Traveling back in time can’t prevent this threat from existing. In this new present for the X-Men, they are not only accepted by humans, but loved for their mutant abilities. Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is in charge of putting his team in increasingly more difficult scenarios. One puts them in space, seeing Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), and Jean Gray (Sophie Turner) attempting a rescue mission for a downed shuttle.
The mission is successful, though not without a close call. Jean almost dies during it when exposed to a mysterious cosmic force. Back on Earth, her powers and personality are amplified and changed. She’s a danger to everyone around her and doesn’t know what’s going on inside her head and body. One woman, Vuk (Jessica Chastain) seeks out Gray in hopes of harnessing what she’s got for destructive reasons.
What do Dark Phoenix and Avengers: Endgame have in common? They both signify a specific end of their cinematic franchise journeys. Of course, the end of 20th Century Fox’s X-Men isn’t like the end of MCU’s and Disney’s Avengers Infinity saga; there’s nothing like the latter and likely never will be. But without the initial X-Men in 2000 (throw in 1998’s Blade and 2002’s Spider-Man also), those best laid plans of a Marvel Cinematic Universe probably don’t exist. Dark Phoenix has certainly been beat up critically. It’s got scuffs, and some unseen bright spots. Hyperbole is an infectious drug. This is nowhere near as bad as The Last Stand or X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Not great, either.
Granted, if you’re going to take a mulligan on something that was pretty poorly received the first time, it might be best to take a completely different approach. For the uninitiated, the story of Jean Gray’s dark rebirth has kind of already been done before in The Last Stand. Wanting to make full amends on that movie is Simon Kinberg, a long-time contributor to the X-Men franchise in writing and producing capacities making his directing debut in addition to writing and producing. Dark Phoenix can look sort of dated here and there—and man, once you start getting into the jobber list of mutants there ain’t much there, seeing a person fight with dreadlocks sounds as eye-rolling as it sounds—but really, there are some strong setpieces that Kinberg quarterbacks (seeing the X-Men go into space backed with the sounds of Hans Zimmer is kind of sublime, and the 3rd act climax on a train could be the best standalone action scene in the series). The actual nuts and bolts of the picture aren’t the problem.
What is problematic is a screenplay that has flashes of intrigue and weight, but also prolonged stretches of monotony and weightlessness. The Dark Phoenix core story is where a new person not named Kinberg could have potentially came at it with a diverging viewpoint and simply put a fresh set of eyes. However, the adapted saga and how it plays out on screen isn’t that bad and is somewhat compelling; it’s the subplot and inconsistent character writing that mars the film.
There are faceless villains, and then there are the lifeless, lowest-common-denominator-driven villains in this movie led by Chastain’s character that bring any energy Dark Phoenix has to a halt when on-screen save for the final act. An egotistical, opportunistic heel turn from Professor X feels totally out of character for how he’s been positioned prior to this point. It’s a byproduct of what may be the X-Men franchise’s biggest issue: There’s no connective tissue binding each movie to one another, which in turn nullifies most of the impact any attempts of drawing emotion do have. After so many movies, we really don’t know the bulk of these characters, their goals, fears, etc.
Remember The Hangover Part III and how the bulk of the cast looked like they’d rather be anywhere else? Not all of Dark Phoenix’s cast comes off the same way; Fassbender is still giving it his all and Turner does solid as the central figure. But some of the contributors, including superstars Lawrence and McAvoy, appear mentally checked out. Hard not to be when so many rewrites and shifts and production changes occur.
Dark Phoenix stands as the metaphorical death of the X-Men in the way we know them now, as property of 20th Century Fox. Like a phoenix, perhaps the X-Men, a lukewarm property at this point in time not without potential, will rise again to prominence under the direction of a new studio. MCU and proud.
Photo credits go to cinemablend.com and ew.com.
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