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Sunday
Jun092019

Review: Dark and Tired Phoenix

This review was previously published in Nathaniel's column at Towleroad...

Don't they have any healing and creative rejuvenation among the super-powered mutations at Charles Xavier's School for Gifted Children? If so they needed them to lay their hands on this franchise for a few years before making another bungled attempt at the beloved Dark Phoenix storyline (from the 1980 comic books) within this movie franchise's 19 movie years. But that's a rhetorical question. If Dark Phoenix (2019) is indication, mutations cannot save this franchise.

When we return to our characters, much has changed since our last visit. Which is fine since who wants to be reminded of X-Men Apocalypse? The X-Men are now no longer shunned by society but held up as heroes. Professor Xavier (James McAvoy, phoning this one in... but then who isn't?) has a direct phone to the White House, like a Batman / Commissioner Gordon sitch on steroids. Their first mission, which serves as kind of a second prologue to the over and underwritten film, is making Raven (Jessica Lawrence) nervous for some underwritten/performed reason...

They're to save a space shuttle crew from imminent death. The mission goes wrong with Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) appearing to explode with the doomed ship. But what's this -- she's no worse for the wear? Well, not so fast. Her power is now off the charts and mental inhibitors that Xavier had placed on her as a child without her knowledge (uh-oh) have distintegrated as well. As if her powers going haywire weren't bad enough for the team, super-powered aliens have arrived on Earth (led by Jessica Chastain, going Terminator-franchise minimalist though she's not playing a robot). The aliens intend to use Jean Grey, now nicknamed Phoenix for her remarkable resurrection from a fiery end, for their own nefarious purposes.

Battle sequences, plot contrivances, contractually obligated / totally joyless performances, and CGI light shows of multiple varieties ensue. 

To be fair Dark Phoenix does deliver a few meager thrills. The film makes you wait for Magneto and it's wonderful to see Michael Fassbender's effortlessly intense charisma back onscreen (where's he been since marrying Alicia Vikander?). He clearly doesn't want to be there, but then, neither does his character so it works. Disco-era mutant Dazzler (who we never thought we'd see onscreen!) gets a cameo which is meaningless but still works as fan service. Nightcrawler's (Kodi Smit McPhee) teleportation skills are put to visually strong use, primarily because they look so different than everyone else's computer generated gifts. A climactic action sequence on a speeding train has its moments too. It goes on twice as long as it should and is too chaotic to follow all that well but a few action-bliss jolts occur within.

What doesn't work? Everything else.

The franchise has never done right by Cyclops (Tye Sheridan now, James Marsden earlier) or Storm (Alexandra Shipp now, Halle Berry then) and that continues here. [SPOILER] For something that should feel apocalyptic there is only one major death, and that one feels contractually motivated, too, as if appeasing someone who obviously wants out. [/SPOILER] And the storyline, which should lend itself to grand myth-making, is visually "small" as if the X-Men and the aliens are the only people who exist in the known universe. One action sequence takes place in a city but it's no bigger than an unruly block party.

It's all terribly unsatisfying.

Sophie Turner does what she can with her undermotivated central part, but there's no magic in the performance to save the movie from itself. The other actors have much less to do, only repeating beats we've seen them do many times before. The franchise is in a time loop after all, returning to this story again with different actors playing the same roles, but not, through the usual reboot format. It's little wonder that everyone is merely going through the motions.

We repeat: Mutations cannot save the X-Men. No half-measure cast changes or director swaps will do. Only death will work as Logan (2017) indicated. The series has been a mess since its launch with endless problems in casting, storytelling, and tone. They couldn't even get the inclusiveness right, focusing almost entirely on three white men (Wolverine, Xavier, and Magneto) for a long run of movies, when the ahead-of-their-time comic books gave the filmmakers such a solid template for gender parity and multi-racial ensemble dynamics. The X-Men movies now number... no, we've lost count, but only X2 (2003) and Logan (2017) came close to capturing the uncanny thrills of the comic books. Dark Phoenix is not the worst movie in the franchise.  X-Men Apocalypse (2016) is far stupider though it got points for weirdness, X-Men: Origins Wolverine (2009) is incredibly inept and dull and X-Men: Last Stand (2006) was a chaotic mix of stories, none of them satisfying. But when more movies from a franchise are fighting for Worst Of honors then Best, its time to bury it. Logan (2017) knew that, somehow, and went to the grave honorably. Dark Phoenix tries to follow suit, in its own funereal way, but without that earlier film's conviction, genre-twisting, and great central performances. Dark Phoenix strays wildly from the famous 1980 comic book storyline but still honors its downer outcome. It's a bummer... intentionally and otherwise.

Grade: C- 
Oscar Chances: Two X titles have won Oscar's attention: Logan was nominated for Adapted Screenplay and X-Men: Days of Future Past for Visual Effects. This won't bring the number to three. 

 

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Reader Comments (4)

X-Men First Class deserves some credit. It's flawed but is probably my favorite of the series. It's the only X-Men film that really nails Magneto. And the fun 60s set design (Kevin Bacon's submarine alone was a blast to look at) as well as McAvoy's cheeky arrogant Xavier and its soundtrack make it a very enjoyable movie. It has its problems but I still love it. X2 and DOFP are also top tier of the genre imo. Also having X1 come out of the ashes of the supposed "death" of the superhero comic book movie after Batman and Robin was impressive. Whether it reviving the superhero movie was a blessing or a curse given it's domination today is debatable. My point being is the X-Men films have had big ups and major downs but I think they deserve more love then they get.

June 9, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

I agree with Sarah. Deducing them all down to only two good movies when First Class and DoFP are staring you in the face seems wrong. The Wolverine was also decent in a standalone, "this doesn't feel right" kinda way. The rest, however, are balls. The timeline is stupid janky, the new cast seems to all have Wolverine's anti-aging power and none of them are selling it.

June 9, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMorgan (the 1st)

What I find so strange is that this is a franchise that has had two of the action/superhero genre's best films - Logan and X2 - and two other outings that are up there in terms of craft, storytelling, and thrills -- Days of Future Past and First Class. And even The Wolverine is solid. But the rest are absolute, Fantastic Four-level, garbage.

Obviously a big part of it is the storytelling - the films that work are the ones invested in characters that they've devoted time to - Wolverine and Xavier. But it's really sad that, at the budget they're working at and with the sheer talent, they're not able to produce solid films.

June 9, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

The X-Men franchise as a movie franchise was always a bad idea. With most superhero franchises, it was always kind of a toss up whether the budgetary limits of the live-action TV format really off-set the big disadvantages (the pressure of starting with THE BIG VILLAIN, the, typical, stifling expectation of killing him off (X-Men avoided this) and the simplified supporting cast required of the cinematic scope) of just making modern movie versions. With the X-Men, that last bit is cutting the franchise off at the knees.

June 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

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