Last Stand) to adapt the legendary comic book “Phoenix/Dark Phoenix Saga” penned by Chris Claremont across 1976 to 1980 with the promise of a more faithful treatment for something that couldn’t possibly fit in a single movie. Try as it may, this second attempt is another impossible undertaking and unmitigated disappointment.
With little to no visible reverberations or consequences from the worldwide catastrophe caused by Apocalypse in 1983, our timeline and ageless characters are now operating in 1992. The national morale for mutants is somehow higher than it has ever been. The helpful prowess of the field team led by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and the renown of Professor Charles Xavier (Jame McAvoy) grants their Westchester compound a direct phone line (straight out of Batman ’66) from the President of the United States should the country ever need their help. Mystique thinks they are prancing and being used. Xavier washes it away as the price for peace. When a mass of cosmic energy disables a space shuttle with all the world watching, the X-Men head to space to rescue the craft.
During that rescue, powerful telepath Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) absorbs the full brunt of the mysterious power and survives to tell the tale. However, the changes of might and madness begin to overcome the redhead and threaten the safety of all around her. In a falling out, Jean exiles herself from Xavier and her beau Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan) and seeks advice on suppressing violence from Magneto (Michael Fassbender) who has retired to solitude to lead an unnamed island mutant commune (comic fans will know it to be Genosha). He cannot help her and the power Jean possesses draws the attention of an unnamed alien shape-shifter (Jessica Chastain) who wants it for herself and her invading race.
LESSON #1: THE RANGE OF CONNOTATIONS FOR THE WORD “SPECIAL” — That adjective has an importance and a stigma. While the long-established recruiting call for Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngers has been to help those who are amazing and even cool, other people, even the students themselves, see the negative side to the uniqueness. Their gifts are curses and they are deemed weird or, dare I say, uncanny. We’ve heard this pep talk in every X-Men movie for 19 years and we get it again here to assuage the fears of Jean Grey. The springboard to that cheerleading is always the choice of how to use those gifts for good or bad.
The narrative that weaves in and around Sophie Turner’s tragic central figure counts as a contained, smaller story than something like X-Men: Apocalypse, which should have been their Thanos. Rather than having focused essence and less noise, the attempt of dramatic tension for Dark Phoenix stands as one of the most despondent and ineffectual comic book movies or action films you will ever see. The level of importance this comic story comes from, all of the “rage,” “desire,” and “pain,” should be dire, pulverizing, and deserving of high peril leading to palpable heartbreak.
What results is a great deal of frail and hushed portending that is often leaden and tiresome. The investment and energy are all stunningly low. At that slog, so much becomes nondescript and indiscriminate. Normally, exposition in these type of movies is excessive and shoe-horned badly at the expense of flow. Oddly, Dark Phoenix doesn’t have enough depth of details and it suffers badly from that underdevelopment. It’s bad enough no care was given to age these characters/actors believably, but some, including Chastain’s main villain, don’t even have names. That’s borderline lazy and unforgivable.
This is as much a waste of talent as it is material. Hans Zimmer is one of the five best composers on the planet and his imposing, blaring work is washed out by inaction on screen and feels grossly out of place in a universe that had nostalgic pep thanks to John Ottman’s returning original themes and cues the last two films. Academy Award-winning Dunkirk editor and frequent Christopher Nolan collaborator Lee Smith is better than stitching together action this flimsy and poorly composed. The costume work from designer Daniel Orlandi of Logan is uninteresting and unflattering of the blockbuster score. Lastly, the visual effects from Phil Brennan and his team look awfully weak next to recent entries like Shazam and Captain Marvel, both of which, as you will see, stole a great deal of Dark Phoenix’s thunder.
The element that seals this film as the “moment of collapse” cited earlier is when the usually steady ensemble acting of this franchise cannot lift up the storytelling weaknesses. Since the First Class reboot, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender have been the embodiments of poise and gravitas as Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr. Here, they are finally sunk. McAvoy is given a misplaced angle of vanity that doesn’t suit the character and Fassbender has to weather another side-choosing flip-flop of allegiances that has become too predictable and limiting to his character. The returning Nicholas Hoult presents nothing new for Hank McCoy, Evan Peters’ Quicksilver is sent to the bench quickly, and the movie’s spoiler-ific trailers already seal A-lister Jennifer Lawrence’s fate.
Sophie Turner should be something to root for. She is the true lead and deserves better than fifth billing, but this is too much for her and the youthful end of the cast. The chemistry between her and Tye Sheridan should be moving us to pieces not registering a temperature suitable for chilling vegetables. The force of the roster behind them including Alexandra Shipp’s Storm and Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Nightcrawler share the same underwritten vacancy as the plot. The best this collective can muster is a meager attempt channeling a Fast and Furious rally of family.
LESSON #2: ADMITTING YOUR WRONGS — If there is a second redemptive character-building lesson in play beyond recognizing and appreciating your special differences from Lesson #1, it is the notion of acknowledgment of deserved forgiveness. Characters in Dark Phoenix have made personal and painful mistakes, some recent and some long-standing, that need redress instead of revenge or repeated mistakes. Begrudgingly, the people beyond the misguided epic on screen also need a dose (or seven) of this lesson.
There is a special kind of quizzical failure when a $200 million budgeted movie like this one which employed manpower and time for extensive reshoots and received the incoming counsel from Marvel czar Kevin Feige, still can’t function. Yikes. The studio wants to call this a culmination of twenty years of the X-Men franchise. This isn’t a Viking funeral on the water with fire, metal and swelling music. This is a heart attack on the bathroom floor of a really nice mansion. This convoluted iteration of the franchise deserves to end and get new stewards.