Warning: Spoilers Ahead
Some big budget blockbusters attain resounding, well-earned success for delivering on their potential. Others gain a dubious seal of approval as “so bad it’s good,” while others yet are granted a new lease on life as cult films, cherished in ways that their creators likely didn’t intend. Sadly, for X-Men: Dark Phoenix, it has the potential to fall into neither of these camps and instead lands somewhere between a noble effort and a gross miscalculation. Much like its spiritual predecessor X-Men: The Last Stand, there was plenty of potential to service the longstanding fans of the franchise but the end result is something that Fox won’t be etching into their history books as a triumph of the Deadpool or Logan ilk.
Starring a seasoned cast that includes James McAvoy, Game Of Thrones’ Sophie Turner, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Alexandra Shipp, Nicholas Hoult and the debuting Jessica Chastain as the villainous Vuk, the latest-- and likely final-- instalment in this prequel-based collection extracts its source material from one of the most celebrated comic book storylines of all time.
Sophie Turner at the premiere of "Dark Phoenix" - Rich Fury/Getty Images
Devised by John Byrne and Chris Claremont, the transformation of Jean Grey into the all-powerful Dark Phoenix spanned 8 editions of Uncanny X-Men and saw Xavier’s students wage war with one of their own to determine the fate of the universe as we know it.
In the case of this film, this cherished concept is truncated to fit a tight 1hr 54 minutes runtime with little room for a breather. Placed in the director’s chair for the first time, the ultimate legacy of longtime writer Simon Kinberg’s movie will be one of squandered potential.
From the illustrious cast to the source material and captive audience that they had at their disposal, they had everything in place to add another seminal film to the current wave of superhero movies. Instead, the gut response upon leaving the theater is one of apathy and mild relief that the franchise has finally been dispossessed from Fox’s micromanaging hands.
Beginning in 1975, the film’s initial set-up introduces us to Jean Grey during her childhood years and makes her propensity for destruction all too clear from the outset. Aside from its more traditional superhero origin motif that it panders to, it also opens the door for an exploration of childhood trauma that, while delved into to a certain degree, could’ve been more effectively woven into the overall story.
From there, we flash-forward to 1992 and the film’s central plot springs into life courtesy of an audacious search-and-rescue mission in space. Naturally, something goes awry and leads us to Jean’s inner conflict that could have grave consequences for the world and those around her. As the titular Dark Phoenix, Sophie Turner does a good job of conveying the flurry of emotions that would come with the situation that’s presented to her but it’s just one of many examples where the actors do their best to try to overcome the glaring oversights in the script and overall presentation. On top of that, she is one of three actors alongside McAvoy and Chastain that seem to have trouble pinpointing exactly what accent they’re meant to be employing.
As is to be expected, all of the customary tropes of the mid-range comic book movie are present and correct. Between the string of anonymous bad guys to fight, the introduction of auxiliary characters that we don’t get ample time with to care about and the big action set pieces, all of the necessary checkmarks that the formula mandate are here, in abundance. Make no mistake, this isn’t a case of snootiness about the way superhero films are made. More often than not, this tried and tested method gives way to films that are gripping from start to finish. But in the case of Dark Phoenix, even these cinematic home comforts aren’t enough to prevent it from becoming a bit of a slog.
Jennifer Lawrence at the film premiere - Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images
Away from Turner’s portrayal of Jean Grey, much of the plaudits must be assigned to Michael Fassbender for his seemingly effortless return to the role of Magneto. While a lot of the action feels like a case of déjà vu and the dialogue laboured, both his fight sequences and his interactions with the other characters carry a weight to them that is distinctly lacking across the board. Alongside his love-hate dynamic with “old friend” Charles Xavier, Professor X’s interactions with Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven/Mystique and Hank McCoy/Beast are also among the most engaging aspects of the film. Built around a neatly constructed tension and the looming spectre of dissension in the X-Men’s ranks, the interpersonal relationships between the characters prove to be way more gripping than the lion’s share of the combat or depictions of each mutant’s powers.
Given its status as a landmark moment in the team’s overall lore, the hurried nature of the pacing seems at odds with the film that they were intending to make. As a result, the deaths that arise feel more like contractual and canonical offramps rather than anything that can carry emotional heft. On top of that, the side-lining of Evan Peters’ Quicksilver in favour of a spotlight on Storm, Nightcrawler and Jean Grey’s love interest Cyclops, leaves little space for his impeccable comedic timing or air of levity that he uplifted 2014’s Days Of Future Past with.
From the costumes to the CGI, it doesn’t help that a film that should technically be in contention for summer blockbuster looks drab and dated. Brought to something of an abrupt halt, longtime fans of the franchise can take solace in its final scene that gives some sense of bringing things full circle to the arc that began way, way back in 2000.
For a series that’s been typified by triumphs and failures over the years, it’s a real shame that FOX’s run with X-Men has to end on a sour note. While everyone’s heart seemed to be in the right place going into it, refining the script and allowing more room for things to develop could’ve gone a long way to avert this lacklustre production.
Now that it’s been reclaimed by Disney and their Marvel Studios, we can but hope that the team that’s produced such a vital cinematic universe can salvage the rich character and lore of X-Men-- or X-Force-- from the still simmering wreckage of Dark Phoenix.