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Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Dark Phoenix Review: Goodbye to a Generation of X-Men

Dark Phoenix Review: Goodbye to a Generation of X-Men

The X-Men film franchise has been around, in some form or another, for nearly two decades since kicking off with X-Men in 2000. Now, with the recent finalization of the Disney-Fox deal, the franchise will officially come to a close. The last of the mainline X-Men movies, Dark Phoenix, sees longtime writer-producer Simon Kinberg make his directorial debut in another attempt to adapt Marvel Comics' Dark Phoenix Saga storyline. As such, the film is tasked with both wrapping up the prequel series that began with X-Men: First Class and giving the Dark Phoenix Saga a better adaptation than 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand... a job it's, sadly, not up for. Dark Phoenix provides an unsatisfying ending to the X-Men film franchise, with a storyline that's neither character-driven nor well-developed.

Dark Phoenix Review

Dark Phoenix sees a fully realized X-Men team lead by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) - consisting of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters) - go on a mission to space in perhaps the film's most entertaining sequence insofar as it features all the X-Men using their powers as a team. However, Jean is hit by some kind of cosmic force appearing to be a solar flare. Though she manages to survive, her already incredible powers are amplified and she has trouble controlling them. When Jean accidentally kills a member of the X-Men, she seeks the help of Magneto (Michael Fassbender), but seeing the danger she poses, he banishes her from his mutant homeland. With no where else to go, Jean is approached by a mysterious woman (Jessica Chastain), who has sought the power within Jean, but whose intentions are not innocent.

For Dark Phoenix, Kinberg serves as director and penned the film's script, after working on the much maligned X-Men: The Last Stand, as well as prequel installments X-Men: Days of Future Past and X-Men: Apocalypse. Although Dark Phoenix is bound to earn comparisons to The Last Stand (since both adapt the Dark Phoenix Saga storyline), this latest movie focuses much more on Jean Grey - but at the expense of the other characters and elements of the story. Dark Phoenix goes cosmic to introduce the source of the Phoenix Force, and an alien race that seeks to obtain its power, but fails to fully establish either the mechanics of the force or the aliens beyond a one-dimensional motivation. Dark Phoenix also follows the thread of a tenuous relationship between humans and mutants - a common theme of X-Men movies - although, here, Charles works to maintain it at great risk to the X-Men. But again, that's not well developed and largely used to move the plot forward or set up certain action set pieces.

All these underdeveloped secondary elements and supporting characters would be understandable if Dark Phoenix were to use the bulk of its runtime to give Jean Grey a truly compelling, character-driven story - but it doesn't. The mechanics of how Jean's powers work or how the Phoenix Force affects them isn't explained well enough for her actions to make sense, and Jean isn't established enough as a character in these films for her dark turn to have any emotional impact. Kinberg uses close ups on his actors to focus on core emotional beats, but rather than complement a compelling script, these close ups are a stopgap to fill an emotional void in the script. Turner and the rest of the cast do what they can with the script, but the foundation simply isn't there, and certain lines of dialogue are more likely to elicit laughter than the desired emotional response. So Jean Grey is ultimately a confusing character whose actions and motivations make little sense, leading a larger cast of characters who make similarly baffling decisions.

Further, big emotional beats also fail to land because they rely too much on the franchise's legacy, but with three years since the last X-Men movie, casual audiences simply aren't invested enough for that to work. It's possible that Dark Phoenix is a more satisfactory adaptation of The Dark Phoenix Saga than The Last Stand was, and to the film's credit, it does introduce certain interesting ideas by going cosmic. But few, if any of these ideas are fully expanded. Overall, the movie relies too much on a foundation within the franchise that simply hasn't been established effectively enough. It may service longtime fans of the film series and the comic books (though it also may not), but it will likely leave casual fans scratching their heads.

As the seventh and final movie in Fox's X-Men franchise, Dark Phoenix doesn't conclusively wrap up the series in a satisfactory way - though that may be chalked up to the filmmakers not knowing it would be the last mainline installment when they started work on it. It's unclear how exactly Fox's deal with Disney affected Dark Phoenix, but it means the X-Men film series concludes on one of its less satisfying chapters. Though completionists and X-Men fans may still find some enjoyment in Dark Phoenix, it's by no means a must-see superhero movie, nor do the visuals and action set pieces (of which there are some) necessitate seeing it in IMAX. Ultimately, Dark Phoenix doesn't work as a single entry in the larger franchise, nor does it build effectively on what came before, leaving Fox's X-Men films without a satisfying conclusion to the nearly two-decade old series.

That more might be out there somewhere, in a movie that took increased time and consideration and, frankly, budget. (The special effects in Dark Phoenix are borderline bad.) What exists now, though, can’t even mount a weak defense of its own existence. “You’re right, you’re right, I’m sorry,” the movie seems to say, delivering its pat ending and then quickly shuffling off, embarrassed. If this is indeed the last installment of this version of the X-Men universe—with McAvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence, and the rest—then it’s a pretty pathetic goodbye. I’d probably rather they’d just ghosted.

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