Though many consider the current MCU slate as the pioneers of the modern comic-book blockbuster, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that the X-Men series was essentially what paved the way for all that have come since. Whilst the 1980’s and 1990’s gave us Superman and Batman films, and, though a Marvel brand, the Blade films were seen more as Wesley Snipes features rather than a comic-book outing, it was 2000’s X-Men that would unknowingly launch the phenomenon that’s become something of a staple in today’s cinema climate.
The series itself has wavered in quality over the course of its near-20-year run – it’s almost baffling that stellar outings like the original film’s first sequel, X2, was followed up by another that’s nearly universally reviled, X-Men 3: The Last Stand – and this latest, and presumably last sequel, Dark Phoenix, is unfortunately arriving with little fanfare; the various delays in its release pattern off the word of an entirely re-shot final act not helping matters in its post-Avengers existence.
Whilst the film itself is on the lower end of the series spectrum, it’s more a disappointment (especially considering its the franchise’s swan song) than an all-out disaster. The timeline in these films has been completely reshaped – thanks to the ambitious prequel/sequel mash-up Days of Future Past – but even with that knowledge Dark Phoenix very much plays by its own rules, ignoring all that should come after it and basically playing out as a re-do of the aforementioned The Last Stand, a much maligned outing that failed to successfully execute the Phoenix storyline so beloved in the comic books.
Working off a script from series regular Simon Kinberg (The Last Stand, Days of Future Past), who is making his directorial debut here as well, Dark Phoenix could be seen as his attempt at making amends for handling the origin story so poorly beforehand, and looking at the film from that angle it’s a mild improvement. Like The Last Stand, Dark Phoenix‘s central performance from its conflicted Phoenix – the telekinetically enhanced Jean Grey – is better than the material on hand, and Sophie Turner manages to evoke enough sympathy from her audience, believably channeling the terror she feels at honing a power she doesn’t understand.
How she comes to be a mutant verging on the status of all-powerful being is presented in a relatively quickly set-up scenario involving the X-Men (and women) on a rescue mission to space, called upon by the President no less, where a solar flare has critically damaged the Endeavour space shuttle, endangering the crew onboard. During the rescue Jean absorbs the solar flare, which in turn enhances her psychic powers, setting her on a course of self-destruction that her fellow peers are unsure she’ll survive.
It’s standard fare really, especially seeing as how we’ve seen fragments of this story before, and Dark Phoenix hopes that tying up this story in wrapping paper we’ve come to appreciate – namely the impressive ensemble cast (James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence etc) – will distract us from realising we’ve been re-gifted. The younger cast members (namely Tye Sheridan and Alexandra Shipp) mainly suffer from being likened to their eventual counterparts (their characters ultimately played by James Marsden and Halle Berry), though they do their best to make it their own, and the aforementioned Lawrence looks as if she’d rather be anywhere else – in fact, some sequences appear as if she shot them entirely on her own and was later edited in to conversations – but Turner, McAvoy and Fassbender elevate the material beyond familiarity, delivering performances that are far more committed than they deserve to be.
Perhaps the biggest crime Dark Phoenix commits though is casting a proven talent like Jessica Chastain and giving her next-to-nothing to do. An actress with an innate ability to project an iniquity that’s both stoic and sensual, the role of the villain should be one that steals all our focus. And whilst there’s no denying that she’s enjoying herself as a shapeshifting alien that seeks to act as a mentor of sorts to the newly-powered Jean, her character is all so terribly generic that not even an actress of Chastain’s worth can make it more than it deserves to be.
With the Fox brand now acting under the Disney label, meaning any future X-Men adventures will be entirely new entities separate from what has been created over the last two decades here, it’s a shame that Dark Phoenix is how the series will end. The film’s final shot indicates future stories wish to be told, and the collective talent on board deserve a little more wiggle room to properly flesh out their own takes on the characters, but, sadly, a finale that deserved to end with a bang is exiting with more an anti-climactic fizzle.
About X-Men: Dark Phoenix
In X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX, the X-MEN face their most formidable and powerful foe: one of their own, Jean Grey. During a rescue mission in space, Jean is nearly killed when she is hit by a mysterious cosmic force. Once she returns home, this force not only makes her infinitely more powerful, but far more unstable. Wrestling with this entity inside her, Jean unleashes her powers in ways she can neither comprehend nor contain. With Jean spiraling out of control, and hurting the ones she loves most, she begins to unravel the very fabric that holds the X-Men together. Now, with this family falling apart, they must find a way to unite — not only to save Jean’s soul, but to save our very planet from aliens who wish to weaponize this force and rule the galaxy.
X-Men: Dark Phoenix (M) is screening in Australian theatres from June 6th 2019.