Dark PhoenixReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/06/19 07:25:42
When they first started making “X-Men” movies nearly 20 years ago, my basic problem with them was that I could never quite keep track of the various characters or their individual abilities were—by the time they got to their inevitable conclusions featuring hordes of oddly costumed oddballs whomping the crap out of each other with their vaguely defined skill sets, I was too busy trying to remember who they were to get involved in what was happening. Over the next two decades there have been nearly a dozen sequels, prequels and spinoffs, all of which I have seen, and while I would not claim to be a fan of the franchise, there have been a couple of entries that I have liked (such as “X-Men: First Class,” “The Wolverine” and the admittedly overrated “Logan”) and I think that I finally have a grasp on at least the core characters and their abilities (although I would probably still do better on a quiz on the names and abilities of Taylor Swift’s squad in the “Bad Blood” video). Now, with the advent of the latest—and reportedly last, at least in the current iteration—installment, “Dark Phoenix,” my problem is not so much that I do not know who the characters are any more as much as it is the fact that I no longer care. This is a wheezy and lazy retread of familiar material—especially so in this case—that seems to have been made by people with nothing more on their minds than a massive box-office haul for people who will unquestioningly go to anything, no matter how lame, that involves the X-Men in some way and it is hard to believe that even they would be satisfied with the results this time around.The focus of the story this time is on one of the most famous members of the ensemble, Jean Grey. When we first see her here in 1975, she is a little girl who already possesses astonishing telekinetic and telepathic powers—including the ability to dial up the Warren Zevon classic “Werewolves of London” on the radio three years before it was released—which are responsible for a terrible car crash that takes her parents away from her and lands her in the care of Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his school for gifted mutants. Although mutants have often been scorned for their powers, the public’s attitude towards them has been changing and when the story picks up in 1992, the X-Men are celebrated throughout the world and Xavier, who now has a direct hotline to the president, is reveling in his new-found glory, much to the consternation of shape-shifter Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), who remembers the bad old days when mutants were not looked upon favorably and understands how quickly attitudes could shift again. Just then, a space shuttle is being threatened by what appears to be a massive solar flare and a group of X-Men, including the adult Jean (Sophie Turner), head up to space for a rescue mission. The rescue is a success but in the process, Jean ends up absorbing the power of the entire flare and briefly ends up dying before coming back to life.
Even for a mutant, this might seem to be a bit disconcerting but Jean returns to Earth feeling surprisingly hale and hearty and not even the observation by colleague Hank “Beast” McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) that she appears to have developed incredible strength on top of her already considerable abilities. She becomes so powerful, in fact, that not even Professor Xavier is able to control her anymore and when she reads his mind and makes certain shocking discoveries about her own past that he deliberately tried to hide from her, she flees the school in a rage to get answers for herself. Her friends follow in hot pursuit but in the resulting conflict, a tragedy occurs that only further alienates Jean as she struggles with the anger and anguish within her that is causing her to lash out in increasingly dangerous ways. As her friends continue to pursue her, some want to bring her down out of revenge for what she has done while others, such as the lovesick Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) believe that she can be saved from herself. Meanwhile, another mysterious figure (Jessica Chastain) inserts herself into the proceedings with designs of her own for utilizing Jean and her powers.
If some of the plot details sound a little familiar to you, it is because “Dark Phoenix” takes its inspiration from the extended comic book narrative of the same name that is perhaps the most famous storyline in the history of the “X-Men” franchise and which has already served as the basis for an earlier film in the series, “X-Men: The Last Stand.” That particular Brett Ratner opus is usually considered to be one of the low points in the history of the X-Men film adventures, partly due to general incompetence and partly due to the squandering of such rich source material, and so I suppose that it isn’t that much of a surprise that the producers would want to try a do-over at some point. What is a surprise is that the new version would essentially make all of the same mistakes as “The Last Stand” and then throw in a bunch of new ones for not-so-good measure. One of the key problems is that writer-director Simon Kinberg (who co-wrote “The Last Stand”) is trying to telescope a narrative that could actually use a multi-story structure into a two-hour running time that ends up casting practically all the character interactions and emotional beats to the side in order to make room for the endless action scenes linked together by bursts of clumsily expository dialogue that struggles to inform viewers as to what the hell is going on at any point. (We have seen these characters interacting in one form or another for two decades now but they hardly seem to know each other here.) As a result, a story that is supposed to depend so much on the emotions of the characters demonstrates none of its own and as a result, moments that are supposed to come across as absolutely devastating to viewers barely rate a shrug of indifference. Even those like myself who do not claim any great depth of knowledge towards the X-Men mythos are going to come away from it feeling as if a lot has gone missing. The film also inexplicably elects not to grapple with perhaps the key flaw of the entire “Dark Phoenix” saga—the mildly sexist notion that a female hero granted with unimaginable powers will instantly crack under the pressures brought on by her new gifts—which is an even more glaring flaw when you consider the fact that the recent “Captain Marvel” handled that very same development in a far more interesting manner.
At the same time, even if you take away all the expectations brought on by the source material and treat the film as just another $200,000,000 behemoth hoping to suck up your money at the multiplex this weekend, “Dark Phoenix” is pretty much a washout. Sure, a film like “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” may be a huge disappointment but at least it had a few moments of grace and glory strewn among the wreckage but “Dark Phoenix” doesn’t even pull that off. The non-Phoenix subplot involving the Jessica Chastain character is an unnecessary distraction that a.) steals focus from what should be the central story and b.) doesn’t make much sense even by comic book movie standards. Making his directorial debut, Kinberg illustrates why one should probably think twice before giving an untried filmmaker a nine-figure budget for their first project. Oh sure, lots of stuff happens but there is not a single distinctive visual moment to speak of throughout—I only saw it last night and I am sitting here struggling to recall anything from it. What I will recall, on the other hand, is the sight of a number of excellent actors who are clearly going through their paces while expending only the absolute minimum of energy required to fulfill their contractural obligations. (Jennifer Lawrence, normally one of the liveliest of actors, is so palpably bored by the proceedings this time around that her entire performance is like watching a yawn made flesh.) No one seems to be having any fun here and that lack of enthusiasm will surely spread to viewers as well.The nicest thing that can be said about “Dark Phoenix” is that it is not quite the nadir of the series—entries like the aforementioned “The Last Stand” and the recent “X-Men: Apocalypse” were even worse—but the fact that it isn’t that much better than those low points is not exactly encouraging. This is a film that is not just bad on all the usual levels, ranging from poor storytelling to lazy action beats to the increasingly fumbled chronology, but practically exhausted to boot. This is a series that predates the MCU by several years and while the physical size and scope of the films has expanded over that time, the dramatic ambitions have not grown as well and the result is a film where everything has a been there/done that feeling to it. As an individual film, it does not work but as a wildly uneven conclusion to a franchise that has never quite managed to live up to its promise in any consistent manner over the years, it is, I suppose oddly fitting. This may be the end of the X-Men series in its current iteration but my guess is that it will only be a matter of time before their adventures return to the big screen. Maybe by then, they will finally figure out how to do proper justice to "Dark Phoenix."
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