So. It’s come to this. Again. Another X-Men franchise taking on the Dark Phoenix Saga. Written by the same guy who screwed it up the first time, and also directed by him, as well. I mean, how bad can it be? I’m sure he’s learned his lesson, right? Ummm…right?
The story—as much as there is one—starts with a rescue mission in space that ends with mutant psychic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) absorbing a big, cosmic flare thingy. Instead of killing her, it seems to give her abilities a titanic level up, and the increase in power starts to drive her mad. After a destructive incident, she starts being hunted by friend and foe alike and manipulated by a mysterious woman (Jessica Chastain) who seeks to use Jean’s new power for her own ends.
That’s literally all there is to the narrative. Jean gets a power boost; people get hurt and scared; an hour of halfhearted chase and fight scenes; end credits. It’s the shortest ensemble X-Film since The Last Stand in 2006, which took the same storyline and made it the B-plot of an overstuffed clusterfrack of a movie. While Dark Phoenix gives Jean’s story more time to breathe, it also doesn’t do a damn thing with it.
For a film that’s adapting one of the most celebrated, epic, and widely referenced Marvel Comics plots of all time, Dark Phoenix seems decidedly low rent and earthbound. If it weren’t for the killer CGI effects and orchestral score—both of which are some of the best that the franchise has ever seen—it could easily be mistaken for a straight-to-video knockoff. Writer/director Simon Kinberg took inspiration from Logan to make the film more natural and realistic, even though that’s completely the wrong approach for the rest of the franchise, especially for a story involving psychic powers, aliens, and the forces that control the universe.
There’s just nothing much to anything that Kinberg brings to the film. On the plus side, there’s nothing as comically awful as what he wrote for The Last Stand. On the minus, there’s also nothing as comically awful as what he wrote for The Last Stand. At least that film was intriguing in its empty-headed, juvenile approach. Dark Phoenix, by comparison, is just boring, only occasionally becoming vibrant through the occasional happy accident. Kinberg occasionally tries to delve into weighty topics, like the male fear of empowered women or how the X-Men are seen as tools even by their own mentor, but he never digs deep enough to unearth anything substantial.
What tends to elevate the film more than anything is its music, which typically displays moods and drama in ways Kinberg simply can’t. Hans Zimmer came out of superhero-film retirement for this score, and it’s one of his best in recent memory. It’s a stunning, transportive symphony that understands the character of Jean Grey more than anyone, its tense strings and desperate percussion mixed with quiet synths and whispering voices. Taken on its own, it easily transcends typical superhero scores to become something extraordinary and captivating.
The film springs to life most when Zimmer’s score is matched with some of the most impressive visual effects in X-Film history. The cosmic energy effects in particular are hypnotically beautiful (even though it’s meant to be the Phoenix Force, it’s never once named as such). More than any of the other films, the mutant power displays seem more immediate and integrated and less post-production VFX. It’s honestly what prevents the entire third act from completely falling apart.
And fall apart, it threatens to. The film’s ending was infamously and completely re-shot after test audiences didn’t respond well to it. And allegedly because it too closely resembled the ending of Captain Marvel, another Marvel Comics film set in the 90s about a cosmically-charged woman who travels to space. It centers on an extended fight sequence on a train during which Jean herself is mostly sidelined, and it feels like a last-minute cop-out. While it does thankfully feature all the characters in full control of their powers, it’s also anticlimactic and painfully grounded. It doesn’t help that Kinberg has no real sense of fight choreography or motion logic. His action scenes tend to end up confused and messy when they aren’t simplistic to the point of tedium.
The cast doesn’t always help the situation, either. Most of them seem to be phoning in their performances, especially James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Charles Xavier and Magneto respectfully. Fassbender doesn’t even try to keep his accent consistent between scenes. Some barely register because they simply don’t have anything to do, like Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Nightcrawler and Alexandra Shipp’s Storm. Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique starts strong but seems to lose interest as the story progresses. It doesn’t help that her prosthetic make-up here looks like second-rate cosplay.
It’s Sophie Turner as Jean Grey that makes the movie worth watching. Turner gives a dedicated, intuitive performance here, building on the potential she displayed in X-Men: Apocalypse. She gets the character; her doubt, her fear, her rage, her passion. She has an interesting dynamic with Jessica Chastain, whose character expresses a chilling, intriguing logic. Chastain herself clearly doesn’t want to be there, but she still delivers a fully professional performance, committed to doing her best regardless.
It’s just a shame that the script lets all these characters down. Shipp, in particular, has been very vocal about how an iconic character like Storm has been relegated to a C-list background player. Kinberg simply doesn’t know what to do with his material. The film has no through line and a very hazy thesis. It began as the start of a new trilogy, then was retconned at the last minute into a grand finale when Disney bought out Fox.
And as a grand finale, it fails. It sends a 20-year, genre-defining franchise out on a whimper. While it’s not all bad and is occasionally entertaining and exciting, overall, it comes off as a kind of afterthought. An obligation. It isn’t quite as vacant and slipshod as The Last Stand, but that doesn’t exactly take much. It’s sad that the best adaptation of the X-Men’s most powerful story is still a Saturday morning cartoon from 1992.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / C+