Don’t they have any healing and creative rejuvenation among the super-powered mutations at Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Children? If so, they needed them to lay their hands on this franchise for a few years before making another bungled attempt at the beloved Dark Phoenix storyline (from the 1980 comic books). But that’s a rhetorical question. If Dark Phoenix (2019) is any indication, mutations cannot save this franchise.
When we return to our characters, much has changed since the last visit. Which is fine since who wants to be reminded of X-Men Apocalypse? The X-Men are now no longer shunned by society but held up as heroes. Professor Xavier (James McAvoy, phoning this one in… but then who isn’t?) has a direct phone to the White House, like a Batman / Commissioner Gordon sitch gone national.
Their first mission, which serves as kind of a second prologue to the over and underwritten film, involves saving a space shuttle crew from imminent death. For underwritten/performed reason this is making Raven (Jessica Lawrence) nervous. The mission goes wrong with Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) appearing to explode with the doomed ship. But what’s this — she feels great with not a scratch on her? Well, not so fast. Her power is now off the charts and mental inhibitors that Xavier had placed on her as a child without her knowledge (uh-oh) have distintegrated as well. Her powers going haywire is bad enough for the team, but things get worse when super-powered mysterious aliens arrive on Earth (led by Jessica Chastain, going Terminator-franchise minimalist though she’s not playing a robot). The aliens intend to use Jean Grey, now nicknamed Phoenix for her remarkable resurrection, for their own nefarious purposes.
Battle sequences, plot contrivances, contractually obligated and completely joyless performances follow…
To be fair, Dark Phoenix does deliver a few meager thrills. The film makes you wait for Magneto and it’s wonderful to see Michael Fassbender’s effortlessly intense charisma back onscreen (where’s he been since marrying Alicia Vikander? That’s a long honeymoon). He clearly doesn’t want to be there, but then, neither does his character so it works. Disco-era mutant Dazzler gets a cameo which is irrelevant to the plot but still works as fan service (we never thought we’d see her onscreen!). Nightcrawler’s (Kodi Smit McPhee) teleportation skills are put to visually strong use, primarily because they look so different than everyone else’s computer generated gifts. A climactic action sequence on a speeding train goes on twice as long as it should and is too chaotic to follow well but it has two action-bliss jolts within if you’re patient about waiting for them.
What doesn’t work? Everything else.
The franchise has never done right by Cyclops (Tye Sheridan now, James Marsden earlier) or Storm (Alexandra Shipp now, Halle Berry then) and that continues here, with no effort to course correct. [SPOILER] And for a story that should feel apocalyptically large on an existential level, there is only one major death, and that one plays like it’s appeasing someone who was chafing against their endless contract. [/SPOILER] Stranger still given the budgets on superhero movies, it’s visually “small,” as if the X-Men and the aliens are the only people who exist in the known universe. One action sequence takes place in the suburbs but nobody appears to be at home. Another takes place in a single block of a city but feels no bigger than an unruly block party. Someone called the cops.
It’s all terribly unsatisfying.
Sophie Turner does what she can with her undermotivated central part, but there’s no magic in the performance to save the movie from itself. The X-Men movies originally leaned hard into allegory “mutants = persecuted minorities. Hatred is bad!” but this one barely knows what to do with something that should be easily resonant and message-movie flexible like losing control of your body or giving yourself over to rage.
The other actors have much less to do, only repeating beats we’ve seen them do multiple times before. The franchise is in a time loop after all, returning to this story again with different actors playing the same roles, but not, through the usual reboot format. It’s little wonder that everyone is merely going through the motions between “action” and “cut”.
We repeat: Mutations cannot save the X-Men. No half-measure cast changes or director swaps will do. Dark Phoenix is not, perhaps, the worst movie in the franchise, just the dullest. But when more movies from a franchise are fighting for Worst Of honors than Best Of, it’s time to bury it.
Logan knew that, somehow, and went to the grave honorably. Dark Phoenix tries to follow suit, in its own funereal way, but without that earlier film’s conviction, genre-twisting, and fine performances. Dark Phoenix strays wildly from the famous 1980 comic book storyline but still honors its downer outcome. It’s a bummer… intentionally and otherwise.