Director: Simon Kinberg
Cast: James McAvoy, Sophie Turner, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Tye Sheridan, Michael Fassbender, Jessica Chastain, Evan Peters, Alexandra Shipp, Kodi Smit-McPhee
As film franchises goes, the X-Men series has probably been one of the longest going, but that could all be about to change. With Disney’s recent acquisition of 20th Century Fox and therefore all its rights (including X-Men film rights), the likelihood of a total reboot (probably to co-exist with the MCU) is higher than the possibility of continuing the current timeline. Dark Phoenix is the first X-Men movie to be released under the Disney umbrella, and possibly the last. With that in mind, is Dark Phoenix a decent way to wave goodbye to the X-Men we’ve come to know, or does it fizzle out the once-popular series?
Acting as a direct sequel to Apocalypse, Dark Phoenix sees the X-Men sent on a mission to space to assist some astronauts who have gotten into trouble with a solar flare. On arriving at their destination, the group of heroes realise it’s not a solar flare, but something else far more sinister looking. Whilst attempting to retrieve the astronauts from their shuttle, the telekinetic Jean Grey (Turner) gets caught up in the destruction and the entity that caused the trouble in the first place appears to surround her. Without a scratch on her, the team rescue her and return to Earth, where they are hailed by the world as heroes. Things take a dark turn as Jean experiences her powers growing beyond her control, putting everyone in danger. As Professor Xavier (McAvoy) tries to help her, she’s seduced by the offer of help from a strange extra-terrestrial newcomer named Vuk (Chastain). As Xavier’s ambitions and motives are called into question by some of his X-Men and closest confidants, the team starts to divide, but all have one end goal: to stop the rise of Dark Phoenix.
The X-Men series has been far from perfect. It’s had its ups and downs, some films better than others and some that needn’t have been made at all. Dark Phoenix is somewhere in between – there are some decent performances, with attempts to give some characters more depth that ever before, and though the story may not be the most original (it’s not like we haven’t seen Jean Grey/Phoenix go dark before, although in the movie timeline it is the first time), it’s still a relatively entertaining action movie. It’s slightly better than Apocalypse, in that the villain has a proper role, being mixed in with the heroes in a way that splits the team when it comes to their personal morals, but it still doesn’t quite reach the perfect score that we’re still waiting for from an X-Men movie.
Director Simon Kinberg has often been involved in the writing and producing of X-Men films, and this is his first time directing not only an X-Men movie, but any movie. He does a decent enough job – the action sequences are attention-grabbing, but there’s perhaps one too many close ups. Fair enough that he tried to adopt James Mangold’s more natural approach to surreal situations in Logan, but the fact is that Dark Phoenix is not the gritty, more down-to-earth western style feature that Logan is – Jean hasn’t built up the kind of personal story in the movies that Logan/Wolverine has. Also the story arc that involves Professor Xavier, Raven (Lawrence) and Hank (Hoult) is an admirable diversion from the stronger team we’ve seen in the past, but unfortunately something about their disagreements doesn’t entirely sit right. Kinberg and the writing team’s hearts seemed to be in the right place, but they were possibly scrabbling around a bit too much for subtext when it comes to Jean’s newfound evilness, putting the team at odds with each other for no real or strong reason.
Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey was an exciting and well portrayed character in the previous movies, and Turner’s Jean is still interesting if not quite as well presented. One good thing to note is that Turner’s acting abilities have come a very long way since her humble beginnings on a little show called Game of Thrones. She was once quite the stiff performer, still earning her stripes as an actor, but she has now proven herself capable of owning a title character. Much like Jean herself, Turner still has a few things to master, but there’s no doubt that with more experience she will get there. McAvoy is always good, but the character of Xavier has let him down somewhat in this film. He does his best with the material given, but we’ve seen better stories and character building for Xavier than this. Fassbender is again a decent Eric/Magneto, but like McAvoy he struggles with the character’s given situation. Perhaps the only standout is Lawrence as Raven/Mystique, a character she did not want to play again. Throughout the newer X-Men movies it seems that Raven has been the one to get the most development, though she stalls somewhat in this movie, as though she was a quick addition purely to add another antagonistic layer. Lawrence still manages to portray a character that continuously goes through the motions when her personal beliefs are called into question, a character who is unafraid to speak her mind (uttering something along the lines of “The men are always being saved by the women. Maybe you should change the name to X-Women” would have bombed if it weren’t for the genuine anger and frustration that Lawrence pours into it). Other supporting characters are the familiar ones we know, and other than their given mutated powers, they don’t add much else to the story.
A reboot for the X-Men is probably a good idea at this point. It’s been long enough, and although it will be sad to say goodbye to the excellent casting choices thus far, it’ll be very interesting to see new (and hopefully better, in some cases) origin stories and how they might integrate with other Marvel characters. If the X-Men start to appear in the MCU, particularly as that universe will be going through its own changes very soon, it could be cause for some much better films overall. Possibly the only untouchable character would be Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine – bringing back Dafne Keen from Logan as X-23, a new Wolverine, would be high on many people’s wish list, but as long as they don’t go down the route of reviving Logan’s Wolverine then everything else is fair game. Dark Phoenix could spell the end of this run of X-Men, which would be a shame because although it is ultimately an entertaining film that ticks a few boxes, the franchise deserves a stronger finish.