It has been almost two decades since the X-Men franchise started and now it has finally come to an end. Over the years, we have had a series of generally positive outcomes from this franchise — a list of mostly great films and a handful of very bad ones. For every film like X2: X-Men United, there was an X-Men Origins: Wolverine. For every film like X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past, we would have X-Men: Apocalypse.
But for every misguided entry, there would be one that improved upon it, the way Logan improves on The Wolverine, and the way X-Men: Days of Future Past improved prior problematic entries through retconning.
Which leads us to Dark Phoenix. Returning to the same storyline from X-Men: The Last Stand, writer/director Simon Kinberg (who co-wrote The Last Stand) attempts to rectify past mistakes. Stacking the deck with the casts of both Days of Future Past and Apocalypse, it sounds like it’s got what it needs to be a winner. But then you hear of behind-the-scenes drama, and see the many release postponements and one’s expectations begin to temper. As you enter the theatre, they should probably stay that way.
The film begins with a flashback to 1975, recounting the life of young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). Her parents meet a tragic end, an event that brings us directly to the events of this film. Dark Phoenix is set in 1992, 30 years after the events of X-Men: First Class. This is remarkable only because, despite the 30 year gap, none of the characters seem to have aged a day. Deciding there’s no time for continuity questions, the remaining X-Men (James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Alexandra Shipp, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee) are sent on a mission to rescue a stranded crew in space.
The mission gets out of hand when Jean is hit by a wave of cosmic force, energy that that transforms her into one of the most powerful mutants to ever live. Struggling to contain this increasingly unstable power while wrestling with her own personal demons, Jean begins to spiral out of control. She begins tearing the X-Men family apart and threatening to annihilate the entire planet, while alien outsiders known as the D’Bari, led by Jessica Chastain, pull the strings.
When you see veteran comedians struggling to come up with new material after exploring every joke and observation they can come up with, they often resort to stealing from other comedians, doing impressions of them or the worst of all, imitating themselves. That’s what watching Dark Phoenix is like. You are made to watch as the X-Men series folds in on itself, leading to one of the most underwhelming and disappointing franchise conclusions in recent memory.
Because I’m desperate to include something positive in this review: the score by renowned composer Hans Zimmer is effective and rousing. The lacklustre script and flavourless direction do little to help the drama, so if you’re feeling anything at all, it’s mostly due to Zimmer’s contribution.
Alright, back to the negatives. The cast try their hardest with what they are given but, again, the script and filmmaking not only make their dramatic efforts inert, but also laughable. There’s a scene that involves body manipulation, not unlike ventriloquism, that is framed as being shocking and invasive. Sadly, the overly serious tone and the lack of any reason to care for these characters make these moments unintentionally funny.
McAvoy and Turner are working as hard as they can but, unlike the implications of the title, they do not generate enough heat for the drama to work. Chastain appears to have been heavily sedated, her eyes not open equally, as though doing a Tommy Wiseau impression or perhaps suffering the aftermath of a stroke. She gives one of the most boring villainous performances in recent years, and one wonders why an actor of her pedigree was cast in such a role. She has no backstory and is so bereft of character that no other character ever actually mentions her by name (although she is credited as Vuk). Chastain is going for understated and aloof, but she comes off as comatose.
Jennifer Lawrence’s passion for the franchise clearly dissipated long ago, and she spends most of the film looking like she’d dearly like to leave the set. Mystique is meant to be the yin to Jean Grey’s yang, but without the commitment to the role, the drama fizzles once more, leaving the audience with very little reason to care. Fassbender is given very little to do and Magneto’s appearance is superfluous to the plot. His scenes could have been edited out and the story would not have been affected in any way. His appearance does allow for the introduction of new mutants; the most hilarious standout being one that uses his dreadlocks for weapons. Yes, this is emblematic of the quality of the film.
The action sequences are lifeless and the X-Men show zero regard for civilians being put in harm’s way. The drama is drawn out and malnourished, certain scenes repeat parts of X-Men: The Last Stand beat-for-beat, and the dialogue is so clichéd and predictable that even the most braindead movie goer can figure it out. But the worst thing, by far its greatest crime, is the characterization of Jean Grey. The potential for a character with an arc like hers is huge, but the only true insight we are given is annoyingly simplistic — loud crying and daddy issues — and the way the film pushes the theme of family in relation to her character is so ham-fisted it would make Vin Diesel laugh.
With all the ashes and the heat long gone, Dark Phoenix is a parody of what the X-Men franchise once stood for. It is an utter disappointment for fans of the franchise. It insists it is the climax to a decades-long story, and instead settles for less. You absolutely shouldn’t.
ONE STAR (OUT OF FIVE)
X-Men: Dark Phoenix is showing in all cinemas now.