Directed by Simon Kinberg
Here at Horror Cult Films, we normally aspire to get review movies as soon as they hit the big screen. But in the case of Dark Phoenix, which came out a week and a bit ago, I think we all assumed (or hoped) someone else would do it instead. Even if you try to ignore critics before seeing a film, as I do, it’s been tough to avoid the negative press this latest entry, turned finale, has received. As such, when I went to see it at my local Vue it was with the mindset of taking one for the team rather than expecting to like it. Still, given the Doc will be watching Men in Black over the next couple of days I reckon I got the better end of the deal.
Seemingly this wasn’t planned to be an ending either. But with Fox being bought by the House of Mouse, it was inevitable they’d want to switch it to be part of a bigger, more successful universe. Still, at least writer/ director Simon Kinberg got to have a go at the Dark Phoenix plot. Supposedly it’s one of the most famous comic book storylines – and was previously adapted for The Last Stand. Sadly, it’s not second time lucky. As per that entry, our focus is on the corruption of Jean Grey into the titular bad version of herself, following an encounter with a flare during a (pretty cool) space rescue mission. As she starts to develop and misuse her new powers, her former crime-fighting colleagues must decide whether to try and save or kill her. If that weren’t enough, along the way they contend (briefly) with old foe Magneto, and bland new villain Vuk. Given the reliance on fight scenes, this makes for a packed two hours where lots of things happen, but they rarely feel important.
As per the previous (mediocre) outing, Apocalypse, the dialogue is mostly functional and tells us little about the characters as individuals aside from their role in the plot. Heck, we’ve known some of them longer than we have the Avengers, but we still know them way less. The story roughly hangs together as a logical sequence of events, but the script does the bare minimum to enable it to do so. This means that outside the 1970s set opening sequence, which is admittedly fairly accomplished, Dark Phoenix makes for a mostly unemotional experience. Which is ironic given that feelings are core to the film. On that, perhaps it’s my liberal sensibilities getting in the way, or it’s because a certain other female-fronted superhero film did it only a few months ago – as did Umbrella Academy. But do we really need another movie about a woman learning to control her emotions, lest she destroy all of humanity? Her losing control at the start of act 2 means the bulk of the movie works from an agency-reducing premise that turns a character from Captain Marvel into Carrie (which I say with no lack of love for Miss White). I’ve read some rumours about a lot of extra scenes about Jean that were shot, which allegedly depict her condition as a form of schizophrenia – so we may see more on the DVD version. But it’d have to be pretty spectacular to make much of a difference to Grey’s journey. Where the aforementioned Captain was an empowering character, Jean Grey is a weak one. This isn’t the only familiar aspect either. As usual for this series, the underwritten parts do a good cast a great disservice.
Sophie Turner does well with what she has to work with, yet the narrative leap from her being angry to trying to kill everyone just isn’t convincingly made. Funnily enough, this is a complaint people also throw at another part in something else she’s been in, but I’ll stop now at risk of including spoilers. Fassbender is at his brooding best. Yet Magneto does much the same thing he did last time, with an identical arc, and the theme of powers being a blessing and curse is as old as the comics. McAvoy has the most to work with since his character is depicted in a flawed but human way. He repeatedly mucks things up and subsequently gets taken to task by just about every character who has more than 5 lines of dialogue. This deconstructive approach is refreshingly unsentimental, even if maybe gets off too lightly. And Jennifer Lawrence looks as keen to leave the franchise as Mystique is to leave the X-Men.
Which, of course, we’re also about to do. Out goes the Fox universe on a minor fizzle rather than a bang. Not that I had expected otherwise. The signs it wouldn’t be great were all there – major reshoots followed by a delayed release. Though part of the problem it’s been so badly received may be due to its timing. Coming hot on the heels of Avengers Endgame, now the second most successful film of all time, the relatively small scale of Dark Phoenix seems twee. There are some cool action scenes, but they’re nothing you haven’t seen before by now. Maybe for the first few outings, some fancy set-pieces would suffice. But as main competitors Marvel learnt, by the twelfth they’re not enough. I’ve scored this lower than Apocalypse, which is maybe unfair. It isn’t necessarily worse per se, though it definitely seems like it given the numerous better superhero films that have come out these past 3 years – including Logan, Black Panther, Deadpool, Thor Ragnarok and Marvel’s 2 part magnum opus. At one point a core character reflects on the repetitive nature of what the X-Men do, and says “nobody cares”. Judging by the box office performance, and ratings, they’re not wrong. Who knows, maybe the several tens of millions of people in the UK who haven’t bought tickets were just waiting to see what this site thought of it. In that unlikely scenario, I guess I haven’t helped.