REVIEW: Dark Phoenix [2019]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½


Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 113 minutes | Release Date: June 7th, 2019 (USA)
Studio: Marvel Entertainment / Twentieth Century Fox
Director(s): Simon Kinberg
Writer(s): Simon Kinberg / John Byrne, Chris Claremont & Dave Cockrum (“The Dark Phoenix Saga”) /
Jack Kirby & Stan Lee (comic)

“What did you do to her?”

Hollywood franchise filmmaking really is a frustrating system insofar as allowing good source material room to breathe. That’s not to say it doesn’t sometimes work too, though. Look at Twentieth Century Fox’s cinematic X-Men saga for instance. After hitting a comic book high with X2, the desire for more bombast coupled by a much blunter director (Brett Ratner replaced Bryan Singer, who jumped ship from Marvel to DC) saw X-Men: The Last Stand seemingly destroy all hope of ever seeing this iteration of these characters again. This failure led to a complete reboot/prequel that reclaimed enough box office success and critical acclaim to bring back Singer and a majority of that first trilogy’s cast to join their younger counterparts and deliver the ambitiously fantastic Days of Future Past.

X-Men went from extreme heights to disastrous lows and somehow climbed higher than ever before in the aftermath. Add a one-off flash-forward to give Hugh Jackman his swan song with Logan and nobody would have faulted the studio for walking away with a satisfactory conclusion. That wouldn’t be Hollywood, though. Hollywood is going back to the well because actors are under contract and audiences have money to spend. Singer and writer Simon Kinberg thus advanced their “first class” characters towards freshly cleaned futures no longer narratively beholden to the original trilogy. So before Logan and Deadpool wowed us with their uniquely specific sensibilities, the gang got together for Apocalypse. And even though I believe it’s been unfairly maligned, those The Last Stand lows did creep back into view.

Memories are so short in this industry. Even though First Class excelled by bringing things back to basics with a smaller cast (many mutants die for motivation), the excitement surrounding Days of Future Past got everyone back into the “more is more” philosophy that rarely ends well without purpose. Apocalypse sadly didn’t have it as most of its new characters were introduced as pawns for the big four (James McAvoy‘s Professor X, Michael Fassbender‘s Magneto, Jennifer Lawrence‘s Mystique, and Nicholas Hoult‘s Beast) to ally themselves with or fight. Could it have been an effective movie without many of these fresh faces? Yes. And I think Kinberg knew it. I think that’s why he sought to scale things back from spectacle excess and draw a much-needed emotional through-line instead.

Because here’s the thing: Kinberg (who earned the director’s chair after Singer’s now publicly known penchant for abandoning the post forced him to cut his teeth on the previous two X-Men ensembles) wanted a redo. He was half of the writing team that butchered Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and Dave Cockrum‘s “The Dark Phoenix Saga” in The Last Stand and craved redemption via a two-part epic dealing with the trauma inherent to Jean Grey’s (Sophie Turner) tragic evolution. Apocalypse’s limp across the finish line sadly had the studio saying, “No.” So Kinberg figured out a way to make it one film better suited for a spring release like Logan. The studio again said, “No,” demanding reshoots for a bigger scale finish and a prime summer bow.

I’d love to have been able to see what Kinberg initially cooked up because there’s a lot to like about Dark Phoenix. He really tries to ground things by creating drama within the X-Men themselves as opposed to a mutant versus world plot like all the rest. At its core is the unfortunate reality that best intentions aren’t always pure—a theme these “first class” movies have done well to highlight from the start courtesy of Raven’s (Mystique) complex relationship with being a “good guy” when doing so means adhering to Charles’ (Professor X) oppressive rigidity and rejecting Erik’s (Magneto) uncompromising independence. This time it’s Jean who’s stuck between Charles’ love in saving her and his selfish control in doing so on his terms rather than hers.

We understand this disparity from the overarching plot wherein Charles stole her memories in order to make her easier to mold and the first big set-piece wherein his mission for co-existence with humanity tips the scales firmly towards a realm predicated on the fact that he’s let his mutants become more expendable than the “normal” citizens they’re tasked to save. That Raven becomes the voice of reason desperately attempting to call him out on his hypocrisy is perfect because it shows how she came out the other end of his manipulations and is now primed to combat him when he targets unwitting recruits. That Jean would be the victim of Charles’ transgressions personally (his lying to her about her past) and publically isn’t a coincidence. It’s a pattern.

He felt he could push Jean further than the others because of her power—a power he spent years molding because of an undivided attention made possible by what she didn’t know. And since Charles’ tactical mistake doesn’t end in her death (although letting her get hit by a solar flare in space should have since instinctively absorbing it is her sole means of survival), he can ignore the “hypothetical” consequences. Only when that force alters Jean physically and psychologically do those dangerous ramifications become real. By carelessly playing with her life so he can have a direct line to the president, he becomes the maker of his own undoing. By ignoring Jean’s rage to create a hero, he lights the fuse that ultimately makes her a villain.

What might have been if Kinberg had the latitude to truly explore this theme with nuance rather than theatrics? That McAvoy and Turner are so very game to give us a glimpse of the guilt, anger, and contrition that renders it compelling without wild action only makes matters worse because they prove it was there for the taking. Introducing the Shi’ar race of aliens (Jessica Chastain‘s Vuk) is okay because it provides context for the solar flare and a contrast to Charles wherein she’s manipulating Jean to use her powers for bad. And killing a beloved character to guarantee others will turn on Charles and recognize the error of his ways is necessary so the emotional stakes aren’t merely superficial. Jean must earn as many enemies as friends.

But now everything is truncated into one film with a test audience declaring its “boring” climax in need of rewrites that bring everyone back (Tye Sheridan‘s Cyclops, Alexandra Shipp‘s Storm, and Kodi Smit-McPhee‘s Nightcrawler) for a loudly busy finale more about body count and screeching metal than heartfelt sacrifices made. The whole therefore becomes a tonally discordant mix of explosive drama and literal explosions. Right when we’re drawn-in closer to feel the weight of what occurs below the surface, characters arrive to wreak havoc and unfortunately cause us to forget what worked just seconds earlier. While Kinberg obviously wants Jean to have the punishingly melancholic end Wolverine received in Logan, the film yearns for bow-tied binary carnage. There’s still enough to like, but hardly enough to leave fulfilled.


photography:
[1] Sophie Turner stars as Jean Grey in Twentieth Century Fox’s DARK PHOENIX. Photo Credit Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox TM & © 2019 Marvel & Subs. TM and © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.
[2] Jessica Chastain in Twentieth Century Fox’s DARK PHOENIX. Photo Credit: Doane Gregory. TM & © 2019 Marvel & Subs. TM and © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.
[3] L-R: Tye Sheridan, James McAvoy, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Alexandra Shipp in Twentieth Century Fox’s DARK PHOENIX. Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox. Photo Credit Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox TM & © 2019 Marvel & Subs. TM and © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.

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