Review: Dark Phoenix (2019)

Full disclosure: I’m a huge X-Men fan and have been for many years.

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Full disclosure: I’m a huge X-Men fan and have been for many years. For me the interplay between the conflict between Martin Luther King Jnr and Malcolm X really came to life in the ideological differences between Professor X and Magneto, which I think was at the heart of X-MenX-2 and The Last Stand. The series was about superheroes, yes, but also about the need to fight for civil rights and respect in society; often the mutants were fighting each other, not saving the world from extra-terrestrial beings. It was a fun, action series, but with some underlying social issues ripe for analysis.

X-Men: First Class did explore some of these themes and was a relatively strong set up for the reboot of the series. However both Days of Future Past and Apocalypse failed to tap into that same concepts, more focused on CGI action sequences and an all star cast to bring in the audiences. Despite the poor box office showing of Apocalypse, the cast return for Dark Phoenix, a second attempt to adapt the comic’s Jean Grey storyline that had already appeared in The Last Stand. As it tries to tackle this already well known plot, it also attempts to tie up this prequel series in a satisfying way. But safe to say, it fails on all counts.

In the older films, the character development helped drive the plot forward, but this is absent in Dark Phoenix. In this story the X-Men team led by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) go to space to save some astronauts in an out of control ship. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) take to the X-plane and do their best to save the spacemen. However Jean is hit by a solar flare, and instead of dying, she returns to the mansion harnessing more power than she’s ever had before.

The thing is, the series never really focused on Jean or ever set her up to be a character of any consequence. In the older films, the love triangle between Wolverine, Jean and Cyclops meant that we could see the tensions and development of each character, ultimately changing their motivations and actions. But here, the viewer is meant to know about and care about Jean, despite Xavier, Mystique and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) being at the core of the last three films. Here the story does focus more on Jean herself, but at the expense of other characters and interesting elements of the story. Jean isn’t a truly interesting protagonist (or antagonist) and her narrative isn’t well structured to create an intriguing story.

The tenuous relationship between human and mutants continues in this story, but the social commentary ends here. Surprisingly Xavier gets an interesting character arch as he struggles to maintain the image of mutants as helpful in society and his own interpersonal relationships with the other mutants. But even then it is not well developed and predominantly used to move the plot forward. Indeed it seems like this film could exist in a vacuum, as the last three films have made no noticeable set up and there is no sense of a greater narrative plans.

On the acting side of things, Turner is reasonable as Jean, though her character’s writing is confusing and motivations are lacking, with her acting reflecting this. Fassbender again steals every scene he’s in, and McAvoy is also decent in his fourth outing. Lawrence is excellent as usual, however a dull script and uninspired writing doesn’t give her or the cast much to work with. Jessica Chastain stars as the villain, in such a bland role it will be forgotten by Awards season. The entire cast are relatively good and their facial expressions are often on maximum display in an attempt to generate emotional impact but at so many points throughout the film dialogue elicits laughs unintentionally, through no fault of the actors.

Having been around for almost 20 years, it is probably time for X-Men to come to a close and with the finalisation of the Disney-Fox deal, it is likely that it will be the last film of this franchise. There’s no shock that marketing for the film is attempting to mimic The Avengers: Endgame, claiming that the film is the close to 19 years of a franchise. In that I personally find The Last Stand a more engaging and better conclusion to the series. The failing of this film is that it relies so heavily on character development and a foundation within the franchise that has just not been present.

It’s a sad conclusion to a series that rebooted with such promise but hasn’t serviced long time or casual fans. After seven films of the series, excluding spin off-s, with these characters, the reboot seemed to be interested in racking in the big bucks over legitimately interesting plot developments. Part of me believes that the team were hoping to use Turner’s followers from Game of Thrones to engage with the film, and the chance to conclude the Dark Phoenix storyline in a better fashion than The Last Stand. But this final chapter is so lacklustre that will be easily forgotten as a good superhero film and could invalidate the reboot series’ entirely. It’s such a lonely island, devoid of passion or continuity from the previous films, and without any real relevance or intrigue. It’s a dud conclusion to the entire series that in my mind it’s best forgotten.

The Best

Chance for Sophie Turner to shine on the big screen. Michael Fassbender is excellent as always and the costumes are pretty great. The whole cast are decent.

The Rest

Jessica Chastain’s agent should be fired for this one. Awful storytelling and uninspired script. Trashes the legacy of X-Men and so removed from what the series was once about. I think the X-Men series won’t be a phoenix rising from the ashes for a while after this one.

Originally published on Back Row, 13 June, 2019.


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