X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Simon Kinberg

Stars: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jessica Chastain, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Evan Peters, Scott Shepherd, Ato Essandoh, Halston Sage, Lamar Johnson.

Sophie Turner and Kota Eberhardt in Dark Phoenix (2019)

That sound you hear is the sound of a once formidable Marvel franchise crashing and burning. Fox studios launched the X-Men franchise in 2000, bringing to the screen the mutant superheroes who struggled for acceptance in a world full of hate and suspicion. The X-Men have appeared in twelve films, including two Deadpool movies, and the rebooted prequel First Class series with its origins stories. The nadir of the series was 2006’s The Last Stand, which was written by Simon Kinberg (who also wrote the disastrous 2015 superhero adaptation of Fantastic Four, X-Men: Apocalypse, etc). Kinberg has also scripted Dark Phoenix, which is based on the comic book written by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, and it essentially reworks the storyline from The Last Stand, focussing on the character of Jean Grey (played here by Game Of Thrones’ Sophie Turner), who is a key member of Xavier Charles’ talented group of mutant superheroes.

The film is set in 1992. During a rescue mission in space to try and save the astronauts on the space shuttle Endeavour, Jean is hit by a burst of solar flare energy, which makes her even more powerful. But Jean is also troubled by traumatic memories of her childhood, in which she was left orphaned following a car crash that killed her parents. The crash was caused by Jean’s telekinetic powers and so she feels guilty and angry. Combined with her new power this makes her extremely dangerous and reckless. This makes her susceptible to the manipulations of Vuk (Jessica Chastain), a shape shifting alien who wants to use Jean’s powers. Vuk is part of the D’Brai race who believe that their world was destroyed by the same force that has turned Jean into a more powerful force. They want to harness Jean’s powers to create new worlds. As Jean is corrupted by her new powers and grows more dangerous she poses a threat to the X-Men themselves. Xavier, who has been her mentor and unofficial guardian since Jean was eight, has to make some tough decisions to protect the X-Men.

Kinberg makes his directorial debut here and it shows in the clumsy execution of the muddled storytelling. This is a dark, sombre and grim film which explores, yet again, a superhero crossing over to the dark side and using their powers to destroy rather than protect. Dark Phoenix is something of a compromised project which was a victim of the Disney multibillion-dollar purchase of Fox. The film was also plagued by reshoots and rewriting and reediting, muting much of the original vision. Producer Laura Schuler Donner has apparently disowned the final film.

Kinberg’s handling of a couple of key action sequences such as the climactic fight on a speeding train, is certainly muscular, but much of it is rendered an empty spectacle by the overuse of CGI special effects and the hyperkinetic editing of Lee Smith.

There is very little effort spent on the characters and many of the X-Men themselves, like Quicksilver and Dazzler, are sidelined and their presence barely registers. Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Storm (Alexandra Shipp) get to take part in most of the action scenes. Most of the cast seem to be merely going through the motions and there is not a lot of energy or commitment invested in their performances or their familiar characters.

Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence is given little to do as Raven/Mystique. Michael Fassbender returns as Magneto, who has now retreated to Genosha, a commune and safe haven for mutants who are self-sufficient and living off the grid, but he lacks the usual intensity that he brings to many of his roles. James McAvoy is merely going through the motions here as the wheelchair bound Charles, and now comes across as more egocentric and cold. Kodi Smit-McPhee is wasted as the purple skinned Nightcrawler, while Tye Sheridan’s Cyclops is a bit of an emotional mess as he tries to cope with Jean’s actions. Nicholas Hoult’s Beast and “ Storm get the bulk of the action here. Chastain’s character is one dimensional and gives this fine actress little to work with.

For many fans, Dark Phoenix will be the weakest and most disappointing installment yet in the franchise. The X-Men go out with a whimper rather than a bang.

★★☆

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