Director: Simon Kinberg
Cast: Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Jessica Chastain, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Evan Peters
Runtime: 1 hr 54 mins
Rating: PG13 (Violence and Brief Coarse Language)
Released By: 20th Century Fox
Opening Day: 6 June 2019
Synopsis: In DARK PHOENIX, the X-MEN face their most formidable and powerful foe: one of their own, Jean Grey. During a rescue mission in space, Jean is nearly killed when she is hit by a mysterious cosmic force. Once she returns home, this force not only makes her infinitely more powerful, but far more unstable. Wrestling with this entity inside her, Jean unleashes her powers in ways she can neither comprehend nor contain. With Jean spiraling out of control, and hurting the ones she loves most, she begins to unravel the very fabric that holds the X-Men together. Now, with this family falling apart, they must find a way to unite -- not only to save Jean's soul, but to save our very planet from aliens who wish to weaponize this force and rule the galaxy.
We didn’t much enjoy the last X-Men outing, not least because what was promised as the ‘Apocalypse’ ended up squandering the potential built up over the previous two films – Matthew Vaughn’s 2011 reboot ‘First Class’ and Bryan Singer’s 2014 continuation ‘Days of Future Past’ – in a silly CGI spectacular of emptiness. Even with veteran series writer and producer Simon Kinberg taking the reins of ‘Dark Phoenix’, we didn’t have much, if any, expectation going into what has been billed the culmination of a two-decade (and 12-film) franchise.
And if you, like us, went in expecting little, then you’d probably be at least mildly (pleasantly) surprised by its results. To be sure, ‘Dark Phoenix’ is far, far from the best films of the series (that honour still belongs to ‘X2: X-Men United’ and ‘First Class’), but it is also not the disaster we had feared. We dare say too that it is better than Brett Ratner’s much-reviled ‘The Last Stand’, which it will inevitably be compared against, given how both draw from one of the more memorable plotlines in the Marvel comic book annals – that of Jean Grey, an amber-haired mutant with telekinetic and telepathic abilities who becomes possessed with a powerful, malevolent and all-consuming force which unleashes her dark side.
Jean is unmistakably the focus of this movie, beginning with a prologue that shows her as a eight-year-old girl whose supernatural gifts are responsible for causing a fatal car accident involving her parents. After emerging unscathed, Jean is taken in by Charles X. Xavier (James McAvoy) into his School for Gifted Youngsters, where he encourages her to learn to control her powers and use them for the good of humanity. Flash-forward to 1992, and Jean (Sophie Turner) is now a confident 25-year-old who is part of the squad that Charles dispatches every now and then on missions to save humans in peril, especially when the President picks up his ‘X’ phone in the Oval Office.
In a clear sign that Kinberg’s technique is less character- than plot-driven, there is barely any time for us to acquaint ourselves to young-adult Jean – and for that matter, reacquaint ourselves with the other superheroes in Charles’ team assembled over ‘First Class’. ‘Days of Future Past’ and ‘Apocalypse’, including Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) – before they are sent into space to rescue a crew of astronauts whose Challenger spacecraft was damaged by a deadly solar flare. They succeed all right, but Jean becomes irradiated with a cosmic energy that she ends up absorbing.
That sheer power makes her stronger than ever, and unwittingly breaks down walls inside her mind which Charles had apparently erected through Cerebro to protect herself from her painful past. You can imagine how things evolve from there: Jean becomes royally pissed that Charles had been messing inside her head, setting her on a quest to discover the truth, leading to a confrontation with the rest of the X-Men that results in an accidental high-profile death (you can probably guess who from watching the trailers), and which therefore splits the unity of the X-Men into those who want her dead and those who think they can still save her from herself.
Oh, and just so they can reunite again against a common enemy, there is a subplot involving a race of alien body snatchers (led by Jessica Chastain) who wants the power within Jean for themselves. As dull as that subplot is, we are thankful that it at least manages to bring back Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender), whose magnetic (no pun intended) dynamic with Charles was quite possibly the best thing the more recent ‘X-Men’ films had going for them. Erik’s motivation of coming out of his seclusion from the agricultural commune he now lives on a remote island with other renegade mutants is vengeance, and you can probably guess that Charles and Erik find themselves at odds with each other once again.
To Kinberg’s credit, there are several interesting themes which could be at play here, especially how Charles’ idealistic desire for humans and mutants to live in harmony with one another manifests itself perversely in manipulative, even self-aggrandising, tendencies. Yet these ideas hardly make a compelling narrative, which unfolds instead at a subdued tempo from start to finish, such that there is little poignancy to the pivotal death midway through the film, or the mourning that follows, or even Jean’s supposedly barely controllable rage. Not only do the stakes feel curiously low, they also come across pretty inconsequential, as if no more than the consequences of a young-adult female with unresolved daddy issues.
The melodrama is only partially alleviated by the action set-pieces, which besides the big finale set aboard a moving train, hardly quickens the pulse. While these sequences are cleanly and clearly shot, there is little imagination to their choreography – in particular, there is too little opportunity for the characters, whether individually or as a team, to showcase their superhero powers, which Kinberg’s predecessors Vaughn and Singer have arguably excelled at. Only the reshot climax (in order to avoid similarities with ‘Captain Marvel’) stands out for its display of teamwork in action, but even so, it is hardly anything to shout about coming after the ‘Avengers’.
As lacklustre as it is, we were honestly expecting worse coming after all that bad press which preceded its release. It is therefore a relief that ‘Dark Phoenix’ does not cause the ‘X-Men’ franchise to go down in flames, although it ranks as probably one of the worse entries. On hindsight, it would probably have been better for the series to go out with a bang five years ago with ‘Days of Future Past’, than prolong it with two middling afterthoughts in ‘Apocalypse’ and ‘Dark Phoenix’. Coming amidst an abundance of superhero films, this original superhero ensemble feels tired, dated and out-of-steam, so unless you, like us, had your expectations way down low, be prepared to be severely underwhelmed.
(Bad writing and uninspired action in 'Dark Phoenix' leaves the 'X-Men' franchise with the same ignominous end it was doomed to after the silly mess of 'Apocalypse')
Review by Gabriel Chong