Director: Simon Kinberg
Screenwriter: Simon Kinberg
Stars: Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender
If you’re keeping track of the X-Men timeline, you’re doing a better job than me. So after Days of Future Past an alternative timeline was created, and the other one was supposedly erased, which would be fine – Star Trek did this as well – but why did they then make the Logan movie from the erased timeline? Are we following the X-Men in multiple universes now? I think it’s fair to say whoever is running this franchise has painted themselves into a corner with this alternate timeline and have now have just abandoned all hope of trying to make sense of it.
So this is basically the same story as X-Men: The Last Stand where Jean Grey is reborn – to give them some credit, they do it in very different ways in the two films – and her powers are turned up to eleven. She becomes so powerful she can’t control herself and the X-Men have to choose between their colleague and the fate of humanity.
This film frustrated me more than anything. All the elements are there for a fantastic film about too much power being a corruptive influence – a very timely theme – and there are countless opportunities for drama in the tough decisions that have to be made, but the movie skips anything that would make you care about any of these characters and just jumps to the spectacle as soon as possible.
The movie begins with the X-Men being tasked with rescuing the space shuttle Endeavour after an unknown space phenomenon causes a total systems failure during their launch. It should be an exciting set-piece, but since we’ve spent little to no time with our heroes so far there’s no emotional connection to any of them when they’re in danger, and that’s a recurring failing throughout the film. Jessica Chastain shows up as a shape-shifting alien intent on taking over the world, but we’re given little more than an elevator pitch for her motivations, who her people are, or what this strange phenomenon is or where it came from. It feels like a five year-old was in charge of the edit and gave the instruction to skip over the talky bits and get to the explosions.
Most of the returning cast are doing their best with the material they have, but some popular characters like Quicksilver (Evan Peters) appear much too briefly, and then vanish for the rest of the film. For the first time Sophie Turner has to carry the film and I hate to say it, but I don’t think she pulls it off. I had much more empathy for Famke Janssen in this role and really believed her struggle to control the power within her, but Turner’s Phoenix flips from goodie to baddie with the flimsiest reasons and spends most of the film with a blank, emotionless look on her face. This is probably more a consequence of the cut & paste script (there were extensive reshoots of the ending) and amateur direction than her ability as an actor. Simon Kinberg has a long and distinguished track record as a producer, but his only other directing credit was an episode of Jordan Peele’s rebooted Twilight Zone. To take on a project of this scale as his first feature was madness; he’s way out of his depth and it shows.
If you want to compare it to Captain Marvel, which is also a film about a super-powerful female set in the 90s, you can see just how much Captain Marvel gets right and Dark Phoenix gets wrong. For a start, Dark Phoenix makes little to no mention that it actually IS the 1990s, where Captain Marvel played with the fashion and music and pushed a few nostalgia buttons (for some of us). Captain Marvel spends time telling us the hero’s backstory and personal relationships so we actually care when stuff happens to her, Dark Phoenix thinks it can accomplish the same thing by having a couple of quick smooches between Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) and Jean Grey.
I must have a little rant about the awful shoe-horning in of Jennifer Lawrence’s line: “Considering how often women save the day around here, you might think about changing the name of the group to X-Women.” Now I’m about as big a lefty, liberal feminist as you can get, but this is so clumsy. The X-Men have always been about diversity, back before it was fashionable. Back in 1963 they were already tackling these issues and anyone who doesn’t realise that mutants – those born differently through no fault of their own – were an allegory for homosexuality, race, etc. is missing the point. I always assumed the term X-Men was a gender-neutral term, much like in the original series of Star Trek where they called men and women Mister. It was a way of levelling the playing field and treating everyone the same. These flag-waving moments in films recently are just embarrassing. Sci-fi and fantasy have been giving messages of tolerance, equality and acceptance for decades, but subtly. Are people so much dumber now that they need this stuff spelled out in big clear letters?
Dark Phoenix is a terrible mish-mash of a movie with the bones of an amazing story at its core, but the writer/ director fails to address the elements that matter and instead jumps from one CG extravaganza to the next. For those of you who thought X-Men: The Last Stand was the weak link of the original trilogy, if you compare it to this, you might look at it now and see how good it actually is.