Review: X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)

dark-phoenix-direcotr-simon-kinberg

Don’t worry, soon we’ll both be in better movies!: Twentieth Century Fox/Donners’ Company

I’ve already forgotten most of APOCALYPSE, though I do for some reason remember Michael Fassbender floating in the air, looking bored and not saying anything for half an hour. I also recall the apparent finality of the ending, with the mutant superhero team finally assembled and in their comics-accurate costumes, then the X-door closes, job done. But no, writer-director Simon Kinberg couldn’t resist having another go at the most beloved X-Men storyline of all. But has he made the same mistakes with DARK PHOENIX as he did with THE LAST STAND thirteen years ago? No, he’s made all new ones!

Following a successful space rescue mission, the X-Men are celebrated as heroes. But Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) returns to Earth changed and carrying the unstoppable and hugely destructive Phoenix Force. Can her team, her family, bring her back to the light?

To be fair to Sophie Turner, at least she gives a performance. At least Phoenix and what it does to the young psychic is the absolute focus of the story this time. Unfortunately, once again it’s scene after scene of other characters telling Jean what she is feeling in a given moment and what she should do. Just like Magneto did in Last Stand, Jessica Chastain’s alien character says she should be free, her powers fully unchained then proceeds to use her like a sentient gun. Where’s the agency of this title character?

Professor X (James McAvoy) and his questionable actions come across a little better this time round. He at least seems conflicted and guilty about messing with Jean’s subconscious when she was a child rather than a mind-raping sociopath. This is mostly because you have Hank/Beast (Nicholas Hoult, the only genuinely good thing in this) as an incredulous audience stand-in and their grief-stricken argument in the kitchen of the X-Mansion is one of few highlights.

Early on, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, glad to be out) questions why Professor X hasn’t renamed his team “The X-Women” yet since it’s the female members of the team always saving the day? She’s not wrong, but wow Simon Kinberg that’s a crashingly awkward way of saying it in your movie. Speaking of Kinberg’s writing, he regularly contradicts the previous movies, some of which he wrote himself. I’m sorry to do this sort of analysis but there’s that little else of interest here. How did Jean manifest her Phoenix powers last time to beat Apocalypse if she encounters the Phoenix Force for the first time here, ten years later? Why does Professor X claim to have built Cerebro when we clearly saw Hank do this in FIRST CLASS, and more importantly why doesn’t Hank correct him when he’s standing right behind him?! And are we really expected to believe Charles, Erik and Hank are somewhere between 50 and 60 years old by this point? Why didn’t you even give Michael Fassbender a little bit of grey at his temples?

The film looks exactly as expensive as it thinks it needs to. A flashy set piece at the beginning and one at the end aside, all the action looks a bit TV series finale.  The space rescue looks good but is a pretty boring and unimaginative sequence. The X-Men following Jean back home as her powers awaken is devoid of life and virtually identical to the same scene in Last Stand (only the victim of Phoenix’s power changes). The New York nighttime street skirmish is messily put together bordering on incomprehensible. The final train fight is entertaining when focussing on the mutants with the more visually distinctive powers (basically, Magneto and Nightcrawler) but is just stalling for time before the final Phoenix confrontation.

Fatally for this adaptation there’s just not enough human feeling to this take on the most emotional, even melodramatic X-Men story. Despite giving Scott/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) plenty to do, it mostly amounts to running and optic blasting, and shouting “Jean!” ad nauseam. Asking us to really care about this Jean/Scott relationship after only spending one-and-a-bit films with them (where they’re only now getting any real screentime) is a bit of an ask.

This is the last X-Men review I’ll be writing for the foreseeable, which makes me rather sad – I love the X-Men. But the Fox movies have been patchy at best, and hopefully the next iteration of these characters won’t so quickly lose sight of who they are and what they’re about. You’ve been gifted one of the most interesting and diverse ensembles of characters out there: use them. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourites include Bong Joon-ho, Danny Boyle, the Coen Brothers, Nicolas Winding Refn, Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Taika Waititi and Edgar Wright. All reviews and articles are original works owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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