Review - 'Dark Phoenix'
I feel like everyone had their fangs and claws sharpened for the poor, limping gazelle that is Dark Phoenix, all eagerly waiting behind tall grass in the savanna for a good opportunity to pounce. I’m not going to lie, I was perched up a mountainous hill with the cross-hairs of my hunting rifle aimed right at the poor thing’s head. Well, I’m here to report that Simon Kinberg’s Dark Phoenix is not nearly the disaster that I was expecting it to be, it’s simply a mediocre-to-passable entry in the long-running X-Men franchise that felt much more like an inconsequential middle-entry than the culmination to an entire series.
Dark Phoenix follows the X-Men in the early 1990s, and they’ve developed a bit of a heroic reputation throughout the country. That is, until a mission goes awry and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is inhabited by dark space matter that corrupts her while also unlocking immense power within her. Meanwhile, some aliens want a piece of that action and the X-Men become even more divided. Chaos ensues.
For a film that reportedly went through a pretty tumultuous production and was delayed multiple times, Dark Phoenix’s narrative is surprisingly coherent, which is saying something considering the third act is reportedly completely different than what was originally intended. Not everything flows together perfectly, however, and there are still plenty of rough edges. The film runs under two hours and is way too rushed for the amount of things that are happening. Characters make decisions that are inconsistent with how they were behaving before and Jean Grey’s transition into the dark phoenix is far too quick. In addition to this, the story doesn’t ever quite seem weighty enough to be the end of such a long-running series. Sure, there are stakes and the final moments of the movie attempt to tie a nice bow on it all, but the progression of the film throughout never seems like it’s barreling towards an epic conclusion, it’s more like a middle episode.
Despite its blatant inferiority to some of the better films in this series, Dark Phoenix still has plenty of redeeming qualities to boast about. For one, it’s much more grounded than the last film, X-Men: Apocalypse, and tries to focus on the interpersonal relationships more frequently. While the writing can at times be quite clunky, the dialogues between characters are more engaging than they were in Apocalypse, which is the real stinker of the four films in this confusing timeline. Two, There are some very inspired moments sprinkled throughout this film that are pretty close to brilliant, and, for me at least, made the film worth the price of admission. I also admire the utter commitment of the three leads in this film: Sophie Turner, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender.
Without the impressive cast of characters, Dark Phoenix would have fallen completely flat. These actors are the definition of professional and it’s nice to see them giving their all in a film where they easily could have phoned it in, I mean, just look at the cringe-inducing performances from normally top-shelf actors in last week’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters for reference. Sophie Turner really steps up her game and takes center-stage here. I believed her trauma and though her transition was rushed, her acting still sold me on all of it. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender continue to turn in great work as Xavier and Magneto, respectively, though Fassbender has a little less to work with this time around and doesn’t really reach those emotional peaks and valleys that he did in First Class or Days of Future Past. I will also shout out Nicholas Hoult and Tye Sheridan, who are given more to work with as Beast and Cyclops. The one true disappointment here is Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, who has a pretty small role here and is saddled with one of the worst lines in the entire series. I’m serious, not even the best actor could make that line work, you’ll know it when you hear it.
Aesthetically, Dark Phoenix is passable. The film doesn’t really have much of a unique look or style, but the effects are fine for the most part, barring some rubbery CGI sludge in the final act. I did admire that there seemed to be a larger focus on actual sets and less CGI backdrops than before, so there’s that. Then we have the score by Hans Zimmer, who I guess is still on a mission to do scores for every superhero film tossed his way. He’s done Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Spider-man and now the X-Men. I like this score though, it’s serene at times, foreboding at others and never feels over-the-top or bombastic like some big-budget scores tend to be.
Dark Phoenix is not a fitting end to this series and has numerous flaws, but it’s still a decent time at the movies. There are some truly great moments featuring actors that I love who are fully committed to the circus they are a part of.