by Philip Price
Director: Simon Kinberg
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender & Jennifer Lawrence
Runtime: 1 hour & 53 minutes
After experiencing the full-on force of a solar flare in the opening action sequence of writer/director Simon Kinberg's “X-Men: Dark Phoenix,” Sophie Turner's Jean Grey describes the after effects as if feeling like "everything is turned up." One might think this is a subtle way of hinting at the mantra of the movie itself, but in reality Kinberg and ‘Dark Phoenix’ have taken the opposite approach and scaled things way down in comparison to ‘Apocalypse.’ And I don't mean down in terms of quality, necessarily, as-let's be honest-the ‘X-Men’ films have been all over the map in terms of quality over the years, but more simply in terms of the scope. Plus, after the disappointment that was ‘Apocalypse,’ there wasn't much further down one could go quality-wise. While there was hesitance in approaching ‘Dark Phoenix’ with anything more than slight optimism (and even that felt generous) given the rumored re-shoots, the attempt to re-tell this notable comics saga, as well as the multiple scheduling changes there was still this glimmer of hope given this was Kinberg's opportunity to finally take the reins meaning there might be some type of newfound energy to the characters and, given where the previous film had left off, some newfound enthusiasm for the world that was being built. And in many ways, this is true of the film as it is apparent from the get-go that Kinberg is taking a new approach to this world and to these characters both aesthetically as much as he is dramatically. In terms of what this fresh approach brings to this X-Men universe is the fact that, for the first time in a long time, it feels as if there is a clarity to what is transpiring-both in terms of the visuals and the direction of the story. Needless to say, Bryan Singer's aesthetic had begun to rely more and more on CGI while his stories felt more based on ideas that were fun in the moment without considering the bigger picture (I'm looking at you, timeline). With ‘Dark Phoenix,’ there is this lucidity that pulses through the film's veins as it strives to at least try different, more interesting things with the surplus of characters in its possession. As is usual, some get the short end of the stick while others who are not necessarily worthy of the focus receive too much screen time, but while there are some major qualms to be had with ‘Dark Phoenix’ there are also some serious highs that deserve acknowledgment. As someone who didn't grow up on the comics, but was instead introduced through the animated series and subsequent live-action films, this unexpected swan song of an ‘X-Men’ film delivers enough of the familiar to make one happy and, surprisingly, enough of a renewed approach that shines new light on oft repeated arcs to make one kind of wish this wasn't the last time we'd see this particular group of mutants on the big screen.
If the pessimism is high walking in it won't be immediately eased as the opening scenes of ‘Dark Phoenix’ will play like déjà vu for those who are only passingly familiar with the ‘X-Men’ franchise and might wonder, why they feel they saw these same/similar scenes some thirteen years ago. What transpires is a variation on the opening sequence of ‘The Last Stand’ of course, but you get the idea. It isn't until we jump to 1992-nine years after the events of the last film-where the Endeavor space shuttle is set to take off and experiences a malfunction that what was promised at the end of the previous film begins to take shape. If ‘Apocalypse’ was the end of the "First Class" trilogy then ‘Dark Phoenix’ would seemingly be the beginning of a new trilogy of ‘90s set adventures with the current iteration of the original team from the 2000 Bryan Singer film sans Wolverine. Sophie Turner's Jean Grey, Tye Sheridan's Cyclops, Alexandra Shipp's Storm and Kodi Smit-McPhee's Nightcrawler along with great additions like Evan Peters' always wonderful Quicksilver and Nicholas Hoult's Beast as led by James McAvoy's endearingly brilliant Professor X would make for a fine enough batch of heroes to rest a new set of films on where the template is more villain of the week than apocalyptic, world-shattering events, but unfortunately this is neither what this film delivers nor will there be another opportunity for this cast to make good on that promise. With ‘Dark Phoenix,’ 20th Century Fox and Kinberg have decided to jump over the decade or so where such adventures seem to have taken place and instead delve into a famous comic book arc that was already attempted in ‘The Last Stand’ and in this iteration cuts Jean Grey's time as part of the X-Men down about fourteen years not to mention every interaction with Logan she's ever had out of the equation, to results that don't necessarily render ‘The Last Stand’ a moot point which should have been the goal. This new trilogy might have been able to finally resurrect Grey as the titular character and carry that evolution on through this new series of films as ‘Dark Phoenix’ introduces plenty of new elements that ‘Last Stand’ left out that Kinberg might have planned to carry forward had he been granted the opportunity, but alas we all now know the fate this original ‘X-Men’ series will face and that this film will ultimately serve as the end of an era. All that aside, ‘Dark Phoenix’ largely focuses on the arc of Turner's Grey-a character who was short-changed in the previous film that we're more or less told we have to care about now-while also squeezing in some extraterrestrial elements via Jessica Chastain's nameless (as far as the actual film is concerned, anyway) character that the movie could have gone without.
So, the question that continues to be asked is did this movie need to exist in the first place? The answer is definitely no, but the fact of the matter is it does and since it does, I think most people will have to admit that it's not as bad as they expected it to be. Yes, there was plenty of cause for hesitation as presented in the aforementioned factors surrounding the film’s release, but as the film fell into its groove in this opening team-up set in space it became immediately apparent that I was into this movie a hell of a lot more than I initially expected to be. Even Jennifer Lawrence, who had more or less checked out of this franchise prior to ‘Apocalypse,’ seemed more invested in and excited about the role her Mystique would be playing this time around. This immediately brings up one of the best things this "unnecessary" movie dares to do and that is challenge the status quo per character arcs in this series. While the X-Men universe of the comics seemingly has an unlimited number of characters for the movies to draw upon the films have more or less been content with focusing on a concentrated group of popular characters (with the exception of Gambit, of course) and in doing so have re-played many of the same character arcs over multiple films. For instance, every ‘X-Men’ movie that has included Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr AKA Magneto has dealt in the butting of their philosophical differences resulting in Magneto typically lifting some large metal structure and Charles sending a team of his most loyal disciples to try and show Erik the error of his ways. While both McAvoy's Charles and Michael Fassbender's Magneto return for ‘Dark Phoenix’ these arcs are played differently enough to at least appreciate that Kinberg might have had a transition for both characters on the brain. Speaking to Lawrence's (albeit abbreviated) arc, being someone who has known Charles since childhood and yet is still doing his bidding Mystique begins to question this new state of things where Charles risks the lives of his students to seemingly continue to protect not necessarily the world or the reputation of mutants, but to fuel his own ego. Of course, it would be hard to sway any long-time fan of the franchise from the point of view that Charles didn't have the most earnest of intentions, but that the film explores this possibility concerning a man who has named a school after himself is worth noting. And while such lengths might not have been investigated in regard to Magneto, Kinberg and co. still surround the super-villain with enough of a fresh starting point and new perspective that we're once again interested in seeing how Erik's very impulsive temper might affect the overall situation.
What ‘Dark Phoenix’ can't escape in terms of consistent themes across the series though is this idea that by trying their damnedest to prevent certain actions or events from taking place they inadvertently end up creating them. In ‘Dark Phoenix,’ Charles speaks of being, "one bad day away from returning to where we were," in terms of mutant/human relations as Charles now has a direct phone line to the President. In doing everything he can to prove the value of mutant's to the rest of society we get the mission where Jean is exposed to this solar flare that enables her enhanced human form to bond with the energy of the Phoenix ultimately leading to death and destruction that might have otherwise not been brought about-as well as to Charles' line to the President being disconnected. Getting further into the weeds of Charles' decision-making and where his sense of entitlement and good intentions blur comes when Jean discovers her father-who she'd thought dead for some seventeen years-turns out to be alive, but whose memory of him had been blocked from her mind by Charles as he'd helped her build up these mental walls in an effort to protect her. When consuming the rage and desire of the Phoenix though, Jean tears down these walls and discovers the truth only making her resent this man she once thought to be the most honorable of men and forcing her into the company of Fassbender's Magneto who she now feels she can relate to. From here, the film more devolves into a string of action sequences than it does continue to investigate this burden of having to contain the type of power these mutants do and therefore not really hammering home this idea that, even as mutants, it is emotions that make us human and it being the way we act on those emotions that define us as people-not whether they exist or not for that is irrefutable with as much clarity as it could have. It is the rise of this theme and the inspection of how each mutant deals in this conundrum that ultimately renders the existence of Chastain's character-listed as "Vuk" on IMDb, but never mentioned by name in the actual film-pointless given her only function is to essentially bring Grey over to the "dark side". There is a cool section in the film where Kinberg uses the "echo effect" to bring about some strong realizations, especially given the exploration of Charles' arc here, where Chastain's sentiments towards Grey after having been endowed with the power of the Phoenix are very similar to those of Charles' after she realizes she's a mutant for the first time; making the audience re-consider the context of everything we've seen/heard thus far. And while the action sequences are cleanly staged and mostly entertaining there is a bigger part of me that wishes Kinberg might have stuck with the quieter mood the first half of the film possesses.
Speaking to the technical aspects of the film though, Kinberg-in his directorial debut which I feel I need to reiterate as much as possible-tends to shoot much of the action as wide as possible and with what feel like functional camera movements that lend the larger sequences a real sense of scope while keeping them grounded in a way the previous Singer film had let get away from them. Overall, the aesthetic here is very clean and very polished in terms of character and set design as the look of both Lawrence's Mystique and Hoult's Beast look especially improved over their previous appearances. Especially of note is J-Law's eyes as they seem to have returned to using practical contacts rather than tracking her eyes in every shot in order to replace digitally. Another point for the positive side of things ‘Dark Phoenix’ has to offer is that it doesn't overly rely on or play up the ‘90s aspect and while I would have (minor spoiler alert) loved another "Quicksilver saves the day" sequence set to an explicitly ‘90s song I can also appreciate that Kinberg didn't want to ape Singer's style and chose to not play up the time period for the sake of some cheap laughs or to simply try and appeal to a certain demographic (though it is cool they set it in '92 as that was the year the classic animated series debuted). And yes, the film is at fault for wasting a Jessica Chastain performance when such effort could have no doubt been applied somewhere else more effectively and while the film does try to do something a little different with Magneto, the character's allegiances still tend to sway based on the need of the plot more than the actual feelings of the character. Overall though, the film also features a double down on third act set pieces with a Hans Zimmer score that truly heightens the epicness of Jean's powers and finally allows each of the individual X-Men to utilize their abilities in cool and useful ways so much so that-just like in that opening space sequence-make it seem as if it would have been really fun to see this group of young, motivated, and energetic mutants band together for a couple of smaller-scale adventures that might not have amounted to a last stand or apocalypse-level event, but been more than enough to sustain the future and maybe even help us forget the missteps of the past.