REVIEW: ‘Dark Phoenix’ Burns Up in the Atmosphere

Let’s be honest – at a stage this late in the game, can anything be done to give the X-Men franchise a final outing worthy of the talent and legendary characters the now former 20th Century Fox has handled for roughly twenty years?

Following 2016’s disastrous X-Men: Apocalypse, this mutant cinematic universe took several welcome detours in the years since, with 2017’s phenomenal Logan and last year’s better-than-the-original Deadpool 2, both of which turned out impressive results when it came to critical reception and box office glory.  However, as Disney surged forward with their acquisition of the studio throughout much of last year, the two in-production films at the moment, The New Mutants and Dark Phoenix, found themselves awash in a variety of problems involving rumors, reshoots, shuffling release dates, and an ambiguous future with Disney. It’s obvious they were uncertain of what direction the franchise would take under their new leadership.  It was soon made clear that both films would represent the final adventures Fox would be taking with the team, with the very real possibility of a complete recasting, rebooting and anything else one can imagine to transition our beleaguered X-Men to the Mouse House and, eventually, the MCU.

With that, Dark Phoenix has risen from the ashes of Apocalypse, another take on Jean Grey’s darkest moment which previously figured heavily into 2006’s wretched X-Men: The Last Stand.  With the entire first-generation cast introduced to us eight years ago in X-Men: First Class returning for Fox’s final X-bow, along with new director/longtime producer, Simon Kinberg, taking the reins from Public Enemy #1 Bryan Singer, is Dark Phoenix a fitting end, a new beginning, or something else entirely?

I suppose it’s something else.

Dark Phoenix could best be described as odd, with a cast that can’t seem to decide if they want to even be there and a film that surrounds them with as much shakiness as there is potential – and there’s a lot of potential.  After teasing Jean Grey’s (Sophie Turner) Phoenix persona towards the end of Apocalypse, Dark Phoenix introduces it shortly after the opening credits roll, with the assembled X-Men of Grey, Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy), Raven Darkholme/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Storm (Alexandra Shipp), now government-sanctioned superhero operatives, conscripted to undertake a rescue mission after a space shuttle encounters a mysterious intergalactic cloud outside of Earth’s atmosphere.  Though the operation is ultimately a success, Grey finds herself imbued with heightened abilities after being struck by the event, having taken the full force of the cloud following a final go at saving one last astronaut.  Returning to Earth as heroes, Grey is quick to discover that whatever she experienced has not only dialled up her powers a frightening amount but has brought to the surface a character seemingly bent on using said powers malevolently, kicking off a struggle between Grey and this newfound darkness within.  Naturally, it’s up to her friends to help bring Grey back, while at the same time dealing with an alien threat and their leader (Jessica Chastain), who wants Grey’s abilities for her own intentions.

The cast, overall, toys with occasional brilliance, stemming from the likes of Michael Fassbender, who’s back as the ever-conflicted Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto. Here he continues his outstanding portrayal of Magneto with another fantastic performance that’s less conflicted than what was seen in Apocalypse, and Turner doing a serviceable job, showcasing some genuine fear and badassery depending on the persona she’s adopting, even if her backstory is referenced far more times than necessary.  Outside of these two semi-standouts, everyone else seems lifeless, at best – the usually-reliable Chastain doesn’t seem to have much of a character at all, and while a few fleeting moments demonstrate her menace, the rest of her arc consists of far too many blank stares, exposition, and unclear motivations.  Sheridan couldn’t be more whiny, unsure of how to say his lines, & lacking in any heart or real contributions to the team as a whole, with the same being said about Shipp, who’s ultimately just there. Kodi Smit-McPhee appears to be having difficulty speaking in his clunky Nightcrawler getup, but does get a few moments to shine, action-wise – nothing in comparison to the epic White House Nightcrawler scene from X2: X-Men United.  Lawrence, shockingly, delivers what may very well be her worst moments as Mystique, and one of her weakest performances of her career thus far – rarely do I see someone less interested in being a part of a movie than was witnessed in every second Lawrence occupied the screen, with Hoult suffering as well in this regard, just by having to act with her.  Unfortunately, the beloved Evan Peters is completely underutilized – don’t expect any memorable Quicksilver sequences as seen before, whether this was a product of reshoots or a failing on behalf of Kinberg is anyone’s guess.  Even McAvoy, while he’s admittedly better than most of his castmates and is still showcasing the chemistry he and Fassbender so flawlessly share, struggles a bit with one of the greatest characters in comic history. This results in an appearance that pales in comparison to what he gave us in his three outings as Professor X prior.

Kinberg, who’s had a hand in the scripts of nearly every X-Men film since The Last Stand, now serves as a triple threat by directing as well as writing and producing Dark Phoenix, in the process simultaneously allowing said reshoots to completely change Dark Phoenix‘s direction, shooting it off into a number of random, dead-end subplots.  That writing truly couldn’t be more inconsistent – this isn’t the most fun, enjoyable outing for our beloved X-Men, with nary a laugh to be found (save for an unexpected, unintentionally hilarious outburst from Cyclops) and is jam-packed with dialogue that, as a whole, is fairly dull.  Instead, it all dances between dour attempts at tearjerking and ridiculous exposition, with Chastain the guiltiest of all culprits in this regard.  There even appears to be a lack of understanding when it comes to the powers said characters use from time to time, with the rules seemingly changing when it comes to what Magneto, Storm and even Grey can do.  This is especially apparent during a third-act train sequence seen briefly in the trailers – while a true highlight of the film, there’s a lot going on, almost too much to properly comprehend.  Additionally, don’t get me started on the comrades who join Magento throughout much of the film – not only do both have some of the most unclear sets of abilities I’ve ever seen, but I couldn’t begin to tell you their names.

Plus, would you believe Dark Phoenix‘s era is the early ’90s?  Outside of a title card indicating the year overlaid atop the blatantly old shuttle footage during the film’s intro, this movie could have been set anytime, not at all assisted by the makeup crew’s disregarded attempts to age the cast-didn’t First Class take place in the early ’60s?  Clearly, another superpower shared by all those involved is youthful good looks.

This, sadly, is just the beginning of the many issues Dark Phoenix possesses – a variety of Civil War-esque internal conflicts and team divisions arise frequently, with Turner and Sheridan lacking any chemistry whatsoever as a “couple” and Kinberg’s statements that this film is his stab at getting the Dark Phoenix saga portrayed onscreen properly 13 years after the failure of The Last Stand now coming off as the rantings of someone who should have never been allowed in the director’s chair.  Chastain’s motivations are both cliché & ridiculous, and the endless amounts of extras playing her alien compatriots fall victim to the same problems as Magneto and Storm-it’s unclear what their powers are, and unclear as to what point Kinberg finally gave up on the patchwork screenplay he had to have been assembling on the fly.

In what can only be described as a complete disappointment, Hans Zimmer, who previously said he was done scoring superhero epics after Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, returns to the fold with a soundtrack that’s less the memorable work he’s done in roughly every film to which he’s contributed up to this point, and, instead, is more akin to someone touching random keys on an overdriven synthesizer.  Less upbeat music and more downtrodden noise, I expected more from one of my all-time favorite composers.

However, is Dark Phoenix ultimately a complete loss?  Though it’s not saying much, this is, at the end of the day, a better effort than Apocalypse and The Last Stand, which while loaded with decent-to-bad CGI does come with some genuinely exciting action sequences such as the aforementioned train battle and opening shuttle rescue, complete with a pseudo-Avengers Assemble moment, and another fight with Grey, Chastain & the torn apart X-Men immediately preceding the train scene.  All of these scenes allow every character to demonstrate their confusingly changing powers, while a scene earlier at a remote island Magento inhabits with an army of followers has some interesting dynamics between Grey & Magento and a genuine struggle between the two to do what’s right.  Plus, a sequence between Grey and her estranged father, which, while starting off haphazardly, does eventually lead to an interesting skirmish amongst Grey and the team.  Even the moments in between, which do affect the pacing with copious amounts of drag and could be seen as boring, do allow certain characters to convey a considerable amount of sadness and where they might be going in the future.

Unfortunately, none of these “good parts” are enough to save Dark Phoenix from falling into the category of the mundane, with every success in terms of action and a few scant performances offset by the rest of the dismal cast, script and score.  While it doesn’t paint a pretty picture for where the franchise may be headed, let’s hope MCU mastermind Kevin Feige can reintroduce the team far better than this sendoff, which closes with an ending scene that simply stops the film dead in its tracks.  If ever there was an indicator of the misguided journey the X-Men have taken since their onscreen introduction in the summer of 2000, Dark Phoenix is it, though unlike the character with which it shares its namesake, I don’t wish for any of these characters to rise again anytime soon.