'Dark Phoenix' Review: An Uncanny X-Men Disaster
In the first ten minutes of Dark Phoenix, a NASA shuttle explodes, which compels the president to call the X-Men for help on a black desk phone emblazoned with a silver “X.” The only thing missing here is a spinning graphic, a rockin’ theme song, and a commercial break for Fruit Loops.
That’s how hokey Dark Phoenix begins, ending the final chapter of the X-Men with a loud, deafening thud. Soulless in everything from concept to execution, Dark Phoenix is the corporate-mandated mercy kill for a dead franchise whose only real legacy is convincing other studios to produce better superhero movies. In that regard, it is actually fitting Dark Phoenix is aggressively dumb, pointless, and devoid of emotion from anyone involved in its creation.
Opening on Friday, June 7, Dark Phoenix is the final X-Men movie that caps off a multi-film series that began when Clinton was in office and most people hadn’t yet heard of Thanos. Helmed by series producer Simon Kinberg in his directorial debut, the film “adapts” the historic Dark Phoenix Saga by writer Chris Claremont. Set in 1992 (though you can’t tell because all the X-Men come dressed in Banana Republic’s Fall 2013 catalog), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) becomes possessed by a cosmic alien force after a rescue mission in space. Soon, Jean’s powers grow increasingly out of control, forcing the X-Men to stop one of their own from destroying the world.
I say “adapt” in quotations because Dark Phoenix is an X-Men movie (hardly) in name only. Gone is the intergalactic political intrigue mixed with soap opera melodrama that was in Claremont’s story. Instead, it’s a rote alien invasion shoved into a confusing drama with hazy focus on its world, its stakes, and its ensemble of indistinguishable mutants. Even as a standalone film, Dark Phoenix is a cycle of flat set-pieces and accomplished actors in bad costumes (boy howdy do those Grant Morrison costumes look awful) stumbling over wooden dialogue.
Even the “fun” parts of the movie — the few times the X-Men act like X-MEN and throw special effects at each other — are spectacularly lifeless. Dark Phoenix, like all X-films, is filled with amazing superpowers, yet every action set-piece is a variant of cars flipping over. It takes a special alchemy of director, actor, and post-production to make a work of art out of characters shooting lightning. But when the result is as abysmal as Dark Phoenix, I’m only reminded of that amusing behind the scenes footage of the The CW show Supergirl where Supergirl and The Flash wail their arms around before the special effects are put in.
Normally, when action falls apart, audiences rely on strong characters to siphon off energy, or else they’ve dozed off in their seats. That’s been Marvel’s secret of the MCU: Exceptional characterization has often excused mediocre action. But that’s not Fox’s X-Men, and it’s certainly not Dark Phoenix.
This franchise has long committed the crime of wasting talents like Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Michael Fassbender, and now, Jessica Chastain, whose Dark Phoenix character is literally not a character but a shell for an alien villain. Poor Tye Sheridan can’t act past his goggles as Cyclops, Alexandra Shipp has a thankless job as Storm, and Kodi Smit-McPhee and Evan Peters are just there now as Nightcrawler and Quicksilver. Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence, in her fourth outing as Mystique, once again comes off like she’s just showing up for residuals. The only one doing any exceptional work is James McAvoy, yet his range here is just making faces without looking too silly.
And then there’s Sophie Turner, Dark Phoenix’s crux as the troubled Jean Grey who is also doing the most despite doing so little. We’ve seen her act her ass off on Game of Thrones, another big production plagued by bad scripts, but Dark Phoenix is a whole other level of fumbling Turner.
Rather than let Jean Grey loose with the Phoenix in a way that could have been equal parts fun (or even funny) and tragic, the Phoenix Force instead turns Jean Grey into a boring recluse who stands around bending CGI helicopters. There’s more depth to Turner when she’s chugging wine at a Red Wings game than reckoning with her alien powers. This film really should have been Turner’s to own, transforming her into the A-list juggernaut we know she could be. Instead, she’s entirely engulfed in pure white noise.
Dark Phoenix is the twelfth (!!!) film in the X-Men series, and the fourth core film since 2011’s exceptional First Class soft reboot. So it’s a stunning failure how little we know about any of these characters all these years later — most especially Mystique — and the mutant world eight years later.
The sad truth is that the X-Men films have always been, collectively, garbage. That the one in control for most of the franchise’s 20-year history is Bryan Singer should say everything, but if it doesn’t. Just look to how embarrassed the movies have been about its source material. Since the beginning, these films cracked jokes about the fact Wolverine would have worn yellow spandex, and subsequently outfitted them all in terrible black leather. Stand-outs in the series, like First Class, Logan, and the Deadpool movies, were always exceptions to established rule. With Dark Phoenix, the X-Men series is the most X-Men film ever, right down to romances sprung out of nowhere to yet more droning monologues about the future or destiny or evolution or Damn it, Erik, listen to me!
Dark Phoenix also makes some capital-C Choices with the mutant status quo. In the film, Xavier has inexplicably won over normal society, affording mutants a peaceful, if fragile coexistence with humans. This is meant to be Xavier’s dilemma: How can he save Jean Grey before she ruins the delicate balance of mutant and man? At the same time, we get the sense that Xavier has compromised mutants, forcing them to become celebrities than to rightfully live on their own terms.
Therein lies a unique, if brilliant twist on Marvel’s mutant mythology, and Charles Xavier in particular. The “mutants are persecuted minorities” metaphor has its limits, but there is still fertile ground Dark Phoenix treads, on the patronizing notion of some minorities being “one of the good ones.” The problem is that it requires a special kind of storyteller to do that metaphor with genuine respect towards the experience of actual minorities and “acceptance” by the dominant hegemony. Dark Phoenix doesn’t have such storytellers. As such, when Nightcrawler go into berserker mode over the murder of an anti-mutant soldier just because he said his kid is a fan, that’s all we’re really left with.
In another timeline, Dark Phoenix would have been the biggest event in geek culture history. Instead, it’s an afterthought, eclipsed by Avengers: Endgame, a movie that actually paid off (most of) its audience’s investment in the characters and story over many years. It’s astonishing how the X-series had an eight-year head start to the Marvel Cinematic Universe only to bow out barely a blip on the pop culture radar.
There has never been a film franchise more prolific and at the same time more irrelevant than Fox’s X-Men. Although it is the reason why we have superhero movies, the aggressively flat aesthetics of Marvel’s mutants have held it back while the competition evolved faster than Wolverine could heal. Mutants are the forefront of evolution, but in the movies, they’ve been dinosaurs. And now, they’re extinct.
Dark Phoenix will be in theaters on June 7.