June 4, 2019

CINEMA | 'Dark Phoenix' Fades Out 'X-Men' History

"You will posess the very power of a god."
Sophie Turner Kodi Smit-McPhee Simon Kinberg | X-Men: Dark Phoenix

The simply titled Dark Phoenix, the latest and likely final entry into the durable yet seemingly out of time X-Men film franchise, is a somewhat lean, mildly straightforward dramatic adaptation of the famed cosmic comic book storyline. Written and directed by now longtime producer Simon Kinberg in his directorial debut, who also notoriously co-wrote the third X-entry, The Last Stand, that very poorly sort of half-adapted the same story run, he executes a more cerebrally theatrical film with his younger X-cast.

Sophie Turner's Jean Grey is the out-and-out solo focus of the film as we follow her very quick and sudden transformation into the powerful intergalactic "Phoenix"-like supervillain entity. As a result of a solar flare accident during a space rescue mission, the mysterious force lures her into expressing her long-repressed dark side as it unlocks a hidden but unclear power.

A very arrogant and glory hound James McAvoy as Professor X leans far more into his role as the troubled leader of mutants. His Xavier is almost made out to be the chief enemy against many of his closest followers as Kinberg brings out quite a bit of internal turmoil between the X-Men team.

Unlike previous films, Kinberg really focuses on his core cast as he refrains from introducing much of any new characters, inserting any extra mutants, cameos, team members, or younger versions of previous heroes. Instead, he builds out a very stagey, theatrical back and forth between his now very well-known characters to make their conflicts burst more dramatically to mixed results.

Remarkably, this X-film is particularly light on the usual messy action comparatively as the film features mostly more intimate power sequences, one-on-one mutant fights, and controlled destruction to build out the story's mannered direction. It's too bad the strange consistency never comes together with the messier performances.

Jennifer Lawrence Sophie Turner Simon Kinberg | X-Men: Dark Phoenix

Returning cast members Michael Fassbender, Nicholas Hoult, and most notably Jennifer Lawrence get slightly more to do in opposition to Turner's Jean with sudden but showy character turns to close out their four-film arcs as Magneto, Beast, and Mystique, respectively. Kinberg makes sure to give each a dynamic (albeit sudden and out of character) moments to showcase more of themselves apart from the team.

Still relatively new X-cast players Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and especially Evan Peters get less to do as the initially much younger now present day aged versions of our superheroes, Cyclops, Storm, Nightcrawler, and Quicksilver. This more stripped down cast and their interactions feel most reminiscent of the fairly basic first X-Men film and its very lean production.

Franchise newcomer Jessica Chastain as the vague extraterrestrial villain, Vuk, is a vastly underutilized presence in a very simple role that someone much less talented could have easily played. She mostly walks stoically into rooms while various power beams are struck against her to little effect. Her mission and Jean's involvement are only ever lightly explained with some very clunky, unclear motivations despite the usual quest for power.

Dark Phoenix departs significantly from the last few prequels of films for a more insular story laser-focused on finishing out the dramatic arc of the Jean Grey character. It doesn't so much pay off previous storylines as it sets out to deliberately revisit these characters in a very episodic fashion. Kinberg clearly aimed for a much different X-Men take and brings our mutant superheroes to an interesting yet unsatisfying place of mild closure.

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