Janus Film Review Special: X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)

Updated: Jun 30, 2019

as reviewed by Daniel R. Browne.

Cinema Review: Odeon BH2/Bournemouth (18/06/19).

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019) is a genuine cinematic conundrum. The finished film has been marooned in the can for some time, awaiting its day in the sun, whilst all manner of studio-based delays and corporate shenanigans have befallen it. It was initially conceived as the next step in the venerable cinematic X-Men saga, created by 20th Century Fox. Instead, it will serve as the epitaph for a nineteen year odyssey, that found itself caught in the crossfire between the will of one studio - Fox - and the rapacious designs of another, in the form of Marvel Studios and their ultimate, mouse-shaped master.

The mouse in question is of course the mighty Mickey, and the monolithic empire built in his wake. Disney’s smouldering desire to add the X-Men to the Marvel Cinematic Universe prompted the purchase of an entire studio, and just like that, the existing, non-MCU X-Men universe was rendered as welcome as a particularly aggressive dose of the clap. Naturally, this has had a disastrous impact on Dark Phoenix (not to mention the already filmed - and still in limbo - New Mutants). Instead of receiving the full marketing might of the Walt Disney machine, Dark Phoenix has been treated like a pariah; an inconvenience, to be buried and forgotten as quickly as humanly possible. Marvel Studios will eventually remake the X-Men in their own image, by integrating them into the MCU, and bizarrely enough, Disney’s virtual self-sabotage of Dark Phoenix can be viewed as the necessary beginning of this process.

So, this is an X-Men movie that is both unwanted and superfluous by default, which is the dictionary definition of an inauspicious start. One can thus understand the reticence of the fanbase; they know Dark Phoenix is not an MCU film, and thanks in no small part to Disney’s cynical attempts at franchise obfuscation (in America, the decision was taken to style the film as simply ‘Dark Phoenix’) there was never any real chance of the film ‘doing a Venom’, and gaining box office momentum by proxy. Adding to this pervading sense of doom is the vitriolic thrashing dished out by numerous film critics. Dark Phoenix presently holds a critical score of 23% on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, which makes it the lowest rated X-Men film in the site’s checkered history. Whilst it is difficult to deny that Dark Phoenix is far from a ‘great’ X-Men film (or ‘film’ in general), the suggestion that it represents the series’ nadir is contentious at best. In truth, it is entirely inoffensive and by no means noxious, and it certainly has its moments. They are not exactly in abundance, but they are very definitely there.

Dark Phoenix is writer and director Simon Kinberg’s second crack of the Phoenix-shaped whip. Kinberg has been involved with the cinematic X-Men saga for approximately thirteen years, acting as a writer and/or producer on every mainline X-Men film since the ill-fated X-Men: The Last Stand (2006). Though that film was a sizeable box office attraction, it both polarised critics and alienated the fanbase with its lacklustre story, poor characterisation, and capricious take on the comic-based Phoenix saga. The passage of time hasn’t lessened the disappointment, and thanks to the reset button provided by Brian Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), The Last Stand has been justifiably reduced to irrelevancy. Given the scale (and baggage) of this particular creative failure, it is staggering that the second cinematic mounting of the phoenix saga would be undertaken by the very same man who bungled the story in the first place. Only in the lunatic maelstrom of Hollywood could such a choice make sense; especially when taking into account that Kinberg’s crack at redemption came with a bonus: a loss of virginity in the Hollywood director’s chair.

The general indifference - bordering on outright contempt - that has come to typify the existence of Dark Phoenix is perhaps best expressed in the decision to allow Kinberg - a man with no confirmed directorial experience - to seek atonement for his prior sins. Such indulgent thinking has resulted in a visually indistinct film, lacking any obvious signs of individual flair. The various action sequences, though capably designed and occasionally graphic, pass by without lingering in the memory, and the uneven narrative suffers through some frankly bizarre lurches in characterisation and overall pacing. This all sounds frightfully familiar, yet somehow the film never implodes outright. Kinberg’s new take on the Phoenix saga hews rather more closely to the comic-based source, by embracing the cosmic scope of the Phoenix force. It was established in the undercooked misfire that was X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) that Jean Grey - played once more by Sophie ‘Sansa Stark’ Turner - possesses significant untapped potential. Once said power finds itself filtered through the extraterrestrial Phoenix phenomenon, her latent abilities are transformed into something resembling the touch of the divine. She can potentially rewrite the fabric of existence, and this awesome power has been gifted to a young woman chafing under the weight of traumas both clear as day, and hidden in the dark.

It is in attempting to define this balance that Kinberg’s film finds a voice. Despite the universal scale of the Phoenix event, which encompasses a daring opening jaunt into space for the X-Men, and the inclusion of a sinister-if-shapeless alien race (spearheaded by an effectively low-key performance from Jessica Chastain), the strength of the story lies in its simple intimacy. Jean Grey is ultimately an abandoned soul, seeking both purpose and truth. The revelation of her broken childhood, and the role James McAvoy’s Charles ‘Professor X’ Xavier played in granting her some semblance of stability, underpins the ensuing drama. It is a tale of love, loss, betrayal and redemption: easy to see and understand, yet affecting in its primacy. Sophie Turner exceeds expectations in the role of Jean Grey, striking a fine balance between lustful displays of power, vulnerability, and genuine pathos. She is aided by an excellent performance from McAvoy, who evolves the self-loathing failure of Days of Future Past into a vainglorious egotist, revelling in the celebrity of his school and his pupils. His fateful journey, from dickie bow-sporting owner of a presidential hotline, to cascading self-denial and emotional impotency, is unquestionably the film’s greatest accomplishment.

Sadly, the rest of the cast falls flat. Michael Fassbender is occasionally engaging as Erik ‘Magneto’ Lehnsherr, which is actually a significant upgrade on X-Men: Apocalypse, where he could barely keep his eyes open. Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven ‘Mystique’ Darkhölme is in this film just to die (and that isn’t a spoiler, as anyone who’s seen the trailer will attest), and her demise is as abrupt as her performance is half-arsed. The usually reliable Nicholas Hoult seems to get tangled up in the general malaise, and the once-interesting Beast character is torpedoed by an unconvincing character arc, and Hoult’s apparent disinterest. Evan Peters’ Quicksilver is bizarrely cashiered out of the film in short order (much to the very public chagrin of Peters), and try as he might, Tye Sheridan is incapable of inhabiting the principled steadfastness of Scott ‘Cyclops’ Summers, and his various interactions with Turner’s Jean Grey - the so-called love of his life - are less of a chemical reaction and more akin to limp Scotch mist. Alexandra Shipp does succeed in bringing a little charisma to the role of Ororo ‘Storm’ Munroe, and Kodi Smit-McPhee remains likeable as Kurt ‘Nightcrawler’ Wagner, but the film unquestionably belongs to Turner and McAvoy. They at least, give it their all.    

X-Men: Dark Phoenix is an uneven, unsure and mostly uninspiring film, yet it is superior to its direct predecessor, X-Men: Apocalypse, which was hamstrung by a total lack of conviction in the acting department, and the absolute failure of the eponymous antagonist. It is also a vast improvement on its obvious companion piece, the mostly rotten X-Men: The Last Stand. It must be mentioned that the redoubtable Hans Zimmer was drafted in to provide the score for Dark Phoenix, and he does a typically stellar job; in the process gifting the film a powerful sense of foreboding and ominous dread, and effectively reemphasising the value of a great score. No amount of individual effort, or sublime musical composition, could have saved this film though. The baggage of failures past weighed heavy (as did the personal follies of Bryan Singer), but it is the looming shadow of the MCU -  and the overwhelming desire of the global audience to see all of Marvel’s storied properties under one roof - that truly condemned Dark Phoenix to oblivion. It had to fail, in order for the X-Men to finally claim their rightful place in Marvel Studios' illustrious pantheon. That is what makes the title of the film so darkly ironic. The X-Men will eventually rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of this broken and unloved denouement, but to paraphrase Jim Garrison, in Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), who weeps for Dark Phoenix? Certainly not Disney. For them, this (slightly expensive) sacrifice is all part of the master plan. Alas, for the longstanding and soon-to-be-forgotten pre-MCU X-Men universe, this is the way mutation ends: not with a forceful bang, but an ignominious whimper.

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