Dark Phoenix (2019)
★★ / ★★★★
Given that both pictures attempt to tell a version of the Dark Phoenix saga, is “Dark Phoenix” better than “X-Men: The Last Stand”? Without question—but not by much. It does not nullify the fact that although Simon Kinberg’s film offers beautiful special and visual effects, especially during battle sequences, it is quite joyless for the most part—a curiosity because its universe is filled with mutants wielding unique powers and cheeky personalities. What results a finale that feels like a death march. Obviously, it does not need to be a comedy. But the screenplay fails to allow the material to breathe from time to time so that fluctuations can be felt throughout the experience.
Like numerous underwhelming superhero movies, this film, too, has a villain problem. An argument can be made that there are two enemies: the powerful cosmic force that possesses Jean Grey’s body (Sophie Turner) and the D’Bari, led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain), extraterrestrials capable of shapeshifting. With the former, the character’s evolution is not taken to an extreme length—which could have worked given a more intelligent and humanized writing. But in this case, hyperbole, I think, might have been the better choice: Make Dark Phoenix’ actions truly dramatic, epic, or evil. Continually reverting to Jean’s guilt after she has done a bad thing forces the material run around in circles. We get it: Jean is not a bad person, she simply is unable to control her amplified powers. But the self-pity is rife with tedious moments. It does not help that the dialogue often comes across as flat, especially when the X-Men disagree with how to deal with their ally.
With the latter antagonist, although Chastain is an alluring icy blonde, both in look and personality, the character is not given depth or dimension. There are three lines that describe her motivations (“its” is really more appropriate because the human body is simply a facade), but there are no layers to her yearning or desperation to acquire the Phoenix’ power—one that would allow her near-extinct race to be restored. I was more curious about the idea of this formless force, how it could be harnessed to do good or evil. It nicely ties into the exchange between eight-year-old Jean (Summer Fontana) and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) involving a pen which occurs early in the picture. While the screenplay is not without good ideas, they are not fully realized.
Aside from Jean Grey and Charles Xavier, other members of the X-Men come across as mere pawns (Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Evan Peters). They are shown reacting to a problem and other major turn of events, but the material does not bother to slow down so we can appreciate how they think or how they feel. And so when an actor is in pain or tears are running down his face, we feel it is nothing but a performance. The barrier between film and the audience is incredibly apparent; clearly, the film is not an enveloping experience. I got the impression that the performers were not given the freedom to go above and beyond. Meanwhile, we are handed yet another tired apology—or worse, a speech—from Professor X. Perhaps the best snark comes from Magneto (Michael Fassbender) acknowledging exactly this irritant.
When one looks back at “X-Men: First Class” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” there is wonderful energy and creativity that propel these stories. Familiar characters feel fresh. There is drama and intrigue; we feel every second of what is at stake. Then one considers “Dark Phoenix” and the fall from grace is massively disappointing. It does not feel like an appropriate finale, just another installment to be made and released because contracts were signed. I felt no passion here.