Film Editor Matt Taylor reviews the thoroughly disappointing Dark Phoenix, the final instalment in the main series of Fox’s X-Men movies
Who remembers a time when Fox were making consistently good X-Men movies? That’s okay, I don’t either. Since the franchise’s inception in 2000, the studio has never been able to get a consistently good run going, with endless rewrites, director changes and studio interference messing up their continuity. They’ve released both some of the best (Logan, First Class) and worst (Origins, Apocalypse) comic book movies this century. Let’s not even try and get our heads around that timeline, because all I gleaned from that was a massive headache. Regardless: it all comes to an end here. 19 years after the first film, we’re at the end of it all, and I’m extremely sad to say that this final instalment is nothing but disappointing. Dark Phoenix is supposed to make up for the butchering of the comic storyline of the same name in The Last Stand, the final film of the original X-trilogy. It sees Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey absorb the energy of the cosmic Phoenix Force (a name never actually used in the film), and struggle to cope with its power inside her, turning her against her friends and mentors. The basis to dig into the psyche of the characters is here, but it isn’t explored at all. Despite everything we want it to be from the conclusion to this main X-Men series, Dark Phoenix is uninspired and oddly corporate, with a weak villain and some poor attempts at characterisation. But its biggest sin? It’s boring.
Shall we start with a positive? I managed to find one in this gargantuan mess of a movie: Hans Zimmer’s score. Zimmer is one of the best film composers of the modern day, as well as my personal favourite, and his work here is no exception. His score swells beautifully in the bigger moments, and is wonderfully tender in the quieter ones – but it’s so good that it creates a disconnect like I’ve never seen on film before: what we hear is stunning, yet what we see is completely underwhelming. Zimmer’s excellent music really deserves to be in a better movie.
Sadly that’s all the good stuff; the rest of Dark Phoenix is garbage. Its stellar cast is let down by abysmal material: superhero movie newcomer Jessica Chastain looks unbearably bored in her roles as the film’s secretive villain, Vuk, whose presence brings with it a whole load of questions. For one, why was her role so secretive in the first place? Director Simon Kinberg didn’t even want audiences to know her name, yet Vuk is a nobody. The version of the character we see in the film (as a survivor of the D’Bari race, whose planet was wiped out by the Phoenix Force) doesn’t even exist in the comics, so it’s baffling why Chastain’s role was kept under wraps so tightly. Secondly, she’s an alien. We’re doing aliens in the X-Men movies now? Since when? Their presence is extremely jarring, and we’ve seen no evidence of aliens in any of the previous eleven films, so their being here (especially in a movie set before the 2020s-set Days of Future Past) makes little sense. Regardless, Vuk is a bland, unappealing character whose admittedly sound motivations are never given anywhere near enough development. Also the way in which she carries out her ultimate plan involves a super-powered hug. So … there’s that.
True to Kinberg’s word, Dark Phoenix is very much Jean’s film, and much screentime rightfully goes to her. Turner does well with what she’s given here, but what she’s given is no good. The powers the Phoenix Force gives her are never explained in the slightest, so when Jean’s actions raise the stakes and begin to tear the X-Men apart, we don’t actually feel anything. Throw in the fact that the character Jean kills (spoiled in the trailers, for some reason) is likely only dead because the person playing them wanted out, and the moment loses all emotional impact. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender return from previous films, but their ‘arcs’ here make no sense. McAvoy’s Charles Xavier must come to terms with the consequences of his actions in years gone by, but the actions themselves feel contrived and make little sense. There has been no basis for Charles behaving in the way he does; it seems as though Jean simply needs an excuse to feel pushed away from her mentor. Fassbender’s Erik, on the other hand, gets even less to do. He’s out for blood after the events of the film’s midway point (it’s also way too long before he even shows up to begin with, and the mutant cronies who tag along with him are never even named), but that itself doesn’t make sense, given his actions in previous films. Both are wasted.
Given this is Simon Kinberg’s first time behind the camera (he’s written or produced a good chunk of films in the series before), I wish there were nice things to say about his direction – but there honestly aren’t. At best, his direction is adequate – nondescript may be a better word, but harmless all the same. At worst, it’s dreadful. There are plenty of moments, peppered throughout the film, in which the subject of the shot is not in focus. I repeat: the subject of the shot, the thing the audience should be focused on, is blurry. I am honestly struggling to find the words to describe how awful this is – I’m absolutely staggered. For days now I’ve tried to figure out how this is even possible for a $200 million blockbuster, and I’ve got nothing. It’s unfathomable.
The action of the X-Men series has usually been pretty reliable (although Logan and Deadpool admittedly stand a cut above the rest), but Dark Phoenix’s action is … boring. There’s very little of it, and the film takes ages to even give us one proper sequence, and when it arrives, it just underwhelms. I can only remember two action scenes, and both are unbearably bland. One of the film’s biggest action sequences genuinely involves around trying to cross a road – it’s reasonably inventive, but lacks any emotion. The final sequence takes place on a train, and, again, has been spoiled by the trailers. There’s also the fact that it was a late addition to the film, the entire final act having been reshot due to poor test screenings and the apparent fact that it too closely resembled another, recent superhero movie (rumours seem to suggest Captain Marvel, but this is merely speculation). But regardless of how late the set-piece was added, it still isn’t any good. It’s heavily character-based, but because all of the character work through the film fails, the finale doesn’t have a leg to stand on. It isn’t earned, and carries no emotion with it, ending up feeling annoyingly corporate (unfortunate comparisons would be 2015’s The Fantastic Four, or 2017’s The Mummy). Both the finale and the film as a whole are the same thing; a bland, uninspired, emotionless, boring, disappointing end to a once-great franchise. Surely Disney’s inevitable efforts have to be better than this garbage.