Review: Dark Phoenix (2019)

Dark Phoenix

Rating

Director

Simon Kinberg

Screenplay

Simon Kinberg

Length

1h 53m

Starring

James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jessica Chastain, Scott Sheperd, Ato Essandoh, Brian d’Arcy James,

MPAA Rating

PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action including some gunplay, disturbing images, and brief strong language

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Review

With this likely being the final film in the current X-Men universe, Dark Phoenix takes on its own ominous quality, a fatalistic appeal that strangely befits the series in its attempt to tackle the Jean Grey/Phoenix storyline that many felt weighed down the third film of the original trilogy.

With Disney now fully in control of the entirety of Fox’s film division, the X-Men universe is in their hands. While the film sets itself up with the possibility of continuation, the affable cast are likely at their end with these characters. James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Alexnadra Shipp, Tye Sheridan, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Evan Peters have managed to give us solid final performances as the X-Men in a film that, while imperfect, is the most entertaining entry in the series since Days of Future Past.

Set in 1992, Dark Phoenix sees the X-Men as celebrated among the non-mutant population of earth, saviors who have done much to improve their standing in society. During a successful mission to rescue astronauts aboard the Endeavor on the cusp of being destroyed by a mysterious space phenomenon, Jean Grey (Turner) absorbs the energy to protect those around her and her already formidable powers become amplified.

When she was a child, Charles Xavier (McAvoy), thought he was trying to help her and erected walls in her mind to shield her from the devastation of her parents’ deaths. The power within her has begun to erode those walls, leading to a profound sense of intense betrayal. Paired with her tremendous new powers, the danger to those around her has intensified. These literal psionic walls are juxtaposed with the carefully curated metaphorical walls that Xavier has also built protecting the X-Men from the hate and violence of the public who see them as heroes now and not freaks. Those constructs also crumble as Jean Grey begins a destructive rampage to try and to come to terms with the intense emotional upheaval she is experiencing.

Although Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen were the best incarnations of Xavier and Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto to date on screen, McAvoy and Fassbender gave their own unique talents over to the characters and while they are modest shadows of the characters they created in Days of Future Past and First Class, they still provide strong characterizations. Fassbender is the most disadvantaged here as his character is given very little time to grow or develop and seems tacked in simply to give him and McAvoy a chance to once again work together in spite of their disparate views of the human race. That sometimes friendly and sometimes adversarial relationship was a driving force of most of the X-Men films and it’s only fair to give both a cathartic resolution to those dynamics.

Lawrence, given very little screen time in this outing, does well with what she has. Her character acts as a catalyst to the various events that will unfold across the film’s nearly two-hour length. While Lawrence helped give the character a lot of the humanistic depth Mystique didn’t typically have on the comic page, it’s unfortunate that she wasn’t given more to do here.

Turner has plenty to work with and her internal fight for control is effectively wrought by the actress who wrestles with compassion, anger, hatred, remorse, and myriad other emotions. While this particular story arc might have been fascinating spread across several films with Phoenix acting as villain in a handful, somewhat akin to what the Marvel Cinematic Universe did with Thanos over two films, it was handled far better here than in The Last Stand and is suitably credible this time around.

Jessica Chastain, who plays a member of the D’bari, a warlike alien race searching for a new home, does as much with her monochromatic villain as she can. Here is one of the more glaring issues with the screenplay. An opportunity to handle Vuk like Thanos would have given her emotional resonance, a reason for doing the things she’s doing that is almost tragic and certainly relateable. Instead, like Apocalypse before her, there was a lot of character development that seemed to have gotten left out and while she’s doing her best to manipulate Jean Grey, you never feel like this woman has a satisfactory reason to do the things she does, at least not one that’s more than superficially explored in the film. Chastain does well with the character, but there’s not enough there for her to make a truly memorable villain.

Hoult, Shipp, Sheridan, and Smit-McPhee are equally engaging, though perhaps not given enough to work with. What they are given, however, is appropriate to the material. Their characters now have the confidence in their abilities that enable the audience to finally see the potency and power of their individual mutations. This film is probably the best to date in exploring the power sets each of these characters possess. All except Peters, who has never had a lot to do in the three film’s he’s been a part of. While his awesome scene in Apocalypse was a slight step down from the brilliant kitchen scene in Days of Future Past, this film has none of that, choosing instead to set him up for something spectacular only to be flicked down like a bug by an ascendant Dark Phoenix.

As a director, producer Simon Kinberg is no great shakes, but his appreciation for the nuances of filmmaking is evident. The film struggles most when the narrative is required to do the heavy lifting, there are still several scenes where Kinberg’s ability shines through, such as with the form cut between Magneto putting on his helmet and Xavier with his Cerebro helm on. Those moments, while not excessive and not always noticeable, showcase a film that could have been great with the right amount of TLC and an invading megacorporation not breathing down the creators’ necks.

Apocalypse was the nadir of the X-Men universe, and although the first two Wolverine films were on the whole inferior, Dark Phoenix ranks in the middle of the series below the first two films with the original cast and the first two films of the new cast. Toss in Deadpool and Logan above it and the film probably fits nicely in seventh with four films below. It’s too bad these characters aren’t going to be given more chances to expand. I’m afraid Disney’s tinkering might have been a detriment to the film’s overall potential success. We may never know if the rumors of disastrous showings were true or if this was their attempt to ingratiate themselves with X-Men fans for the eventual assimilation into the Marvel Cinematic Universe

The MCU owes a great deal to the X-Men and might not have been fathomable had that film not reinvigorated the superhero genre in ways that Joel Schumacher had failed to do with his hamfisted third and fourth Batman films. Regardless of where X-Men and its successive films fit within the annals of superhero history, there’s no question that they have gone out just a bit weaker and worse for wear than they should have. That said, Dark Phoenix has a decent amount of entertainment value and perhaps with a longer run time or a better script doctor, the end result might have required Disney to keep things going. Now, we just have to wait and see how long it is before they haphazardly pigeonhole these wonderful characters into the morass that MCU has become with even more uncertain results.

Oscar Prospects

Potentials: Visual Effects

Review Written

June 11, 2019

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