Wednesday 17 July 2019

Dark Phoenix ★★☆☆☆

Not only is X-Men: Dark Phoenix the second time 1980’s Dark Phoenix saga has been adapted for film, it also marks the second time Simon Kinberg has tackled the story, both after 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand. And after the mixed reaction that The Last Stand received, you’d have thought he’d have learned some lessons.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. X-Men: Dark Phoenix, a direct sequel to X-Men: Apocalypse, largely follows the story of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), who, after absorbing a mysterious cosmic force in order to save the rest of her team, finds her telekinetic and telepathic powers supercharged. Soon, however, she begins to lose control and starts lashing out, before running away. Meanwhile, a band of shape-shifting aliens, intent on harnessing the energy Jean Grey absorbed for Evil Purposes™ , arrive on Earth after having followed it there. As Professor X (James McAvoy) and the rest of his X-Men try to track Jean Grey down - clashing amongst themselves in the process - Vuk (Jessica Chastain) and her team of D’Bari are doing the same; one to help her gain control of her newly-found powers, and the other to gain control of them completely.

For all its faults (of which there are many - but I’ll get to that later), Dark Phoenix plays with some pretty interesting concepts; Kinberg takes some of his characters in a bit of a different direction than has been previously portrayed. Gone is Professor X, the eternal optimist and do-gooder; in his place is a character who seems to view the X-Men as his own personal vanity project who has been convinced by the fame bestowed upon him; a character who appears on magazine covers nationwide, and who has the President on speed-dial. Given the significance of having a rogue mutant and known X-Man running rampant causing destruction in her wake, it’s pretty interesting seeing how this iteration of the character reacts to the situation, and where his priorities lie.

That is, however, largely it for the film’s pros. On the flip side, where do I start? Almost every actor is criminally underutilised, and none so more than Jessica Chastain. Vuk and the rest of the D’Bari are laughably paper-thin; they want the Powerful Object in order for them to do The Bad Thing and Seek Their Vengeance and that is it. Realistically, whilst their presence pays a nice homage to the original comic saga, they don’t really add much to the film, and frankly, I’d prefer Kinberg to have focussed more on Jean Grey and how the X-Men cope with her downfall. Without this, the stakes are never really sufficiently raised for us to care enough about the final X-Men-on-X-Men-on-alien skirmish.

Ultimately, Dark Phoenix is a...fine film, I guess? It’s nothing special. Not necessarily the worst X-Men movie, definitely, but leagues away from being the best. Whilst they weren’t the first to, Marvel and the MCU have been raising the benchmark since 2008’s Iron Man, showing that big-budget superhero movies are capable of having a strong emotional core without sacrificing the visual spectacle (and, indeed, vice versa). Unfortunately, while they certainly started off admirably, the X-Men movies haven’t really stepped up to the mark in recent Dark Phoenix ends up being quite a sad send-off for a pretty culturally significant film franchise.

Phil Taberner

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