‘Dark Phoenix’: A Pitiful Farewell for Fox 2000’s X-Men Franchise

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(2019—Director: Simon Kinberg)

— by Renard N. Bansale

High ★★½
(out of 5 stars)

“You’re not like the other doctors.” …
“No, and you’re not like the other patients.”

— Young Jean Grey (
Summer Fontana) and Prof. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy)

Potential spoilers below

Ever since the release of the first film back in 2000, 20th Century Fox’s X-Men franchise has sustained a well-regarded reputation for itself, building and improving on Superman and Batman’s big-screen success in the past. The valleys of Superman and Batman before it and Spider-Man after it necessitated strong reboots some years down the road. X-Men, meanwhile, rebounded from 2006’s disappointing threequel The Last Stand with three new series: One centered on Hugh Jackman’s signature role as Logan/Wolverine, culminating in 2017’s Logan. Two movies starred the fourth wall-breaking Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds as himself in a costume), whose future may continue firmly in the R-rated realm (like in 2016 and its 2018 sequel) or shift more into strong PG-13 (like the 2018 sequel’s experimental re-release).

Finally and most importantly, X-Men pulled a Star Wars by looking backward on its main mutant team-up storyline to focus on young Prof. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender), and Raven Darkhölme/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, at the cusp of her peak). It started off strong with 2011’s First Class (my favorite X-Men film, full stop) and 2014’s Days of Future Past (linking back with the old trilogy—also, that Quicksilver scene!), then stumbled hard with 2016’s Apocalypse. (Does anyone even remember Oscar Isaac as the titular villain anymore?) In Apocalypse, younger mutants like Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) were introduced, but it was Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) whose hidden ability decided the fate of the world—a hellish power whose own human vessel might not manage to contain it.

And then Disney acquired 20th Century Fox (among other assets) this past March. Before they were even released, the Jean Grey-centered Dark Phoenix and the horror-leaning New Mutants (the current poster child of delayed films) were in the disposal bin.

By itself, Dark Phoenix does have a few bright spots, namely the streetside/luxury apartment brawl just to the side of New York’s Central Park and the climactic train showdown towards the end. The former has Charles and the X-Men racing against Magneto with Beast and others, from the park to the apartment to handle the potential for global annihilation in their own conflicting ways. True, the nighttime tussle, coupled with the undercooked development inside the apartment, may appear somewhat underwhelming compared to Marvel and DC universe bouts, but the fight overall makes full use of the comparatively-tight arena. The extended train showdown, which takes place immediately afterwards, is just as thrilling. The urgent rush of Charles attempting to reach Jean in their collective mental space lends weight to the diverse defensive maneuvers by the X-Men against Vuk and her cohorts. Kurt/Nightcrawler in particular electrifies the screen with his vicious teleportation. Furthermore, they help build up to Jean’s devastating Phoenix powers.

But…didn’t Jean already have her Phoenix powers, as shown in the final battle of X-Men: Apocalypse? Was the apparent solar flare at the start of this story always related to her mutation or did it merely supercharge them? Starting off with this confusion is just the start of Dark Phoenix’s problems and how the sudden pressure of manufacturing some sort of full-circle farewell made those problems worse. How have these characters aged not a month in the decade since the events of Apocalypse? Were makeup head Annick Chartier and hair designer Félix Larivière restrained from taking that into account, especially considering how Charles is meant to look like Sir Patrick Stewart and Erik like Sir Ian McKellen by the end of the decade? Why focus so hard on Charles’ guilt on raising Jean, at the expense of screentime for the other X-Men? Worst of all, everything involving Vuk and the D’Bari alien race is slack, skeletal, and the movie has no room for exploring them, even though they’re the primary adversaries of this story. Ben Mendelsohn and the Skrulls in Captain Marvel from a few months back may have been somewhat underused, but there’s no denying that they were showcased way better than this.

And that’s it. That’s the end of two decades of Fox 2000’s X-Men, whose overall impression remains positive, yet whose reality according to individual installments sees the lows barely outweighing the highs. You helped comic book cinema press forward into this millennium, but even you ultimately got left in the dust—not by a snap, but by a check. Adieu.

And to you, Disney and Marvel: You’ve transitioned into a higher yet uncertain new realm ever since Avengers: Endgame, albeit by conquering over everyone else. When it comes to four-quadrant entertainment media, inside and outside the comfort of our homes, your way has become the only way for the foreseeable future. Please don’t let audiences worldwide down when the time finally comes for everyone to reunite with these beloved mutant characters once more.

 

(Parental Note: Dark Phoenix has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA “for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action including some gunplay, disturbing images, and brief strong language”. It is also rated 12A by the BBFC for “moderate violence, bloody images,” and “infrequent strong language”, and rated A-III (Adults and older adolescents) by the Catholic News Service for containing “pervasive combat violence with some gore, a few profanities and milder oaths, at least one rough term, and a single crude expression.”)

 

(Premise: In 1992, the X-Men—Prof. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), Raven Darkhölme/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner)—respond to an emergency involving the launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavor. The Endeavor has encountered an apparent solar flare in orbit, putting its crew in grave danger. During the rescue, Jean ends up absorbing the brunt of the cosmic force. While Jean does manage to survive, the entity she absorbed begins to unleash a catastrophic power, originating from hidden childhood trauma. This worsens when she discovers that Prof. X has kept secret from her the whereabouts of her father (Scott Shepherd), presumed dead. As Jean—now dubbed “Phoenix”—wrestles between harnessing the full potential of her newfound yet horrific powers and cooperating with her fellow X-Men, an alien race known as the D’Bari, led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain), arrive on Earth to wield for themselves Jean’s “Phoenix” powers.)

R.N.B.


About the Author

Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.

For more movie reviews by Renard, click here 

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