Dark Phoenix is a victim of all the business surrounding it, to be sure. But let’s imagine, for a moment, that Disney didn’t buy 20th Century Fox and the studio continued to be build its own little Marvel cinematic universe. In that reality, Dark Phoenix is still a mediocre picture.
Which means we should define mediocre in this case because, as it happens, Dark Phoenix is not exactly a bad movie. It’s competently shot and performed (for the most part). Some of its action sequences are genuinely interesting or feature good uses of mutant powers. It also suggests some interesting ideas for an X-Men film. But at the same time, it is all in service of a script which just plods along through the bigger moments of the Phoenix Saga without earning a single one of them. Its mediocrity lay in a lack of conviction, because, ultimately, we just do not know these X-Men.
Despite writer/director Simon Kinberg’s affection for characters like Professor X (James McAvoy), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult), they are somehow still ciphers after appearing in the last four films. Nonetheless, the film expects us to care when Beast refers to himself as one of the last survivors of the First Class. On this, your mileage may vary as you may care more for X-Men: First Class or any of the X-Men films than I do, but the unknowable nature of the characters will become an issue when you face Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), a character the movie assumes you love more than any other despite only appearing in her present form once: X-Men Apocalypse.
Because of this, Kinberg is forced to assume you care about her from other media, the comics, or even her Famke Janssen manifestation in the first X-Men cycle at Fox. And while Turner’s ability to cry and appear tormented is admirable, there’s no reason to care about Jean. Instead, Dark Phoenix re-frames Jean’s most famous story into a tale of Xavier and his mistakes versus her struggle to deal with the power.
Additionally, the relationship between Jean and Scott (Tye Sheridan) feels even more thin than it did when Janssen played it opposite James Marsden as Cyclops. Meanwhile, Magneto (Michael Fassbender) gets shoe-horned into the plot once again because you clearly cannot make an X-Men movie without him. In lieu of focusing on the character who should matter to the plot, Dark Phoenix forces the oldest X-Men conflict into its story.
Applying that crutch of familiarity means characters like Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters) are under-served. Storm, in particular, serves no other purpose than to bring the lightning. It’s a damned shame as Shipp has the potential to be a great Storm. A movie would just need to focus on her, maybe as leader of the Morlocks, to pull it off. Smit-McPhee does what he can as the lovable Kurt. In fact, his mutant powers gets the biggest workout and produces some cool-looking moments. Peters, meanwhile, gets hurt early on and spends most of the movie in bed. It is second only to Lawrence’s seemingly contractually agreed upon death in terms of an actor getting a free ride in this movie.
Which is definitely a bigger problem for the film than Kinberg may realize. So much of Dark Phoenix feels like an obligation than something it passionately wants to do. It dutifully goes through the motions of the plot — Jean becomes possessed by an alien force with malevolent designs — while also trying to tie off some ideas from First Class. But all of it feels like clauses in actors’ contracts than an organic progression across four films. Early on, Mystique introduces an idea that Xavier’s vanity is the cause of all their misfortunes. It carries on throughout the film without much evidence to support it. Then, it is quickly tossed aside when aliens attack.
Oh, yeah, the aliens.
Nothing in the film feels more perfunctory than a group of shape-shifting aliens led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain), a member of the D’bari looking to control Jean and re-establish her race on Earth. She’s there to be a villain because the film will not allow Jean to become the bad guy, but she is so slight that she offers no menace. Her cadre of D’bari also do little else than appear as nameless foes for the other X-Men to fight. Considering the D’bari’s place in the Phoenix Saga, the choice to identify these aliens as such seems halfhearted. Apparently, the name was subbed in when the production learned Captain Marvel was going to feature Skrulls. But no matter the name, these aliens seemed periphery and unwelcome throughout the film.
Simultaneously too short and too long, Dark Phoenix never connects to anything correctly. It is another poor adaptation of the source and a waste of the talents involved. At the same time, it is not the trainwreck some would have you believe. Its biggest crime is its lack of ambition. It merely sits there and treats the Phoenix Saga as though it were a piece of connective tissue and not an epic crescendo. It’s lifelessness is the best piece of evidence that the X-Men’s days in film were about to end no matter the outcome of the Disney acquisition.
Dark Phoenix is in theaters now.
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