A Phoenix rises, a franchise falls.
Lauded one year, maligned the next; Fox’s fatally fateful X-Men, now at the behest of Kevin Feige, have went gentle into the good night. A decade-traversing, obfuscating tapestry of genre-definers and turkeys, a series once credited with igniting the superhero boom became somewhat of a stagnant inevitability – no more apparent than in Dark Phoenix, a shallow franchise-closer that sizzles rather than bangs.
Simon Kinberg is at the helm of this climactic outing; a long-time X-devotee taking a seat in the director’s chair for the first time alongside writing duties. His film echoes an unlikely predecessor; X-Men: The Last Stand, the widely-shrugged threequel (which Kinberg was a writer on) that juggled the ‘Dark Phoenix’ storyline (arguably the superhero team’s most iconic in the comics) amidst mutant cures and whatnot. Not this time.
“We’re doing space missions now… cool,” quips Quicksilver (Evan Peters). Astronauts are stranded, spinning endlessly in space; Charles aka Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) sends the X-Men to help. The break the atmosphere and find a fluorescent, Jackson Pollock-esque entity approaching the shuttle – during efforts to save those onboard, Jean (Sophie Turner) absorbs the mysterious force, boosting her powers “off the charts” and transforming her into ‘Phoenix’.
And, it’s a good opening (after a corny flashback). Visuals that riff on Interstellar, Hans Zimmer’s typically brilliant, event cinema score (thundering riffs punctuate the stakes like bolts of lightning throughout the movie), iffy-if-immersive CGI. But, as Phoenix is born, the story’s legs grow fickle; several little character threads failing to tie together into something meaty.
For example; while Jean struggles to restrain her new villainous alter-ego, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) is growing tired of Charles’ egotistic acts of vicarious heroism, as well as his (debatable) gaslighting of Jean during childhood. All interesting, yet, Kinberg’s script isn’t sharp enough to dive in and explore. The result is naggy pseudo-commentary, ostensibly alluding to themes of female empowerment, inclusion and recovery. Even Lawrence can’t save us from the abysmal cringe of the “X-Women” line.
There’s also Jessica Chastain as Vuk, the leader of a shape-shifting Alien race searching for a place to restart (sound familiar?) while manipulating and accentuating Phoenix’s evil tendencies. Similar to Oscar Isaacs in Apocalypse, she’s smothered in a bizarre aesthetic and given a fairly thankless role, seemingly a Skrull/T-1000 hybrid – but not (in)human enough to make it work.
There’s no doubt the film is a spectacle; Kinberg’s love shines through in a dazzling, imaginative train sequence, with Nightcrawler’s transportive puffs and Storm’s mastery of Mother Nature adding a pacy zing to the ensemble beat-em-ups. One shot in particular of Magneto (Michael Fassbender) assembling a floating arsenal is, for my money, pure X-Men. But there’s little depth to it all; characters’ violent flare-ups don’t feel justified, Jean’s descent into iniquity is greatly misbalanced (watch for the stairs scene), the token use of the F-word is hilarious rather than thrilling, and there’s a painfully absent sense of finality in it all. For such an iconic (if troubled franchise), the arrival of the credits is merciful, and harshly anticlimactic.
Mauro Fiore’s cinematography is solid, but lacking any singular flourishes that give Dark Phoenix a sense of style (unlike say, Logan’s neo-western vibe or First Class‘ vintage feel). McAvoy and Fassbender are a reliable pairing, bouncing off each other with real electricity while remaining captivating screen presences solo (rest assured, there’s a “Hello, old friend” and a chess game). Others don’t fare so well; Turner battles with what she has, and provides some emotional moments (though this is more a fault of the material than her talents). Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult and Tye Sheridan float around spouting yawn-inducing drivel; scrambling around the steadily crumbling foundation. At least the last film had a film composing God behind the music.
Truly the end of an era; a flat finale shackled by superficial themes, with no sense of event. Goodbye, old friend.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm