Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting
X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX. James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Jessica Chastain. Directed by Simon Kinberg. 114 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes, action violence and occasional coarse language).
For many, the quality of the individual films comprising both ‘X-Men’ trilogies followed a strangely similar path. Both started out strong, with 2000’s ‘X-Men’ and 2011’s ‘X-Men: First Class’ respectively. Then, they were both followed up by another critically acclaimed outing with 2003’s ‘X2’ and 2014’s ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’. Finally, they botched their endings, stumbling over the finish line with ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’ in 2006 and ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’ in 2016. While the muted reception of the former put the property on ice for five years before an inevitable reboot, the critical failure of the latter was not enough to bring about the same fate. Instead, franchise architect Simon Kinberg (who received writing and/or producing credits on all X-Men films after 2006) was handed the keys to write and direct a fourth entry in the rebooted franchise, billed as the definitive finale for both trilogies (after the time travel in ‘Days of Future Past’ made it clear that there was some connectivity between them).
From the premise of ‘Dark Phoenix’, it’s clear that Kinberg, who makes his directorial debut on this $200 million blockbuster, wanted to swing for the fences. Rather than chance a new storyline with room to craft his own take, Kinberg boldly chose to return to the classic Dark Phoenix saga from the comics, a plotline that was featured in ‘The Last Stand’, where studio executives reportedly insisted that its darkness be toned down, leaving fans unsatisfied. ‘Dark Phoenix’, then, could fairly be read as Kinberg trying to make amends for his involvement in the third X-Men film, for which he received a writing credit. However, it seems that some apologies are better left unmade; this is a tired, dull movie that lacks any personality and any enjoyment factor, and if their performances are anything to go by, it’s a damning assessment shared by its own cast.
When Kinberg’s screenplay picks up in 1992, Professor Charles Xavier’s (James McAvoy) mission to encourage positive relations between humans and mutants has been going well for some time. When a solar flare endangers the lives of astronauts aboard the Endeavour shuttle, it’s Professor Xavier whom the American President calls for help. Mutants Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) lead an X-Men team including Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) into space to rescue them, but they soon realise that this is no ordinary solar flare, rather a highly destructive, possibly sentient mass of energy. When their mission hits a snag, Jean is struck by the full force of this cosmic entity but miraculously survives, seemingly absorbing the glowing cloud rather than being torn apart like the astronauts’ shuttle.
Back on Earth, the titular ‘Phoenix’ persona begins to take control of Jean, breaking down the mental barriers erected by Charles Xavier to stabilise her emotions and her powers when he first took her in to his School for Gifted Youngsters. We’ve already seen the terrible results of her unchecked abilities via an intense and well-mounted car accident she caused as a little girl, so the idea of a supercharged Jean is enough to frighten Charles and his old frenemy Erik Lehnsherr a.k.a. Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who now leads his own pacifist commune of mutants. When Jean goes missing and a shapeshifting alien race led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain) appears on the trail of the cosmic power now controlling Jean, the X-Men must scramble to preserve the tenuous peace between mutants and humankind.
On paper, at least, ‘Dark Phoenix’ sounds okay. This is arguably the first ‘X-Men’ film to honestly grapple with Charles’ egotism and ruthlessness (did he make the right call when he deigned to mess around inside a young Jean’s head without her knowledge?), and the story traverses some highly emotional stakes for the X-Men (particularly Jean Grey’s boyfriend, Tye Sheridan’s Cyclops). However, very little really lands. For the first five minutes, comprising Jean’s childhood accident and the lead-up to the Endeavour rescue, there’s a unique sense of energy and focus. Hans Zimmer, arguably the world’s most famous composer, delivers a moody and dramatic score that, though lacking any of his usual memorable themes, is responsible for most of the film’s sense of urgency when it does erratically kick in. There’s also one great shot of the basketball court in Xavier’s School splitting open to reveal the launchpad of the X-Jet that poetically captures the conflict at the heart of Xavier’s enterprise, that between educating special kids and asking them to risk their lives to save an often prejudiced and undeserving human race. However, everything kind of grinds to a halt afterwards, as the film grimly moves through its uninspired set pieces and emotionally scattered story.
So much of what we see in ‘Dark Phoenix’ feels deeply familiar in the superhero genre, especially after March’s ‘Captain Marvel’, another 90s-set story in which a young woman exposed to extra-terrestrial powers does battle with her emotions and a group of shapeshifting aliens. Like ‘Captain Marvel’, it also includes a battle on a moving train, which also feels redolent of similar set pieces in ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ and ‘Deadpool 2’. In re-tackling the Dark Phoenix story, it even cribs from its own franchise, with a suburban showdown that can’t help but evoke a similar face-off in ‘The Last Stand’. Nothing here feels new, but that’s hardly a death knell (just ask Tarantino, the master of cobbling together great movies that feel like ‘Best Of’ reels). What’s worse is that nothing feels remotely interesting or inspired, rather a mirthless slog towards an inevitable but unearned ending.
In covering such well-worn beats, the fairest thing that can be said of the ‘Dark Phoenix’ cast is that they all show up. After Jennifer Lawrence was called out for her thoroughly phoned-in performance in ‘Apocalypse’, it appears that everyone else has caught up to her in the boredom stakes. Sophie Turner does her best with her first theatrical lead role (after eight seasons starring in TV’s megahit ‘Game of Thrones’), but Jean’s arc and her Phoenix alter ego are ill-defined (the aforementioned subplot about her emotions as weakness, for instance, is barely mentioned before suddenly becoming the character’s lynchpin in the final showdown), leaving her little to work with. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender deliver mature turns as the senior pair in the cast, but relative neophyte Tye Sheridan nabs best in show as a young Cyclops, capturing the classic leading man charm of James Marsden. Jessica Chastain, the new addition to the cast, is creepy as the otherworldly antagonist, but her part is so flimsily written and her motivations so deeply unclear that she barely leaves an impression.
As a critic, the moment that a character delivers the perfect line for your review can be a moment of inspiring insight or of pity. In this case, it was the latter when Fassbender’s Magneto angrily spat ‘Nobody cares anymore’ at Jean, leaving you to wonder whether the actor appreciated the sad irony of his jab. As the sun sets on the first majorly successful superhero franchise of the 21st century, it would be hard to argue that anyone does still care, and why should they? This is the way the ‘X-Men’ series ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.