Review: Dark Phoenix

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PLOT: Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) develops incredible powers after surviving a near-fatal mission in space. With her new abilities hard to control, members of her mutant family start to wonder whether she’s still the Jean they know or a dangerous new enemy.

REVIEW: Years from now, when people look back at this era of superhero movies, everyone will no doubt acknowledge that the trend began with Bryan Singer’s X-MEN. Sure, we’d had four BATMAN films by 2000, but let’s not forget – that was DC and none of them were traditional comic book movies in the way we think of them now. The same thing goes for BLADE, which WAS Marvel, but was seen more as a Wesley Snipes action flick than a traditional comic book movie. X-MEN was the one that really got people excited about Marvel properties as films. Moreover, it treated the material with some degree of reverence, directly paving the way for SPIDER-MAN and the eventual MCU. As for the X-MEN series itself, it’s been frustratingly inconsistent, with entries that were good-to-great (X2, X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, LOGAN, DEADPOOL), mediocre (the controversial X-MEN: APOCALYPSE, THE WOLVERINE) and straight-up bad (X-MEN: THE LAST STAND, X-MEN: ORIGINS: WOLVERINE).

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Despite some hefty delays, X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX (the full-on screen title) isn’t bad as far as X-MEN movies go, being admirably character-based, even if it suffers by coming out in a post AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR/ ENDGAME world. The bar has been set so high that it’s hard for anyone to compete. What helps the film is the guiding hand of director Simon Kinberg at the helm. While he’s a first-time director, he’s still been associated with the franchise since THE LAST STAND, meaning that he knows first-hand how poorly the DARK PHOENIX story’s been done in the past. He seems hell-bent on giving it its due here.

The issue is this – in a perfect world, we would have had another X-MEN movie or two to really get attached to the Jean Grey character, as played by Turner. She was only re-introduced in APOCALYPSE, so as an audience we haven’t spent that much time with her, making the tragic aspect of the story feel undercooked. Luckily, Sophie Turner, after eight years on “Game of Thrones”, is a pro and manages to evoke a lot of sympathy as the tragic, confused Jean. You really do get a sense that she’s terrified by her powers and has nowhere to turn. She’s ably supported by the rest of the X-MEN cast, with Tye Sheridan getting the meatiest role Cyclops has ever had, being Jean’s loyal boyfriend, while Alexandra Shipp (as Storm) and Kodi Smit-McPhee (as Nightcrawler- who has the film’s coolest action beat in the finale) strike a good balance between loyalty to Jean and fear at what she’s become.

Likewise, the veteran cast members are solid, including James McAvoy as Professor X, who’s given an arrogant, almost sinister side early on that both gives him some depth but also plays into the more tortured, filled-with-regret version of the character played by Patrick Stewart in LOGAN. Michael Fassbender returns as Magneto, the one Jean runs to after a bad run-in with her team, which is an interesting way to bring him in to play. Of them all, it’s him and Nicholas Hoult’s Beast that have the most complicated feelings towards Jean based on an incident early-on that’s been given away in all the trailers (which I won’t give away here).

It’s all tied together by one of the best superhero scores that we’ve gotten in a while, with Hans Zimmer digging into the series for the first time, despite initially saying he was done with scoring superhero movies. His score is vintage Zimmer, making one wish he would dive into the MCU proper and add his sound to some of their films, as he could do a lot with those characters. The look of the film is also significantly different than other X-MEN films, with Newton Thomas Sigel replaced by Mauro Fiore, who gives it a warmer, less clinical look than other installments.

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However, there are some problems with DARK PHOENIX that keep it from being totally successful. For one, Jennifer Lawrence once again seems to be going through the motions as Mystique, even though it’s a smaller role than in previous films. Hoult’s arc as Beast also fails to convince at times, with him appearing almost maniacal in his pursuit of Jean at one point, and he’s allowed to flip-flop from friend to foe too easily. What’s worse is how thin a part Jessica Chastain has as the alien shapeshifter villain, as generic a baddie as these movies have ever had (historically – not their strong suit). That’s a real waste of a great actress, although she has a few good moments opposite Turner. The action scenes also come up a little short, with only the finale and a nifty scene involving a couple of Army helicopters and Magneto really standing out. The action is well-shot, but this installment feels distinctly less epic than the others. 

Maybe that’s why DARK PHOENIX, at 113 minutes, feels like 75% of an X-MEN movie. I was surprised once the final set piece (on board a military train) started to kick in, as the movie didn’t really feel over – especially with plot threads being left open in the hopes of another installment (which seems unlikely now with Disney taking over). Even still, leaving me wanting more isn’t a bad way to end the franchise. If indeed this is the end. Only time and box office will tell…