X-Men: Dark Phoenix

***

Reviewed by: Max Crawford

X-Men: Dark Phoenix
"This was a great chance to cover one of the most iconic storylines in the history of comics, squandered by not handing the script to a five-year-old child in order to iron out some of the more egregious errors prior to filming." | Photo: 20th Century Fox

Perhaps the kindest thing that could be said about X-Men: Apocalypse is "no animals were harmed in the making of this film". Dark Phoenix doesn't suck nearly as much as Apocalypse, but it does suck, just not so overtly. Unlike Apocalypse, it's not immediately apparent why Dark Phoenix sucks, but that's why we have film critics, so buckle up.

We open on an extremely brief recap of Jean Grey's origin story, before skipping forward to 1992, where the returning cast members from Suckpocalypse appear not to have aged a day, let alone nine years (none of the characters present in Days Of Future Past seem to be carrying the additional ten years since that was set, nor do the alumni of First Class give the impression that they would have been doing anything other than running around in nappies in 1962. Mutants, eh?). A NASA mission goes sideways, and in this timeline the White House apparently has a hotline to the X-Mansion. The X-Jet seems more Thunderbird than Blackbird as it pops out of its secret hangar and blasts off into space because apparently that's a thing it can do now.

Our plucky heroes save the day—in a scene that'll make you wish you didn't know anything about physics—but not before Jean absorbs whatever weird cosmic energy blob was menacing the NASA shuttle to begin with. Everyone is remarkably cool about this, and justifiably uncool with Charles Xavier risking their lives in order to buy goodwill towards mutantkind from humanity at large. This causes a great deal of anguish in the first act and is then mostly forgotten about in the face of other, larger anguish. As anyone with at least a passing familiarity with the comics may have guessed, that weird energy blob was the Phoenix Force, an unthinkably powerful cosmic entity capable of wiping out entire civilisations without really noticing. This will come up later.

This development has not gone unnoticed: the Phoenix Force draws the attention of the Shi'ar Empire to Earth, and so … no, hang on, first-time director Simon Kinberg reckoned that introducing a race of weird space aliens like the Shi'ar would be 'too confusing', so instead the Phoenix Force is tracked to Earth by weird space aliens … the D'bari? Except they can shapeshift now, but that doesn't mean you can go mistaking them for shape-shifting Marvel universe aliens the Skrulls, because they're totally different. Also they can telekinetically scrunch up people's bodies, severely inconveniencing them, as long as those people are minor characters and not anybody we care about. The lead D'bari, Vuk, wisely assumes the form of Jessica Chastain, a strict upgrade over his (her? their?) appearance in the comics as a talking spear of asparagus. Anyway, the D'bari have a bone to pick with the Phoenix Force on account of how it destroyed their sun and annihilated their civilisation. This seems entirely reasonable, but apparently they're the baddies.

Jean gets a bit emo on account of how she can't control the Phoenix Force and it's causing her to inadvertently hurt people, and promptly buggers off. Charles and the remaining X-Men pursue her for Reasons, Magneto and some of his mutant pals (one of whom has the mutant power of a magic haircut) pursue her for Different Reasons, and Vuk and the D'bari pursue her in order to exact revenge on the Phoenix Force by, uh, sucking it out of Jean and using it to wipe out humanity and establish Earth as the new D'bari homeworld. It's never made clear exactly how many D'bari survivors there are, but it's a few dozen, tops. Honestly, they could just ask. They would fit in a large shed.

Nothing really lands, that's the problem. None of the characters' actions make much sense, most of the emotional beats aren't given enough time or space to stick, and the main theme seems to be that revenge is a bad motivation, unless it's good, until it's bad again. This can largely be laid at the feet of Kinberg, who also wrote and produced. Learn to delegate, my dude! The second-unit sequences are the strongest by far, particularly the train heist set-piece in the third act which reminds us what the film could have been in more competent hands. Here, finally, there's a real sense of urgency, small character moments are given time to shine, and the action remains easy to follow despite some complex choreography and a frankly astonishing amount of stuff happening on screen at once. It's a jarring transition back to the pedestrian direction of the climax, where miscellaneous D'bari stooges apparently haven't put any thought into how to take down the host of the Phoenix Force other than to try to run up and punch her. Spoiler alert: this does not go well.

The cast, bless them, give it their all. Nicholas Hoult and Chastain stand out in particular, while Sophie Turner is somewhat wasted in the role of Jean. The fact that she manages to deliver some of her lines with a straight face probably puts her in contention for some sort of award, though. (Vuk: "Your emotions make you weak!" Jean: "No! My emotions make me strong!" Honestly.) Shout out to Kodi Smit-McPhee, whose portrayal of Nightcrawler is consistently adorable. Jennifer Lawrence and Michael Fassbender are criminally sidelined, while James McAvoy remains exceptional despite having these weird extra muscles on either side of his nose that you can't unsee once you've seen them.

This was a great chance to cover one of the most iconic storylines in the history of comics, squandered by not handing the script to a five-year-old child in order to iron out some of the more egregious errors prior to filming. Perhaps some future director will do it justice when the whole franchise gets re-rebooted a few years down the line.

Stray observations:-

Charles claims to have built Cerebro, which is true in comics continuity but not the films. This could be chalked up to his ego and self-mythologising, but for the fact that Hank is standing right beside him as he says it and doesn't call him on it.

Kota Eberhardt does a minor turn as Selene Gallio, in the film's only nod to the already-established-in-continuity Hellfire Club which was also jettisoned from the script for being 'too confusing'. One gets the impression that Kinberg is perhaps just easily confused. Selene is cool and it would have been good to see more of her and less of Magic Haircut Guy.

MHG is credited as Red Lotus despite having nothing in common with the Red Lotus of the comics and also a Magic Haircut. Motion to have Magic Haircut Guy accepted as canon nomenclature.

"By the way, the women are always saving the men around here. You might want to rename it X-Women," spits Jennifer Lawrence. It's one of the film's best lines, before the needless death of a great female character is used as flimsy motivation for a male character's actions. Ho hum.

Reviewed on: 05 Jun 2019
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X-Men: Dark Phoenix packshot
Jean Grey struggles with her cosmic powers, tearing the X-Men family apart.

Director: Simon Kinberg

Writer: John Byrne, Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum, Simon Kinberg, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee

Starring: Sophie Turner, Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Michael Fassbender, Nicholas Hoult, Evan Peters, Alexandra Shipp, Tye Sheridan, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Evan Jonigkeit, Hannah Emily Anderson, Ato Essandoh, Daniel Cudmore, Summer Fontana

Year: 2019

Runtime: 113 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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