The present iteration of the cinematic X-Men gets a very disappointing send off by way of Simon Kinberg’s Dark Phoenix. The twelfth installment in this film series generally, Dark Phoenix is by far one of the weakest entries, suffering as it does from a glut of superfluous CGI effects and a distinct lack of story arc and character motivation. Focusing primarily on the character of the telepathic and telekinetic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Dark Phoenix begins in the mid-1970s with a tragic accident which deprives the young girl of both her parents (apparently). Taken in by the seemingly benevolent Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), Jean learns how to hone her considerable powers for the greater good. ‘You are not broken’ the mutant pacifist tells her at an early juncture in the story. Quickly forwarding to the year 1992, Charles and his X-Men are called upon by the powers-that-be to assist the space shuttle Endeavour which has been critically damaged in outer space by an unusual solar flare-like energy. The imminent peril for the X-crew and Jean in particular is telegraphed quite clumsily by Kinberg (who is making his directorial debut here). Sure enough, matters take a turn for the worse when Jean is stranded on board the compromised space shuttle and absorbs the energy from the resultant explosion. Apparently unhurt, she returns to earth with the others where they are greeted as heroes. But – of course – all is not well and it’s not long before Jean’s greatly amplified powers begin to outstrip her sense of duty and humanity. Several of the main characters round on Charles himself for having repressed Jean’s memories as a child. The titular Dark Phoenix has risen. Unfortunately, the events which transpire during the remainder of the movie make us wish that she had succumbed to the fireball that went before.
It doesn’t help that this storyline was broached once before in 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand with similarly disappointing results. Based on The Dark Phoenix Saga by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, the new film takes another stab at this particular plot in which the X-Men find themselves pitted against one of their own in a deadly duel. An ancillary story element involving Jessica Chastain’s Vuk and a shape-shifting alien race called the D’Bari adds nothing to the overall proceedings. The central premise here is that of faction against faction as Michael Fassbender’s Magneto appears on a remote island where he has established a community of mutant refugees. Old party divisions flare up once again, but, in truth, there is little here of emotional resonance or of significant substance. It’s extremely hard to care for a central character who destroys at will and, later, regrets the full import of her actions. The set pieces which accompany the narrative trajectory (ahem) are themselves as confused as the primary plot. An X-confrontation in New York City is poorly realised and the denouement – involving a speeding train – is packed to the rafters with dizzying CGI. The Phoenix’s final battle with the self-motivated Vuk is simply a mass of swirling colours and little else. It’s too bad that the filmmakers forgot the basic lessons of the much superior X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) and X-Men: First Class (2011) – good storytelling and robust character development are the key ingredients that appeal to the fans. All the CGI effects in the world do not make up for shoddy narrative.
The cast members themselves cannot be faulted and, for the most part, they do their best with the predictable dialogue. McAvoy and Fassbender do not share as much screen time as per previous films, but their barbing is effective as always and they are ably supported by the likes of Tye Sheridan and Nicholas Hoult. Jessica Chastain meantime is criminally under-utilised as the aforementioned Vuk and one senses that Jennifer Lawrence is merely going through the motions like some others. Perhaps, they were acutely aware of the imminent demise of the Fox-produced X-Men in the wake of Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox. Resigned might well be the applicable term in this instance. Lawrence knows full well that she will move on to better things. So will many of the others. The film’s poor box office showing to date might not bode so well for the directorial career of Simon Kinberg on the other hand. Game of Thrones’s Sophie Turner does the best she can with the role of Jean Grey, but she is hampered by the stilted dialogue and the abundance of special effects. Bereft of a story which has any emotional weight, this present version of the X-Men stumbles to a sad end after an era of some highs and lows for the franchise. For most of us, it won’t be a fitting end and we will do better to remember the likes of Logan (2017), the aforementioned First Class and Days of Future past. 2000’s X-Men and 2003’s X-2 were also more memorable entries as far as this reviewer is concerned. A lamentable finale to a more than half-decent film franchise.