X-Men, for over a decade, has represented the one meaningful alternative to Disney’s cinematic comic empire. The series made Hugh Jackman a megastar, played with time travel in unique fashion for a crossover more fulfilling than Infinity War or Endgame, and demonstrated real stakes. The franchise’s history makes these next few words painful: Director Simon Kinberg‘s Dark Phoenix, the capping of this world, is the tackiest Blockbuster of the last decade and acts as a cliff dive into a worse fate than mediocrity.
Dark Phoenix opens with a young Jean Grey (Summer Fontana) sitting in the back of her parents’ car. Some shoddy country music plays on the car stereo, as mental gymnastics of controlling the radio leads to the death of at least one person. Never in the history of cinema has someone’s music tastes been shamed harder.
The film then flashes forward to 1992 (try to spot any reference to the year, I dare you): Mutants are cheered as heroes and Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) now bears the title of celebrity. Those two components causes Prof. X to send his X-Men: Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and Grey (Sophie Turner) into space to save a shuttle’s crew. There, Grey consumes the spacial energy: the Phoenix Force — wrapped around the shuttle.
With a $200 million budget, the tacky appearances of the costumes and CG is truly amazing. Prof X’s school looks stolen from a Wayne Manor spin-off. The Blackbird appears ripped from a low-grade simulation, and the large-scale sequences rely on small-scale stakes — with one battle happening because someone wants to jaywalk. If even half that money went to Hans Zimmer for his work on the score, twas money well spent because the music represents the only above-grade component. That, and the spectacular cast.
Every member of the cast, especially Fassbender, Lawrence, and McAvoy deliver every line with gusto — even as one of them makes a Predator reference (the film doesn’t lack for unintentional entertainment).
The editing by Lee Smith provides zero coverage, as Prof. X routinely conducts conversations with the President of the United States over the phone without a cross-cut to show the President. Then again, Kinberg didn’t even consider that Xavier shouldn’t even need a phone because…. you know…. he possesses telepathic powers.
And really, the massive failure of Dark Phoenix originates in the screenplay. The film teems with wonderful, yet poorly executed ideas. Prof. X assumes a villainous role as a patriarchal attention hungry guru, while Jean Grey and Raven both rebel against Xavier’s “father figure” role with a feminist charge.
A combustible element explodes with the insertion of the amorphous shape-shifting alien, Vuk (Jessica Chastain, a completely wasted talent here). Arriving to Earth in search of the Phoenix Force with the hope of harnessing its power to replenish her now wiped out people, she goads Grey’s burgeoning autonomy with the Phoenix’s near uncontrollable power.
However, these “well-meaning” feminist olive branches mean little because they ultimately crack. In the end, Vuk is the baddie, and a poorly drawn and flat one at that. Her tending to Grey’s feminist spirit can only be betrayed in place of the father figures Grey’s chased throughout the film: her actual dad and Prof. X. In turn, Xavier’s villainous reversal never rises above misguided hubris.
Some of the screenplay’s complications most likely arise from the re-shoots to make the film less like Captain Marvel, and this final installment matches the former with an amazing likeness, especially with regards to a woman’s emotions portrayed as a weakness to be hidden by men rather than a strength.
The “creative” forces involved in Dark Phoenix probably, and disturbingly, see their film as a feminist statement when it uses feminism as an Easter Egg. The result: a tonal mess. Dark Phoenix, for the second time (X-Men: The Last Stand), is misrepresented, poorly written, and stunted in a cinematic form. Worse yet, the shredding of her character comes in a film no one wanted: the fans, the cast, maybe even the studio. The whole affair has the tentpole building obligation of talking to your cousins at Christmas dinner, except with cheaper lights.