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Review: Dark Phoenix (2019)

Dark Phoenix (2019)

Directed by: Simon Kinberg

Premise: Follows 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse. Powerful mutant Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is infected by an extra-terrestrial force that gives her extraordinary power and shifts her personality toward evil. Her companions are split as to whether to kill Jean or try and save her.

What Works: Dark Phoenix is something of a rebound following the atrocious X-Men: Apocalypse. The new film corrects many of the missteps of the previous X-Men adventure. It’s tighter (the film runs just under two hours), the story emphasizes the characters, and the action scenes mostly retain a credible scale. Dark Phoenix is the feature film directorial debut of Simon Kinberg, a longtime writer and producer of the X-Men film series and of comic book movies in general. Kinberg proves to be a competent director and Dark Phoenix is far from the worst picture in the X-Men series.

What Doesn’t: Dark Phoenix shows almost no regard for the continuity of the series. This era of the X-Men, which began with First Class (one of the best entries in the franchise), was centered upon Professor Xavier (James McAvoy), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and each story followed those characters and their evolving relationships. Dark Phoenix ignores the themes and storylines of the preceding films. Several core characters are barely in this story and Magneto could be cut from Dark Phoenix without impacting the narrative. The early portions of Dark Phoenix lay the groundwork for some interesting character arcs, but they are mostly abandoned. The film’s fundamental problem is the way in which the filmmakers shoehorn the Dark Phoenix storyline into this series. The Dark Phoenix story is about the collapse of longstanding friendships and the corruption of a good person. For that to work, this story had to be set up in the previous films. But Jean Grey wasn’t introduced until Apocalypse, the third installment in this timeline, in which she was a minor character. And so Dark Phoenix reduces Jean Grey’s story to a generic superhero tale anchored by an unfamiliar character. There’s very little at stake and the movie makes almost no emotional impact. (2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand also told the Dark Phoenix story and did it much better precisely because those interpersonal relationships were established in the preceding films.) Dark Phoenix is also a strange addition to this series because it ignores the style of its predecessors. The other films in the First Class timeline were period pieces; First Class involved the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Days of Future Past was set during the Nixon era, and Apocalypse took place in the 1980s. Each film specifically invoked its time period. Dark Phoenix is set in the 1990s but nothing about this film is particular to that decade; it doesn’t even place the characters in period-specific clothes. Previous stories were also Earth-bound. Out of nowhere, Dark Phoenix introduces villainous extraterrestrials led by a shapeshifter played by Jessica Chastain. (She is quite terrible in this film but it’s not altogether her fault. The movie gives Chastain nothing to do.) Dark Phoenix has plenty of its own inconsistencies as well. In the opening, the X-Men have been embraced by society as heroes but all of that falls apart literally overnight. The extraterrestrials are sometimes killed by bullets and at other times they heal immediately. The nature of the extraterrestrial power source and its effect on Jean Grey are muddled. It’s not clear who is controlling who or whether Jean is the only one who can possess this power. The ending makes this all the more confusing with an anticlimactic conclusion. This is sloppy storytelling.

Bottom Line: Dark Phoenix is an ignominious conclusion to this era of the X-Men film series. It may not be the worst X-Men film but it is a generic and forgettable movie riddled with slapdash storytelling and bereft of nearly every quality that has distinguished this series.

Episode: #753 (June 16, 2019)