REVIEW: “X-Men: Dark Phoenix”

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The X-Men movie franchise under the guidance of 20th Century Fox has been one wild roller-coaster ride. A pretty profitable one but in terms of quality the movies have been all over the map. Twelve films over the span of 18 years (and with one more set for 2020). Their first film, 2000’s “X-Men”, was a groundbreaking movie that could be credited with jump-starting the now lucrative superhero genre. Since then there have been several satisfying hits and just as many terrible misses.

Fox has handed over the reins to Disney but not before dropping one more X-Men focused movie. “Dark Phoenix” isn’t the first time the franchise has told a version of Chris Claremont’s hugely popular comic series “The Dark Phoenix Saga”. It was first put to film in 2006’s horribly frustrating “X-Men: The Last Stand”. This time they do justice to the story, not without a few kinks, but still in a way I found entertaining and satisfying.

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Even before the first trailer dropped, there was no shortage of dismissive opinions about “Dark Phoenix”. So it was no big surprise when it released alongside at least some deeply critical reviews. But the sheer volume of negativity has been surprising and certain to leave people expecting the worst. Thankfully my experience was considerably better than what I had prepped for.

“Dark Phoenix” gets off on the right foot by quickly defining itself as tighter and more intimate than its bombastic predecessor, 2016’s “X-Men: Apocalypse”. Writer-director Simon Kinberg takes the essence of the original Dark Phoenix story and develops a true planetary threat. But his strongest focus is on how it impacts the X-Men. The revelation of past choices, reckoning with the dire consequences, and the fractured relationships that follow is what this final franchise chapter is most interested in.

Set in 1992, the film begins with the X-Men and humanity living in unprecedented harmony. Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has tirelessly worked to solidify the relationship between mankind and mutant. As a result the X-Men have become cultural pop stars but at the cost of continually putting their lives on the line.

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After a space shuttle is disabled by a massive solar flare, the president calls Xavier who sends his ill-equipped X-Men into space to rescue the crew against the judgement of team leader Raven (Jennifer Lawrence). During the rescue attempt Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) absorbs a massive burst of cosmic energy that heightens her powers, stirs her emotions, and rouses painful memories Xavier has long hidden from her. It proves to be more than Jean can control and her uncontrollable actions not only split the X-Men but also the peace between humans and mutants.

Many other characters return from the previous films, none better than Michael Fassbender as Magneto. He remains the franchise’s best character not named Wolverine. Here the ever-compelling battle between Xavier’s idealism versus Erik/Magneto’s realism is less pronounced but the story provides a good reason for it. Still, the charismatic Fassbender has several great stand-out moments. Nicholas Hoult (Beast), Tye Sheridan (Cyclops), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Nightcrawler) also return.

Not only is the scale of the story dialed back but so is the action. There are several action sequences but they are much more grounded, aiming for a semblance of reality (as much as you can in a movie like this). The one big exception is a spectacular train sequence during the final act. It hits several familiar cues but overall I found it to be electric.

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But Kinberg doesn’t get everything right. There are a couple of story angles that desperately needed more buildup and better treatment. Take humanity’s sudden and complete turn against the mutants after a run-in with Jean. There is practically no discussion, no debate, no measured response. All of the good will is gone in a snap and it all happens off camera.

And then you have a group of alien shape-shifters who come to Earth seeking the cosmic power Jean now possesses. Die-hard comic fans while recognize them as the D’Bari, but the movie does a terrible job defining them or making them the slightest bit compelling. Jessica Chastain plays their leader but it’s hard to give much thought to her character or her motivations. They mostly end up fodder for the X-Men throughout the second half.

Here is where I ultimately land. “Dark Phoenix” is not what I would call a great movie. It’s story and some of its characters could use more attention and with a running time under two hours there was space to do so. But it’s far from ‘bad’ and it deserves much better than an ugly 23% on Rotten Tomatoes. Could it be a reflection of a pretty healthy MCU bias? Could it be that some people wrote this film off and formed opinions before it ever hit the big screen? I can’t say that with any certainly, but I’m glad my experience was as entertaining as it was.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars