X-Men: Dark Phoenix (aka Dark Phoenix) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
And so we finally come full circle with the X-Men prequel series. One would think that 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse would have brought things to a close as the film not only ended with the X-Men now in their matching suits and charging into the 1990s but also for the minor jab of The Last Stand being a lackluster third film to end on. Well, here we are again with Dark Phoenix, treading on a familiar and rocky ground last seen in The Last Stand.
The similar story involves the mutant Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) trying to stabilize her destructive psychic powers. Thanks to Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) taking her into his school at such a young age, she has learned through much training to control her abilities. By the time she reaches the 1990s where she has become an essential part of the X-Men team, whose older members are looking rather youthful after four decades. In fact, she’s become so powerful and indispensable that the shape-shifting mutant Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) thinks Xavier hasn’t been very fair to her, berating him that the team should be called X-Women with how much the female mutants have been proving themselves.
Raven is right in both aspects. For one, Jean took a direct blast from an alien energy force that was absorbed into her body, making her all the more powerful. For two, Charles is hiding a dark secret that deeply damages Jean’s sense of being. All of this results in her going on an emotional rampage where she not only feels distant from mutant-kind but damages the fragile relationship between humans and mutants, once more lighting that old flame of persecution. Her actions also attract the attention of Magneto (Michael Fassbender) with enough pathos to get him back in the saddle of the helmet-wearing conflicted mutant once more because even after all these decades he’s still a predictable creature of revenge.
Oh, and we completely forgot to mention the aliens. Yes, there’s a secret alien invasion of beings that take over human bodies and seek the power that Jean’s body currently houses. They’re led by a gentle Jessica Chastain that hopes her quiet words can persuade Jean to come over to the dark side of using her powers for intergalactic purposes. Her words easily sway Jean but in a very artificial way. Because in order to fit all of this, along with the conflicting relationships of various X-Men, into a film that’s under two hours, there’s no room to simmer. Characters must outright state they feel betrayed, loved, intimidated, or fearful in a manner that lacks subtlety.
But what’s perhaps the most troubling is that Dark Phoenix never really embraces its feminist angle which receives the same blunt delivery. We should get something poignant out of this development, but it’s a PG-13 crowd-pleaser comic book movie and so the most we can hope for out of such a tale is some good action, which we do get from a daring space shuttle rescue to a chaotic battle on a torn-apart train with all mutants battling aliens. But is that all this has to be? Fox has proven that genre-based comic book movies like Logan can not only be effective but also profitable. Why not embrace the obvious Carrie style horror this film so desperately wants to be? Why rob the film of this brilliance so that Nightcrawler can use his tail to snap some necks?
Despite some pleasing action, Dark Phoenix fizzles out on everything. Its characters are given surface-level motivations, the female angle coming off like a forced PSA, and the emotional moments coming off more like melodrama. This is less of a goodbye to this prequel saga and more of a good riddance.