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X-Treme Disappointment

Michael Fassbender
Michael Fassbender
20th Century Fox
 113 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed BySimon Kinberg
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender    
Dark Phoenix

A good rule of thumb in the movie business is that the longer it takes between the time filming ends and a movie finally premieres, the less likely it is that the movie is any good. The latest proof of this theorem is Dark Phoenix, the apparent finale of the X-Men franchise, which wrapped up principal filming nearly two years ago and was, at one time, promoted as a major tentpole release for the summer of 2018. The final product, following extensive rewrites and reshoots following lousy test screenings, provides ample proof of that rule of thumb. Dark Phoenix is a listless mess.


Actually, Dark Phoenix is the most frustrating type of bad movie. It’s not terrible enough that audiences want to leave the theater or so bad that’s it’s campily good. On the other hand, it’s not nearly close enough to being a good movie so that viewers could say that if the filmmakers only did one or two things differently, it would have been much better. Actually, the only thing they could have done to improve this film was to start over from scratch.


For those unfamiliar with the cinematic arc of the franchise, the first movie, titled simply X-Men, appeared in 2000, starring Patrick Stewart as Prof. Charles Xavier and Ian McKellen as his frenemy, Magneto. Two sequels followed with roughly the same cast, but, then, in 2011, the producers rebooted the series by going back in time to 1962 in X-Men: First Class. That film explored the origins of the X-Men and featured a younger cast, including James McAvoy as Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Magneto. Two sequels followed, set roughly a decade apart (in one of which the older X-Men put in an appearance in a bizarre time-travel saga). Now, we are up to 1992 with the younger, albeit no longer so-young, cast of characters.


As Dark Phoenix begins, Xavier heads up a training academy for the second generation of young mutants, while his first crop of graduates still works with him for the most part. He’s on first-name terms with the President and gladly answers the call when a space shuttle mission is critically endangered by a solar flare. A group of X-Men, led by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) goes up in their own ship and rescues the shuttle crew shortly before the eruption engulfs the shuttle while Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is still inside. Somehow, Jean survives the blast and returns to Earth with the other X-Men as heroes.


However, the blast had its effects on Jean, as she gradually learns. Her telepathic abilities expand tremendously, and she’s unable to control them. She is also dealing with guilt issues stemming back to her childhood, that Xavier helped to suppress. All of the added pressure on Jean results in her eventually snapping, with devastating consequences. She flees the other X-Men and finds herself the target of a massive manhunt. The only person who seems to understand her is Vuk (Jessica Chastain), a woman who is actually one of a small band of aliens from a dying planet. They were responsible for the original solar flare and want to conquer the world (as most evil aliens tend to do). Vuk asks Jean, now known as Dark Phoenix, to join them.


For those who have followed the X-men closely over the past two decades, the Dark Phoenix storyline, in a slightly different form, was part of the plot of X-Men: The Last Stand in 2006, with Famke Janssen playing Jean. I confess that I’m unaware of how the rules of time travel work, but, as is often the case with comic books, the writers can pretty much do anything with characters that they want and have as many plot do-overs as they need. So, Jean becomes Dark Phoenix again, but, in so doing, the plot makes a lot less sense than it did previously.


The Dark Phoenix storyline has a lot of potential, as it ties into the general themes of the X-Men as not being entirely accepted as human and wrestling with their various inner demons (especially Magneto) to determine who they are. But the handling of it is exceptionally listless. Much of this is due to the acting or, more precisely, the directing of the actors. That chore fell to Simon Kinberg, a veteran screenwriter on the franchise who is making his directing debut. That proved to be an uninspired choice. Kinberg has stated that he kept tinkering with the script so that it would reflect his thoughts on the franchise, but none of that seems to have gotten through to the characters.


Michael Fassbender seems to come through Dark Phoenix best; his character motivations are relatively simple, and he feels very comfortable in the role. On the other hand, James McAvoy portrays Xavier as a bit of an egotistical jerk whose pride results in a great fall, and he seems more peeved than anything else. The biggest problem is in the younger female stars of the movie. You couldn’t ask for a better ensemble than Jennifer Lawrence, Sophie Turner, and Jessica Chastain, but they all seem distracted, putting in minimal effort. Chastain, in particular, walks through her scenes as if she were auditioning for a role as Tilda Swinton’s younger sister.


Dark Phoenix also shifts gears at a critical moment in the film, falling back on some very familiar clichés. The net result is that during the well-staged final setpiece on board a speeding train, the big bads are Chastain and a group of guys who look like rejects from the Blue Man Group. The sense of overpowering, menacing evil present in nearly every other Marvel film is just missing here.


Despite what director Kinberg might have thought or done, Dark Phoenix is a movie in which it seems as if the characters are just going through the motions, with none of the new blood in the form of exciting new characters who pumped up the adrenalin level in earlier movies. Here, some of the supporting players, particularly Evan Peters as Quicksilver and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Nightcrawler, are fun to watch as they go through their paces, but the main characters don’t have the gravitas they should. For those who hang around long enough, the final fight on a speeding train is well staged and makes good use of the characters’ various powers (proof of another theory of mine, that you can’t make a bad movie that takes place on a train). Unfortunately, the train ride ends and, with it, in all probability the X-Men franchise. It deserved a better sendoff than Dark Phoenix.

In this clip, Jennifer Lawrence and James McAvoy argue about the future direction of the X-Men.

Read other reviews of Dark Phoenix: 

Dark Phoenix (2019) on IMDb