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Dark Phoenix Review

June 6, 2019 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
Dark Phoenix
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Dark Phoenix Review  

Directed By: Simon Kinberg
Written By: Simon Kinberg; Based on the Marvel comics and characters
Runtime: 113 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action including some gunplay, disturbing images, and brief strong language

Sophie Turner – Jean Grey/Phoenix
James McAvoy – Prof. Charles Xavier
Michael Fassbender – Erik Lenhsherr/Magneto
Jennifer Lawrence – Raven Darkholme/Mystique
Jessica Chastain – Vuk
Nicholas Hoult – Hank McCoy/Beast
Alexandra Shipp – Ororo Munroe/Storm
Evan Peters – Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver
Kodi Smit-McPhee – Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler
Scott Shepherd – John Grey

The Phoenix Saga is one of the most seminal stories in the history of the X-Men comic series. It’s probably one of the greatest stories in comic history. With that in mind, it’s mind-boggling to see how filmmaker Simon Kinberg and 20th Century Fox butchered that story on film not just once, but twice. Dark Phoenix is not redemption for X-Men: The Last Stand. It’s something far worse.

Don’t expect a grand sendoff for the merry band of mutants much like what happened with many iconic, fan-favorite characters in Avengers: Endgame. Instead, the longstanding X-Men film franchise that first began back in 2000 dies a slow, whimpering death. It’s ponderous that Disney allowed this film to even get released in theaters after acquiring 20th Century Fox, but there might’ve been contracts or legal agreements promising a theatrical release for Dark Phoenix instead of nuking it from orbit so this franchise is never allowed to come back.

What defense is likely due for this project is that perhaps in the wake of corporate mergers, the powers that be might’ve given up on this film and didn’t give it the attention or energy it deserved. More will likely be revealed in time.

Set in 1992, about nine years have passed since the events of X-Men: Apocalypse, and the mutants of the X-Men are now seen as the world’s heroes. Prof. Xavier (McAvoy, still not looking like he’s aged at all in 30 years) even has a direct phone line to the President of the United States. The teenagers from X-Men: Apocalypse, Jean Grey (Turner) and Cyclops/Scott Summers (Sheridan), are now young adults and members of the X-Men under the leadership of Mystique (Lawrence). Hank McCoy/Beast (Hoult) is still part of the team, and he still looks like he’s in his 20s for some reason, despite almost 30 years having passed since X-Men: First Class.

Xavier charges the team with rescuing the crew from a doomed Endeavor shuttle mission after it was struck by some type of solar flare. Upon the Black Bird entering Earth’s orbit, it’s clear the phenomenon in space is in no way a solar flare. After Xavier overrides Mystique’s order to leave instead of saving the crew’s commander, Jean enters the shuttle to help save the astronaut only to be struck by the cosmic storm. Jean miraculously survives the ordeal and seems to entirely absorb the cosmic phenomenon.

While Jean is apparently safe at first, the event has completely altered her powers. The cosmic event has caused her psychic and telekinetic abilities to massively expand, and the mental walls Xavier put up to hide her tragic past are quickly broken down. As a result, Jean starts losing control of her emotions and abilities. She soon comes under the influence of an alien invader, Vuk (Chastain). These invaders have infiltrated human society and want to gain control of Jean’s new power, which is in fact a type of cosmic entity. Unfortunately, Jean no longer trusts Xavier, and her powers are starting to grow wildly out of control, threatening to shatter the peace and image the X-Men and mutants have managed to achieve.

The most mind-boggling aspect of this whole project is the alien villain portrayed by Jessica Chastain. Chastain is such a talented and amazing thespian, yet she’s absolutely wasted here as a one-note villain. The only reason possible she could’ve signed on for such a meager, garbage role is that the original script or character were supposed to be much stronger and more substantial. Maybe Chastain was originally going to play Lilandra. Maybe her representation heavily “persuaded” her to take the role for a big paycheck. Admittedly, Chastain could’ve just wanted to play a villain, but her character is far from memorable.

Watching Chastain’s performance throughout the film, it’s not clear if she’s phoning in her performance, or if she’s struggling to overcome a broken script and reshoot process. Had this character turned out to have been Lilandra, this would’ve been a much juicer and far more interesting role that is worthy of Chastain’s talents.

The fact that the producers were so secretive about Chastain’s role, her character and her alien race is silly. It’s worse than Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness. The reveal of Chastain’s character, her name and her race is not some big secret. It’s revealed in a throwaway line in a throwaway scene. It’s not some major, significant revelation. There’s nothing earth-shattering or universe-shattering about these aliens. Chastain is a minor named character from the comics, and so is her alien race.

Unfortunately, the aliens are treated as bargain-bin Skrulls. They have unlimited and undefined superpowers. They can easily mimic human forms. They have no personalities to speak of. The true forms of the aliens are never fully shown and are always cast in shadow. As a result, it’s hard to really enjoy or get invested into these characters as villains and adversaries to the X-Men. By the time the other X-Men even know they exist, the movie is nearly over.

The secrecy over Chastain and her character is a huge indictment on how secretive Hollywood productions are trying to be as of late. Sometimes it can be warranted, like with Avengers: Endgame, when the secrecy pays off for some genuinely surprising moments and an overall amazing experience. The lack of material that was revealed in the trailers made the payoff for seeing Endgame and Infinity War in theaters that much better. In Dark Phoenix, it’s ridiculous and nonsensical. Even during the world premiere, Simon Kinberg in the cast introductions refers to Chastain as the “mysterious alien.” There’s really nothing mysterious about this character. There’s nothing cool and intriguing about her. She’s a one-note alien invader who wants to take over Earth by manipulating Jean. That’s about it.

Before the world premiere, Hutch Parker talked about wanting to bring “cosmic” elements into the Dark Phoenix and still keeping the film grounded. In doing so, the story is drained of any sense of coolness or fun. Very little time is spent on developing the aliens or villains. They are just there. For the first time ever, aliens are introduced in a comic book superhero film universe that has never had aliens before. Before Dark Phoenix, which is set to be the last film in the cinematic X-Men series, aliens never existed. They are introduced in the final film to the detriment of the whole franchise, and they are not given sufficient development. It’s a microcosm for how off the mark Kinberg and his collaborators have been for this franchise.

Even Hans Zimmer slept walk with his musical score for Dark Phoenix. Zimmer has done good work in the past, even for the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy. This is easily some of the worst work of his career. The score sounds like he fell asleep on a soundboard over the weekend. There is nothing grand or epic about this score. It sounds like there’s very little in the way of actual orchestral music. The music is dull, brooding and generic. There’s never anything grand or epic about the score. There only appears to be one identifiable theme that’s generally repeated throughout the film. There are virtually no callbacks to the music of the previous X-Men films. It’s fine if Zimmer wanted to do something different, but it’s even worse than the doldrums of his score for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It doesn’t come close to the best music composed for the franchise by John Ottman.

The main reason this review isn’t getting a 0.0 is because of Sophie Turner. She’s clearly trying her best with the the dual-role of Phoenix/Jean Grey and trying to do that character justice. In a different time, with a different director and a better script, she very well could’ve been a fantastic Jean Grey. At the very least, she could’ve been a very good one. She’s clearly trying with this role to showcase Jean’s struggle and transformation into Phoenix. It’s a far cry from the phoned in performances of Chastain and Lawrence.

Tye Sheridan is there, but he never leaves much of an impression as Cyclops. One of the major tragedies of the X-Men film franchise has been how Cyclops/Scott Summers has never really been allowed to come into his own as a true leader and field commander for the X-Men. Let’s compare him to Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America. Over the course of multiple films, Steve became a very well rounded character. He’s shown to be a competent field leader who has interesting conflicts, flaws and still very much encompassed an iconic character who has existed in the comics since the 1940s.

For decades, Cyclops has been nearly as important to the X-Men. Even in Dark Phoenix, he’s never able to ascend to that place, and Sheridan never gets the opportunity. Not to mention, Sheridan is still very young. He doesn’t look like a confident, mature team leader Cyclops is often known as. He still looks like a green, wet-behind-the-ears, would-be superhero rookie who is in over his head and doesn’t really know what he’s doing. Most of his interaction in the movie is with Jean. Even that relationship is fairly understated, especially considering what the love of Scott’s life is supposed to be going through.

The specter of Wolverine still looms large on this franchise. Even after Wolverine and Hugh Jackman have exited the series, none of the performers are able to step out of his shadow. The X-Men movies spent so much time servicing and revolving around Wolverine that few characters could compete with that. Dark Phoenix is no exception.

The most disappointing aspect of the film is the treatment of Mystique and Beast’s respective mutations. Mystique is a shape shifter. She can take the shape or form of anyone she chooses. The only time Mystique uses her abilities in the film is to take the form of a blonde woman who resembles Jennifer Lawrence.

What’s even more clueless is that Mystique takes that aforementioned form the minute she walks into the X-Mansion, where she is among other mutants. There is even a very personal scene where Mystique has a conversation scene with Beast, and they are both in their “human” forms, with no blue skin or blue fur in sight. It’s very strange. There was a lame subplot in Apocalypse where Mystique had issues about being seen as a “savior,” so she she wasn’t as comfortable in her true form. However, by the end of the film, she seems to have gotten over it. But why would Mystique take a more human form in front of the mutant children and students at the X-Mansion? If she could be herself and be most comfortable in her true form, wouldn’t it be at the mansion with the other kids, or while she’s alone with Hank? It doesn’t make any sense.

This is symbolic of how badly Mystique is portrayed in these films. It’s bad enough Mystique was altered to become a hero and a leader of the X-Men. But why would Mystique in these films be ashamed of her true form? Even for this version, it makes no sense for her to take a more “human” form in front of other mutants, her friends, students, teammates, and her lover in Beast. This happens throughout the film, and it’s never addressed or explained. Why is Mystique uneasy in her “true form” among friends and loved ones? Dark Phoenix never answers that question.

Similarly, Beast is now able to shift from a human form into his “Beast” form at will whenever he wants. How this is possible and how this happens is never explained either. Perhaps there is a logical explanation, just like how none of the characters are really aging. Maybe the X-Men went on an adventure after Apocalypse where they discovered the Fountain of Youth, and that’s why no one is aging, and Beast still looks like he’s 24. Granted, in the original comics, Beast has struggled with his mutation and appearance, but he eventually overcame that. Nicholas Hoult’s version never explores this pathos with Beast. He can simply shift from human to Beast-mode whenever he pleases.

What’s additionally disappointing is Hoult’s bland performance as one of the most memorable X-Men characters in Hank McCoy. In the comics, Beast is such a memorable character. He’s a brilliant, well-read and eloquent individual. He’s a tremendous teacher. He is a charming ray of sunshine. His fierce appearance is contrasted by his gentle and charming demeanor. He’s not incapable of anger, rage or moments of weakness. Hoult just never captures a fraction of Beast’s greatness. Perhaps Hoult can be a capable actor, but he’s never proven to be a competent version of such an iconic Marvel character who has been both an X-Man and an Avenger.

There is a notable cameo by a mainstay character from the comics played by Halston Sage. Fans likely already know who she’s playing. The character looks great, but her screen time is even shorter than the Max Rebo Band. That’s another regrettable thing about this film series. It will tease you with something that looks great that’s almost translated perfectly from the comics only to jettison it seconds later.

Dark Phoenix is not a worthy adaptation one of the greatest stories in comic history. It’s a sad ending to this franchise. This is resoundingly the worst X-Men movie in cinematic history.

The final score: review Extremely Horrendous
The 411
It's sad the film rights to the X-Men franchise are finally returning to Marvel Studios under these circumstances. It could be several years, if not more, before the mutants and the X-Men make it to the screen again. The shame is the franchise hit a huge decline with X-Men 3: The Last Stand and X-Men: Origins Wolverine, then it rallied back from that only to fall even further. This is the worst X-Men movie of all time.