Jean Grey begins to develop incredible powers that corrupt and turn her into a Dark Phoenix. Now the X-Men will have to decide if the life of a team member is worth more than all of humanity. (from IMDb)
It's crazy to think that it's been 19 years since the release of the first installment of the X-Men franchise. The first three movies came to somewhat of a conclusion back in 2006 with the "Dark Phoenix" storyline that saw the beloved telepath Jean Grey turn into a powerful foe of sorts, giving the franchise a tragic finale. But Fox (in association with Marvel) wasn't done with the franchise just yet. 2009 saw the first spin-off, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and then its first sequel, The Wolverine, as well as a soft reboot of the franchise in X-Men: First Class, both in 2011. First Class was also meant to be part of the X-Men Origins concept, but it served as a prequel (a la Star Wars: The Phantom Menace) that would continue the X-Men franchise, and carry it forward. But in 2014, director Bryan Singer, who had helmed the first two installments of the entire franchise, returned to it to direct X-Men: Days of Future Past, which brilliantly united the original cast with the newer, younger cast, via a time-travel plot. It retconned X-Men: The Last Stand's gloomy conclusion, and set the franchise back on a solid path. It also ended up arguably being the best in the series to date. Two years later, Singer returned to the director's chair one more time for its follow-up, X-Men: Apocalypse, which continued the First Class storyline exclusively. Now, three more years later, amidst Disney's buyout of Fox, we have the final entry into the Fox-owned series of X-Men films, simply titled Dark Phoenix.
It's interesting to see the franchise try this storyline yet again--especially as a conclusion to the series...again. In some weird ways, it feels like a partial remake of the 2006 film, which has largely been considered the weakest in the main stream of X-Men films. But there's so much about Dark Phoenix that just feels undercooked or mishandled. For starters, Jean Grey was an essential cast member of the original trilogy and the dark turn of her character was sad and dismal. (That film also killed off way too many original characters in the process.) For the new film, it centers on this younger Jean Grey, but she barely had a presence in X-Men: Apocalypse when she was reintroduced, and it feels like there's far less of an emotional investment in the character with this new version, played by Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner. Turner does a decent job as Phoenix, but it's tough to feel the same impact with the character this time around after she had played such a tiny role in this second generation of the characters. Even Tye Sheridan's turn as Scott / Cyclops feels so much more underwritten and less prominent. Sheridan is a pretty good actor, but his presence on screen is rather bland and just keeps reminding me of James Marsden and how I wish we were watching him instead. (In fact, Cyclops seemed mostly underused in the original series, and this newer series uses him even less. It's so much more difficult to care about these characters. While Jean and Cyclops were an item in the first trilogy, there was an interesting love triangle where Wolverine also loved Jean. This time around, there's just the thinly written subplot of Cyclops and Jean and the team trying to figure out what to do with how dangerous Phoenix is.)
The X-Men films have largely been these comic book themed action/sci-fi films with the tension between superhumans--AKA "mutants"--and normal humans. Through the stories, in the midst of all the seriousness, there's been an air of fun and enjoyment to the adventure aspects of these films. There's something about Dark Phoenix that is just so undeniably bleak that it robs almost every bit of enjoyment from the story. It's not only dark, it's miserable. It's made worse, too, by characters acting outside of their usual character and having these dismal moments that just don't feel right. X-Men: The Last Stand revealed that Charles Xavier had messed with Jean's mind to protect her. They don't dwell on it too much, and Charles doesn't seem too sinister or evil in the decision that he made, despite this revelation taking some characters by surprise. Here, however, Charles looks downright awful (and almost evil) for having put up protective walls within Jean's mind to shield her from trauma in her childhood. It's almost as if the people who know him best are so horrified by this revelation that it needlessly causes them to question his character a motives behind everything. It causes rifts within the team leading to a few terrible scenes, including ones involving characters arguing with each other in ways that are more depressing than intriguing. There's an aspect to the film that just feels disgruntled and even angry (Raven even quips to Charles that they should be called the "X-Women" because the women are always saving the men, which just seems overly childish and feeding an anti-men trend in today's Hollywood.) The inner conflict even allows for a Captain America: Civil War-ish type hero battle where some of the X-Men fight each other over trying to stop Phoenix. Where Civil War handled it with excitement and even some fun, it's a little disturbing at times here. It's difficult to watch characters you may have loved in previous installments trying to kill each other in this film, and it makes one wonder who signed off on this being a good idea.
That all isn't to say the film is a total loss, though. (Admittedly, it's easy to zero in on what I think didn't work more so than what did.) I did find myself enjoying the "what's going to happen next?" thrill of the story--especially as it neared its climax, and seeing some of the characters team up again. The train fight sequence in the climax is definitely thrilling as well. Still, the "Dark Phoenix" story feels like quite a retread here, and the way it's used to pit characters against each other just feels wrong (To be fair, I'm not familiar with the story this movie draws its inspiration from; I just know this version and the 2006 entry). In the end, despite its good moments, the film does feel like the weakest of the 7 main X-Men films (I think I still liked this better than X-Men Origins: Wolverine, though), with The Last Stand playing out just a bit better than this does (surprisingly enough). I didn't enjoy the direction most of the characters went in in this film, which especially made it a bittersweet outing. If the series had concluded with Apocalypse, it would have served as a stronger finish (despite its own weaknesses) than Dark Phoenix.
The cast, at this point in the series, is somewhat of a mixed bag. Seeing everyone come into their own in X-Men: First Class was a treat, with each actor really giving it their best to prove themselves as these beloved characters. Even Jennifer Lawrence, who was still a star on the rise at the time, had given a passionate performance. This film, however, is the fourth outing in 8 years for some of these X-Men, and you can tell they're ready to be done (especially Lawrence, who you can tell just seems contractually obligated to show up at this point). Fassbender is still one of my favorites to watch as Magneto, while McAvoy is still great as Charles Xavier, but he just doesn't seem to have the right material to work with here. The other younger cast members don't really seem to hold a candle to their predecessors, though. While Halle Berry didn't have a gigantic presence in the original trilogy, she still made a great Storm. Sadly, Alexandra Shipp is just far too bland and forgettable in the role here. Nicholas Hoult as Hank/Beast is another favorite, but this film really wastes what they've built his character up to be. A scene where Hank and Charles argue is a good example of where this movie repeatedly goes wrong--and maybe the scene could have worked under different circumstances, but as it is, the dialog and performances just kind of fall flat.
The content is right in line with the rest of the entries in this series. The "F" word made its first appearance in X-Men: First Class (although I think it was in an alternate take not included in X-Men: The Last Stand), and the trend continues with this one. Sadly, it just might be the silliest use of it in the franchise, as Cyclops threatens to "bleeping" kill someone if they touch Jean (It just especially sticks out as a sore thumb and is terribly delivered). There's a smattering of other profanities as well, but it does seem like they dialed it back a bit overall for this one (aside from the usual unnecessary blasphemy). There isn't any sexual content aside from Jean and Scott kissing in their room, which leaves violence as the film's biggest red flag. Violence has been relatively intense throughout the entire franchise, and this film doesn't hold back either. The climactic fight where the X-Men are battling nearly invincible aliens--who are disguised as humans--is especially violent as they're riddled with bullets, stabbed, crushed, sliced, etc. It's a bit much, but I suppose not too unexpected for these films. There's plenty of bloody scrapes and wounds throughout the film, too, the worst of which being when a main character is thrown across the screen and impaled on sharp wooden stakes. We see the wood sticking out of their chest with blood soaking their clothes. (It's an emotional sequence, as well.) There are also two scenes where an alien causes a human's chest to implode/collapse, killing them. It's not extremely graphic--and it looks very digital in how the effect was done--but it's still kind of disturbing. Overall, it's darker and more violent than the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, and I wouldn't recommend taking any younger ones to this movie.
With how strong the franchise has been up until this point--including its weaker moments--one has to wonder how it all fell apart so spectacularly with Dark Phoenix. Perhaps it's for the best, however, with the future of these characters now being transferred into the hands of Disney and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Still, what fan wouldn't have wanted to see the series go out with a bang? Instead, Dark Phoenix fizzles out with a tired whimper. Repeat viewings could possibly prove to be better than the first viewing, but as it stands, Dark Phoenix can easily be considered a disappointment. Perhaps it's really not quite as bad as many reviews have made it out to be, but it's certainly not what it could have--or should have--been.- John DiBiase (reviewed: 6/17/19)
Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not exclusively on content. However, if the content really affects the reviewer's opinion and experience of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's overall rating.
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