New from Al and Linda Lerner on Movies and Shakers: Dark Phoenix

Any darker and you might not see anything on the screen. Dark Phoenix puts a bow on the end of 20th Century Fox’s X-Men movies since the studio has been acquired by Disney. It remains to be seen how the new owners will roll the X-Men into the rest of their Marvel Universe.

The scene is set in the early 1990’s as Writer/Director Simon Kinberg takes the X-Men into space for this first time. They’re on a rescue mission that ends with Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) blasted by a mysterious cosmic force that gives her powers beyond anything Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) or the other team of mutants have ever seen. She transforms into Phoenix who could be the most powerful ally or foe the X-Men have ever faced.  We also get her backstory dating back to the mid 70’s when little Jean’s mutant powers first emerged with disastrous and traumatic results on a highway.

This marks Kinberg’s feature directorial debut. He’s known primarily as a producer (Deadpool, X-Men:Apocalypse, The Martian). For this film, his vision is fairly standard comic book style. The action is big, broad and loud, but not exceptionally compelling. Hans Zimmer provides the appropriately momentous-sounding musical score, all of which feels like he’s checking off items on a list for how to direct a Marvel action movie. What is missing in the script and characters is any sense of lightness or comedy. The unrelenting dour atmosphere makes for a very flat viewing experience. There’s not much texture.

Many of the X-Men mainstays are back and many of their performances feel as if there’s a lid holding them back. James McAvoy has shaved his head once again as Xavier, leading the team with his intense stares and soft voice. He’s just so full of himself. Michael Fassbender gives a more multi-faceted Erik/Magneto. He is given an interesting story as the leader of the land of Genosha that Kinberg describes as a refuge for mutants, kind of like Israel is for Jews. He finally gets to be a good guy which is a nice turn for his character that we liked seeing. 

Jennifer Lawrence plays Raven/Mystique tired, like she’s ready to retire the character. Nicholas Hoult’s Hank McCoy/Beast is likable but very underused and underplayed. Tye Sheridan as Scott Summers/Cyclops sports his sharp eyewear and has a non-convincing romance with Jean Grey. Sophie Turner may not make you forget her Game of Thrones Sansa Stark character here playing Phoenix. For much of her time on screen, Turner plays confused about whether she’s supposed to be good or evil. 

She has a glowing, fiery effect in her face that is beautifully ominous; as is her character. Ultimately, however,  we don’t feel vested enough in her story, so we can’t deeply respond to what happens to her.

All the other team members, Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Quicksliver (Evan Peters) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) hit their marks and carry their spears more or less enthusiastically. 

The action sequences start with a slo-mo car crash, then moves on to a whirling colorful force field in space. Granted, it takes a lot to wow audiences who have come to expect spectacular special effects and while these scenes create tension there aren’t any new, jaw-dropping effects. Just lots of disintegrating characters and thin blue clouds swirling around transformations.

The climactic train chase was originally written to take place in space, but after rewrites, the action was brought back to Earth. The final battle pits the X-Men against an alien army led by stone-faced Vuk (Jessica Chastain looking rather pale in her first Marvel movie). She takes an Earthing’s appearance. Apparently, the make-up department decided that Jessica Chastain would look more terrifying without eye-liner and mascara. Vuk is determined to rid Earth of humanity and take what she can for her/him/it’s own. 

Although the theme of this film is all you need is love and family, it’s not quite that way by the end. This film is not the installment that will spark a new crop of X-Men fans. If you’re already invested in these characters and their stories Dark Phoenix is a must-see. If you didn’t care before, there’s no need to start with this. Like in Avengers:Endgame, there will be heartbreak for X-Men fans, but no spoilers here. It’s the movie itself that is the spoiled goods. This is one Phoenix that doesn’t deserve to rise again. 

20th Century Fox                 113 Minutes              PG-13

from Movies and Shakers

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