Film Review: X-Men: Dark Phoenix Dir: Simon Kinberg

Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Sophie Turner, Jennifer Lawrence

Running just short of two hours, X-Men: Dark Phoenix is an awkward, painful, and unnecessary mess that fails both as a comic-book adaptation, and an entertaining superhero film.

The film opens in 1975, where we see eight-year-old Jean Grey lose control of her telekinetic and telepathic powers and cause a car accident that gravely injures her parents. Jean is protected by a psychic force bubble during the crash, and is later visited by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) who tells Jean that she is special, and gifted, and that she will learn to control her power at his school for gifted youngsters.

After this excruciatingly flimsy and poorly scripted background, we flash-forward to 1992, where the X-Men are called upon to rescue the space shuttle Endeavour from the grips of a ‘solar flare’, which leads them into space and subsequently causes the mysterious ‘solar flare’ to inhabit the body of a grown-up Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). After returning to earth, Grey struggles to control the unfathomable cosmic power, which leads her to question her trust in Xavier as a father figure, the X-Men as her friends and family, and even herself.

In summarising the most basic framework for the plot of Dark Phoenix, I firmly believe that there must have been a version of this film that worked. However, two years of development, re-shoots, re-writes and stalling is practically stamped on every scene throughout, creating a film that is a barren, vacuum of emotion and rewriting characters to strip them of any likeability.

The characters of Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) – Professor X and Magneto – were the driving force behind the 2011 film X-Men: First Class. The complexity of their friendship and struggle to work within the borders of each other’s morality made a tense, moving, and – in the film’s final act – horrifying display of typical comic-book good versus evil.

In this film, Xavier is now a disinterested and selfish alcoholic, portrayed as violating Jean’s consent when he creates ‘mental barriers’ to prevent her from accessing her childhood trauma, forced to psychically marionette himself up a set of stairs to display how inferior he is in power to supercharged Phoenix Jean Grey, and then – spoiler alert – solves everything by apologising and admitting both he and his actions were wrong.

While we’ve already seen a struggling Xavier in 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, there doesn’t seem to be any narrative reason for this choice beyond providing a contrast to the strange moral crusade of Raven Darkhölme / Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence).

Mystique – a character who can change her appearance at will, and regularly spends her time in the X-Men universe stealing and living out other people’s lives for personal gain – is now our main character, and spends much of the film arguing with Xavier about his deceptive, selfish, sexist behaviour before martyring herself so everyone else also has reason to dislike Xavier.

As a fan of comics, comic-book adaptations, and films in general, superhero movies are often easiest to forgive for their flaws. Generally, they’re family films, filled with characters we aspire to be like or wish we could emulate, with extraordinary powers and relatable human problems and a overarching message that leaves the audience with a feeling of hope or optimism.

We’ve also seen this understandable cinematic cliche subverted through darker, grittier films like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and recently flipped on its head entirely by the complementary Marvel films, Infinity War and Endgame. The X-Men franchise found its own subversive success with Logan, brilliantly depicting a harsh, bleak story of an aged Wolverine and elderly Charles Xavier suffering from dementia.

On the other side of the scale, we have Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad, The Last Jedi, and now, Dark Phoenix. These are films that seem to focus on subverting expectations for the sake of it, while rewriting characters and the history of an entire universe for no other reason than to ungracefully mash together topical social issues and trivialise the matter of childhood trauma.

The Phoenix Force – its origin, its power, its desire – and the D’Bari – their origin, their power, their reason for existing – are completely washed over to the point that they may as well be called ‘Alien Power’ and ‘Evil Aliens’, and this lack of development around such a prominent part of the film’s plot makes the associated journey and emotional impact in the finale feel desperately thin.

As a self-marketed ‘culmination of the X-Men series’, there’s almost nothing in this film that genuinely relates to the previous entries, or brings any sense of finality, completion, or satisfaction. Strong supporting performances by Alexandra Shipp and Kodi Smit-McPhee (Storm and Nightcrawler respectively) improve the ensemble scenes, but we receive little-to-no payoff for their involvement despite their characters being instrumental to the narrative.

Instead, we’re catapulted from the previous entry of the series, X-Men: Apocalypse (which was also marketed as ‘the culmination of a trilogy’), into a world that only vaguely remembers those events took place, and reframes and removes all previous character chemistry or development to deliver an underwhelming end to the franchise that leaves only one question: Why?

Oxford Lamoureaux