The X-Men franchise has been one of the most inconsistent since its start in 2000. While it may claim to be the grandparent of the modern superhero boon, it has never been able to claim to be the best in the genre. Tonally it’s been all over the place, but interestingly enough it’s one of the only long running series that’s resulted in two different baroque genre phase tales in ‘Deadpool’s comic skewering, and ‘Logan’s myth-making. ‘Dark Phoenix’ (strangely dropping it’s X-Men moniker) seemed designed to further the generational tale started in ‘First Class’, but based on its incredibly poor performance and Disney absorbing Fox, it appears to be its ending. Fitting, because the film in many ways is also the franchise nadir.
In the debate of the very worst the X-Men franchise has offered, ‘Dark Phoenix’ falls somewhere in the territory of ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’, ‘Apocalypse’, and the third entry in the original series ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’, itself a botched attempt at adapting the same source material. The Dark Phoenix Saga is one of the most revered in all of comics. Published over the course of 1980 after having been built up for years in ‘Uncanny X-Men’, it’s a complex tale of absolute power corrupting absolutely. Young mutant and Professor X favorite, Jean Grey, is exposed to and consumed by a primal cosmic entity called the Phoenix Force, upgrading her telepathic and telekinetic powers. Simultaneously, she is being wooed and prodded by The Hellfire Club, an ancient conspiratorial order made up of powerful, influential, villainous mutants like Sebastian Shaw and Emma Frost. The storyline is tragic and heartbreaking, but it’s fueled by precise character evolution and shaped within a medium where there are no limitations in what can be portrayed. Practically bringing it to the screen has been a true existential challenge, one for which writer/producer (and now director, with ‘Phoenix’, Simon Kinberg) has been driven to attempt for many years.
While admirable that Kinberg has refused to give up on adapting this cherished tale, ‘Dark Phoenix’, the latest, and likely last, X-Men film with the current cast, is an abject failure. Kinberg has writing and producing credits on a number of the movies in this series, including shared screenplay credit for the aforementioned ‘Last Stand’. He’s widely regarded as being the shepherd of the franchise for its latter half, and professes to be a huge fan himself. None of these factors, or perhaps all of them, explain the uninspired bore of a film that now exists as the culmination of his vision. Taking the reins from the disgraced Bryan Singer who helmed the original two films, plus both a highlight, ‘Days of Future Past’, and a lowlight, ‘Apocalypse’, his inexperience motivating actors and framing scenes really shows.
‘Dark Phoenix’ comes across extremely flat and devoid of emotion. Talented actors like James McAvoy, so engaging as Xavier in the past, Michael Fassbender, initially riveting as a younger Magneto, Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/Mystique, Nicolas Hoult as Beast, Jessica Chastain as a poorly realized alien leader villain, and Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, are sleepy and rote in this film, reacting to subpar material without even trying to liven things up. Gone are the clever lines and setups of past screenplays and direction by the likes of Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn. Character motivations are incomprehensible and the attempt by the filmmaker to introduce cosmic entities and aliens comes across as small and shoddy.
‘Phoenix’ starts the team off in a different status quo that would seem to have potential. The X-Men in the 90s are no longer feared and hated, but revered and championed (although even the cheering ‘crowd’ scenes are weak), with McAvoy’s Xavier seemingly lapping up the attention and adulation. He sends them on a dangerous mission into space to save some astronauts on a wayward shuttle, almost killing his students in the process and exposing Jean to the amorphous blob of energy that serves as the Phoenix Force. Unfortunately this conflict set-up only leads to poorly written and embarrassingly acted scenes between characters, particularly Lawrence, McAvoy, and Hoult. By the time Fassbender appears as Magneto, now leading a group of exiled mutants on a meekly imagined Genosha (maybe?), the movie has already squandered any potential. The less said about Chastain’s character and performance the better, as she is given absolutely nothing to do here in a barely sketched out role. Perhaps the biggest sin of all though is that this is a superhero movie with zero super-heroing, that drones and clunks its way through to its boring finish . . .
Written & Directed By: Simon Kinberg
Running Time: 113 min.
* 1/2 (out of four stars) -OR- D+