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X-Men: Dark Phoenix
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Sophie Turner
Director: Simon Kinberg
RUNTIME: 114 Mins
When you have a base of superhero fatigue, a dose of a franchise on its last legs and a dollop of déjà vu, you rarely get a happy ending. Dark Phoenix brings the long-running X-Men franchise to a close in a messy and muddled fashion.
The film is marginally better than the previous telling of the Phoenix saga, X-Men: The Last Stand, and it’s certainly better than the bloated and excessive X-Men: Apocalypse, but Dark Phoenix is still a disappointing finale for this nearly 20-year-old series, as Disney assumes ownership of the X-Men characters from Fox going forward.
Ostensibly Jean Grey’s movie, Dark Phoenix struggles to give Jean any true personality or identity outside of her super powers.
The events of Apocalypse that seemed to trigger the awakening of her Phoenix powers are simply ignored here in favour of a celestial force that inhabits her during a rescue mission in space.
While that may be more comic-accurate than what happened in The Last Stand and what was hinted at in Apocalypse, her newfound godlike powers serve as merely a McGuffin for the villains to pursue and an excuse for the heroes to splinter apart in melodramatic fashion.
The Phoenix force itself is left unexplored and hazily defined, essentially the outer space equivalent of a killer shark on the prowl or a demon looking for a soul to possess.
Sophie Turner plays the three shades of Grey that Jean’s given here – scared, sobbing, and seething – as best she can, but the script blazes through her tragic arc, never quite finding a personality for her in order to let an audience truly connect with Jean on an emotional level.
The story becomes about Jean trying to find her agency amidst two older mentors – James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier and Jessica Chastain’s sinister alien – seeking to control her, but her journey is rushed and her characterisation thinly sketched.
The tragedy of Jean’s plight never quite carries as much weight as it should and thus neither does any of the damage, in lives or relationships, which she and her fellow X-Men endure as a result.
Jennifer Lawrence’s steely Mystique has her causal function to play in this story, one that sets Nicholas Hoult’s vengeful Beast in motion as his loyalties are put to the test. Michael Fassbender’s world-weary Magneto has seemingly found his corner of the world to live in peace before he’s dragged back into the fray, where he gets a few cool action moments to strut his stuff even as his worldview flip-flops throughout the movie. But all three characters, perhaps like the franchise itself, are just plain over it all and want to move on.
And, the character they’re all equally most frustrated with is the endlessly pontificating Xavier who, after Jean, has the most pivotal arc in the story.
Professor X’s hubris has been the Achilles’ heel of this younger incarnation, and Dark Phoenix sees him fairly demonised for his past actions. Still, James McAvoy sells it all with a pained sincerity as Xavier reckons with a dilemma somewhat of his own making.
First-time director Simon Kinberg crafts a few decent action set-pieces throughout, particularly a climactic battle aboard a train, and he maintains a level, largely sombre tone for a good chunk of the film. Indeed, the first half of the movie is the best and most consistent part. But the film’s highly publicised reshoots – reportedly to differentiate it from another recent superhero movie (almost certainly Captain Marvel) – clearly impacted Dark Phoenix’s latter half, as the pacing grows erratic and some of the logic behind certain plot and character moments are lost.
One of the film’s biggest missed opportunities is its handling of the villains. An alien race out to attain a cosmic weapon is hardly a novel idea (as Captain Marvel most recently depicted), but Dark Phoenix never gives Chastain’s character or any of her acolytes any dimension or personality.
The movie simply brushes aside who and what these aliens are – indeed, humans have made first contact with extra-terrestrials and no one even mentions it – and it never explores them beyond being outsiders who need to be feared, which is a truly odd and negative message for an X-Men movie to send.
Dark Phoenix is ultimately yet another fumbled take on the classic saga from the Marvel Comics. Add to it a jarringly uneven latter half and some underdeveloped cosmic villains, Dark Phoenix does not see the series go out in a blaze of glory, but rather as a few pitiful embers.
Now showing in all Bahrain’s cinemas.
Kristian’s verdict: 2/5