Dark Phoenix: A Lacklustre end to a 19-Year Legacy

British actress Sophie Turner has had two highly anticipated endings associated with her name this year: the final season of Game of Thrones and the final X-Men movie under Fox before the franchise moves to its new home at Disney after nineteen years. And surprisingly, both projects have one big thing in common…they both feel far too rushed, meaning the impact they could have had is greatly diminished.

Having said that though, don’t let the reviews of X-Men: Dark Phoenix fool you, because it is not as bad as they are making it out to be. That’s not to say it’s very good either though.

I’m somebody who can remember himself sitting in the cinema at nine-years-old, with a popcorn box bigger than his head, completely enthralled by the first X-Men back in 2,000, and who effectively grew up with these films from then on. So, I was hoping this final instalment in the series would close on an epic note. And while it isn’t the disaster some are painting it to be, it is also a somewhat lacklustre affair, going out with more of gentle rumble than a fitting big bang.

Dark Phoenix begins in 1975, when 8-year-old mutant Jean Grey’s powers of telekinesis and telepathy manifest themselves for the first time. Unable to control her immense power, she causes a devastating accident which claims the lives of her parents. Afterwards she is taken in by Charles Xavier, and raised in his school for gifted youngsters, and eventually becomes a beloved member of the X-Men.

In 1992, following the events of previous films in the series, the X-Men are now world renowned heroes, who are called upon to undertake increasingly dangerous missions. When NASA calls on them to rescue a group of astronauts stranded in space and in the direct path of what appears to be a solar flare, the team springs into action.

They manage to save the astronauts, but disaster strikes when Jean is struck by what they think is a solar flare, and her body completely absorbs it. Rather than killing her as it should, it appears that she has had a miraculous escape from death without even a scratch on her. But it’s not long before the Phoenix Force inside Jean becomes too much to handle, resulting in the people closest to her getting hurt when she loses control.

Desperate to save their friend from the dark force inside her, the X-Men must fight human opposition who see Jean as a threat, as well as a mysterious alien race hell bent on harnessing the power for its own evil intentions.

As many will know, Dark Phoenix is Fox’s second attempt at adapting the much loved comic book story, The Dark Phoenix Saga. The studio brought it to the screen for the first time back in 2006 in X-Men: The Last Stand, which was met with widespread criticism and is often thought of as one of the worst superhero movies ever made, let alone one of the worst in the X-Men series. While this second attempt does feature some similar plot points to that earlier failure and isn’t exactly the most excellent of adaptations itself either, I think nobody can deny that they did a better job of it this time around. But I guess that’s not really saying much considering how awful X-Men: The Last Stand was.

Perhaps the problem here is that this storyline is too big and emotional to fit into just one movie. To do it justice it would need to be spread out over some sequels too. Back in the early days of filming of Dark Phoenix, Director Simon Kinberg spoke about how he hoped this film would be the first in a new X-Men trilogy. Then of course, Disney acquired Fox in a multibillion dollar deal that means the X-Men will eventually be introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Dark Phoenix suddenly became a finale for nineteen years of Fox produced films.

The film underwent extensive reshoots likely because of this, and also because it was said to be too similar to an already released superhero movie this year. It was likely Captain Marvel and it’s easy to see why. The mysterious alien race who come to earth in Dark Phoenix, led by Jessica Chastain’s character, are shapeshifters and were clearly intended to be Fox’s take on the Skrulls, which featured heavily in the story of Captain Marvel when it was released in March. With Disney now calling the shots with Fox properties, I’d imagine they wanted to tone down any comparisons between the two interpretations given that the race have so recently been introduced into the MCU, and so that’s why the aliens are changed to a less familiar race in the comics known as the D’Bari. If memory serves, the characters in Dark Phoenix don’t even refer to themselves as Skrulls or D’BAri, which relegates them to just a random alien race, making them less intimidating than they perhaps could have been.

Sophie Turner once again takes on the mantle of Jean Grey, in what is her second (and I assume last, unless something changes) outing in the X-Men world. It was reported that Turner researched multiple personality disorder ahead of filming, and you can see where that research paid off. She is much stronger here than she was in her debut as the character in X-Men: Apocalypse, and even her American accent has improved.

Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Nicholas Hoult all reprise their roles for a fourth time too. McAvoy is as reliable as ever as Charles Xavier, showing some more layers to the character this time around and bringing him closer to the Patrick Stewart iteration from the original trilogy. Hoult is also good as Beast once again, despite having very little to really do here. The other two though may as well not have featured.

Lawrence I would imagine only agreed to return because her character is killed off early on (which we have known for months now, so when it happens it doesn’t really shock), and because she wouldn’t have to spend much time in blue makeup to play Mystique. Sure enough, she spends more time in her non-blue form than the other way, which makes no sense because her character had fully embraced being a mutant and her blue skin at the end of the previous movie. I like Jennifer Lawrence, and think she is talented, but if you can’t hack the makeup process required for a character, then don’t sign up to a role!

Fassbender, while always fun to watch as Magneto, feels completely tacked on here. His story effectively ended in X-Men: Apocalypse so his appearance feels out of place and seems derived only to get his reaction to Mystique’s death and to drum up some tension that ultimately amounts to nothing. Kinberg could have left him out and it wouldn’t have made much difference. Not to mention that he brings two new mutants – Selene (Kota Eberhardt) and Red Lotus (Andrew Stehlin) – into the story along with him, who barely feature and are kind of pointless. Telepath Selene in particular makes no sense to introduce because she features so little and her role could have been filled (and possibly bulked up) by the previously introduced Psylocke (played by Olivia Munn in Apocalypse), who is also a telepath and who is at least more familiar to the audience.

As for the other X-Men characters, Evan Peters gets another Quicksilver scene but it is much less cooler than the ones that came before it. He is also sidelined early on and we don’t see him again until he pops up briefly at the end. Alexandra Shipp as Storm and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Nightcrawler only feature prominently during the action scenes, but both are showcased better than they have been in the past, Storm in particular finally getting a chance to show how powerful she is after years of fans calling out for it. Tye Sheridan on the other hand is predictably boring as Cyclops, given that the franchise has never really know how to handle his character.

Surprisingly, given her level of acclaim, Jessica Chastain doesn’t make much of an impact as the main villain of the piece, who is out to exploit Jean and the Phoenix Force. Her character has been described as “clinical” and she is clearly focused on one goal in the movie, but her performance comes off bland and is largely forgettable overall.

Ultimately, Dark Phoenix is an okay watch, with some interesting battle scenes and other moments. Just don’t go into it expecting an epic send off to a 19-year-old series, because it doesn’t reach those heights. The story is just too big to contain to one two hour movie, and this doesn’t go as dark as it could have gone to really raise the stacks and effectively finally close the Fox series for good. I’ll miss these movies though, because over the years there have been some gems (X-Men 2, Days of Future Past, Logan). But it will also be exciting to see how Disney will approach the characters a few years down the line from now when they induct them into the MCU.

 

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