‘Dark Phoenix’ ends X-Men franchise with a whimper
The X-Men cinematic treatment has had its share of strengths, but the series was standing on shaky ground long before “Dark Phoenix” went into production.
Asking this film to save the franchise is like asking one person to clean up the grounds after the Firefly Festival.
In total, there have been 12 films over the past 19 years that have dwelled within the common X-Men universe, but they have been released in such an undisciplined, random fashion, it was hard to keep track of just what plotline we were supposed to follow. And in that time, they have jumped from a trio of initial films to two attempts at stand-alone spinoffs (with Wolverine), three prequels, and a spinoff of a spinoff (with Deadpool).
While the original “X-Men” and its direct sequel stand as some of the best films of the genre, the majority of the other films in the series will not be fondly recalled whenever the era of superhero films draws to a close.
“Dark Phoenix” is actually the second attempt to tell on screen one of the most beloved stories in the history of “X-Men.” The first time, it was wedged into the narrative of “The Last Stand” by director Brett Ratner.
The director’s name alone should have tipped some off as to what type of film to expect, but Ratner is a journeyman director known primarily for the three “Rush Hour” films, as well as multiple assault allegations.
Fans hoped this current iteration might restore the X-Men saga to its roots, when it first appeared across multiple issues in the late 1970s and was considered by many to be the height of excellence in comic storytelling. There, we first met Jean Grey as a little girl in 1975, when she started to realize her mutant powers on a family car outing. The fact that she could change the radio station with her mind is not nearly as impressive as the fact that she could summon Warren Zevon’s classic “Werewolves of London” three whole years before it was released!
After a car crash of which Jean is the only survivor, she winds up in the care of Professor Charles Xavier (played by James McAvoy) at his school for gifted mutants. The film picks up in 1992, a time in which the X-Men are universally revered and often sought to help in time of national emergencies.
This is exactly what happens when a U.S. space shuttle runs into the path of a solar flare and the president calls on the X-Men to help rescue the crew, but in the process, Jean (now played as an adult by Sophie Turner) absorbs the brunt of the flare’s energy. Jean returns to Earth a changed woman and is overcome with emotions that she cannot seem to control.
As she struggles, it often leads to conflicts within her own team, including Scott Summers (played by Tyler Sheridan), a fellow mutant to whom she has pledged her love. But the effects of her accident could have galactic repercussions, as she becomes increasingly unable to cope.
Simon Kinberg serves as the director of “Dark Phoenix,” and it’s his first time behind the lens. This may seem like some heavy lifting for a first-timer, but Kinberg has either written or produced every film in the franchise since “The Last Stand.” But here, he tries to collapse a rather epic storyline (one that actually could have been stretched over the course of two films) into its under-two-hour runtime.
This means all the emotional beats that are at the core of the “Phoenix” narrative are cast aside for a barrage of action sequences. As the film leaps from one scene to the next, we are left wanting so much more. It even throws in an additional subplot which wastes Jessica Chastain as an emotionless being who does nothing to throttle the action.
Other A-listers in the cast (Jennifer Lawrene, Michael Fassbender, Nicholas Hoult) have a handful of lines and seem to be reading them with the enthusiasm of a hostage video.
And while “Dark Phoenix” fails as a film, it’s still far from the nadir of this series, which introduced a “cure” for its mutant leads to take, first introduced Deadpool as a mouthless mutant, and gave us perhaps one of the most mocked lines of dialogue: ““Do you know what happens when a Toad is struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else!”
The X-Men franchise indeed ends in a whimper with “Dark Phoenix,” but considering the films in the series that have preceded it, it is slightly better than an anguished groan.