'Dark Phoenix' Fails To Resurrect The Tired 'X-Men' Franchise
The first female-led 'X-Men' installment panders to fans, especially women.
"The Phoenix Saga" is the signature X-Men story in Marvel lore, which is why there are now two movies in the last 13 years based on it. X-Men: The Last Stand was the first, but that film was erased from the X-universe thanks to the time-travel plot of X-Men: Days of Future Past in 2014. Enter Dark Phoenix in 2019. The latest (and last, now that Disney owns Fox) in the series is another attempt to translate the emotional weight of the comic to the big screen. It fails badly.
While the fun of spending time with Magneto, Professor X, and Mystique doesn't get old, the pain of watching them in another cobbled-together story does. The last sequel, X-Men: Apocalypse, was a laughable farce thanks to its lazy, unworthy villain and scattered plot. Dark Phoenix isn't much of an improvement. It rushes things, boiling the saga down to its barest elements and adding new stuff for fans.
Set in 1992, the movie begins with a daring space rescue that sets off the events of the film. When Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) absorbs a solar flare that superpowers her telekinetic superpowers, she becomes the most powerful mutant ever. "Everything is turned up." She tells her boyfriend, Cyclops (Tye Sheridan).
Soon after, Jean realizes the childhood memory of her parents' death has been blocked from her mind by Professor X (James McAvoy). Her new powers overcome the Professor and she learns the truth: She killed her parents in an accident as a child, but her father is seemingly still alive. Conflicted, Jean visits her hometown and eventually turns on her X-Men teammates when they try to bring her home. Tragedy ensues and the X-Men realize the Jean they knew may be gone.
After being rejected by Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Jean is later approached by the evil Vuk (Jessica Chastain), a shapeshifting alien in human form who covets Jean's powers. Vuk has plans for the all-powerful mutant, but she slow-rolls things, coaching Jean to control herself and winning her trust by appealing to her burgeoning god-complex. Obviously, the villain's motives are less altruistic and an inevitable showdown occurs.
Writer/director Simon Kinberg has plenty of X-Men experience from working on past scripts, but that's hardly a good thing. Kinberg wrote some of the worst comic book movies ever made — the aforementioned Apocalypse and Last Stand, as well as Fantastic Four. He's only barely in control of the mess Dark Phoenix descends into. His callbacks to past moments are pure fan service and the many transparent #MeToo moments are worse. They slovenly pander to the audience. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) suggests calling the X-Men the "X-Women" in a scene and the smirking Turner lends a cloud of smug to Jean Grey that makes you hope for her death. It's like Kinberg saw Captain Marvel and decided his movie needed more girl power. What he really needed was a good script.
Dark Phoenix also suffers from weak villain syndrome, a disease that runs rampant in comic movies. Vuk is barely developed and given a moral imperative that makes her self-righteous and boring. Chastain does her best with the material she's given, but the danger of her character pales in comparison to the main act — Jean Grey.
The fun of Dark Phoenix is waiting for Jean to explode and the film delivers that much, at least. Fassbender and McAvoy also bring gravitas to their roles, as usual, as Professor X and Magneto anchor the story in a familiar mutant freedom and security subplot. The truth is it's time for the current X-Men cast to hang it up. Performances are now tired and things are getting redundant. The X-Men need new life. Let's hope the franchise's future at Disney delivers that much.