While not a total disaster, X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX proves why Fox is no longer in the business of storytelling.
By Matt Cummings
With Disney’s acquisition this year of 20th Century Fox, the once proud X-men franchise finds itself in unchartered waters. Brought back into the Marvel fold but left with no immediate prospects at a rebirth, this week’s release of DARK PHOENIX feels less like an event film and more of an uncomfortable goodbye. And while not the complete disaster fans had been dreading, the film is an empty and flawed conclusion to the series.
While on an X-men mission to rescue a Space Shuttle crew, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) absorbs the power of The Phoenix Force, a destructive entity that has destroyed countless worlds over the millennia. Unable to control it, Jean realizes that Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) has harbored a dark secret about her childhood including the accident that brought her to his school. Corrupted by the Phoenix, angry at Xavier and manipulated into acts of violence by the alien Vuk (Jessica Chastain), Jean faces off against the X-men including Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and the reclusive Magento (Michael Fassbender). The result will see an X-man fall and force the others into a climatic battle against Jean and Vuk for the survival of Earth.
PHOENIX suffered bad press almost from the moment filming began, the most disastrous of which included news that the entire third act was reshot because it was too closely related to another recent superhero film. Who knows whether that ending would have played any better, but it’s clear that this version lacks the dramatic heft that made the comic version so satisfying. That’s not the feeling as act 1 concludes as I actually found myself running with actual hope in my head; but then the second act arrives and suddenly the worst elements of the franchise begin to poison the product.
What’s more disheartening is that longtime franchise Writer-now-Director Simon Kinberg (who wrote X-MEN: THE LAST STAND) takes few chances to either flip the storyline (although we do get a nice cameo in the first act) or end this series with an emotional finality. Think of the way INFINITY WAR ended and you get an idea of what could have been. Perhaps this was the original ending that got dumped due to its connection to the “other recent superhero film,” but the lack of creative fortitude, combined with a basic misunderstanding about these iconic characters, left me entertained but not sorry to see them go.
Performances are uninspiring, from the usually great McAvoy to the “been there, done that” trajectory of Fassbender’s Magneto. There’s really nothing that Fassbender can do here, so he’s relegated to reliving the past without learning how to move forward. Turner and Sheridan, who should be the center of this story, quickly shifts to Turner and Chastain, who doesn’t seem to understand the sheer power of The Phoenix and its potential to end her character. There’s so little in the way of backstory for her race that it seems like her role was much greater in an earlier version. Kinberg seems to be playing the long ball with Marvel, perhaps hoping he will be tapped to write future Mouse House projects. But his swan song is like a muted bird stripped of its singing voice. True, we do get a few nice action scenes (including a non-Wolverine bloodbath on a train), but CIVIL WAR did frenemy much better. It’s also sad that Kinberg failed to taken many lessons from his LAST STAND experiences, which is generally regarded as the worst of the X-men movies.
There is a few things to like in PHOENIX, but in the end the franchise ends on a whimper instead of striving for a stirring make-up kiss for APOCALYPSE. It’s unlikely this very talented team of actors will reprise their roles in the MCU, and who could blame Disney for scuttling that ship. Fox’s regime is thankfully over, to be replaced now (I hope) with a real X-men series that honors the comics and returns them to event-status releases. It’s up to Marvel now to do so, what Fox expected to do back in 1991, what they’ve been unable to consistently deliver since then, and why they’re no longer in business.
X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action including some gunplay, disturbing images, and brief strong language and has a runtime of 113 minutes.