X-Men: Dark Phoenix Review
Maybe one day Marvel will do the Dark Phoenix story justice
The last Fox X-Men movie may well involve a trainwreck, but thankfully it isn't one, at least not completely, although it does still undercook one of the best ever comic book storylines.So we had the original trilogy, which saw a solid start and a superior sequel give way to an appalling third entry, X-Men: The Last Stand utterly wasting the Dark Phoenix plot even if it had brief moments of excellence (Scott vaporising a Lake; Wolverine vs. Phoenix), and killing the franchise dead... But then it got rebooted - sort-of - with a solid prequel series that initially re-focussed on the origins of Professor X and Magneto, going strong with characterisation before coming up with the genius idea of changing the timeline, fixing the wrongs of The Last Stand in the superb sequel Days of Future Past. They could have just ended it there, but why quit when you're ahead when you can instead milk a franchise dry?
Apocalypse, for many, was a thoroughly disappointing follow-up to Days of Future Past, introducing an underdeveloped young cast into a situation involving an overpowered opponent who should have been a defining X-Men antagonist, rather than an excuse for bad effects and meaningless overkill setpieces. So now, half a dozen films later (not counting the Wolverine-themed spin-offs), it's finally the end of the road, as the Fox buy-out sees the very last Fox/X-Men movie get released, a year after its intended release date (it was actually shot at the same time as Deadpool 2), carrying the burden of not only reshoots but an entirely reworked third act (rumoured to be because of the similarities to Captain Marvel's finale). Despite all of that, it's not that bad.
Dark Phoenix hardly goes out on a high, but it offers a solid enough bookend to this extended franchise
After reminding us of the early childhood trauma that landed Jean Grey in the care of Charles Xavier, the story cuts back to the 90s where a desperate mission to save the crew of a damaged spacecraft sees the X-Men tested beyond their limits, with Jean taking the brunt of an alien cosmic energy which unlocks her darkest secrets and unleashes an uncontrollable dark side. As the team struggle to contain her, a mysterious group emerge ready to embrace the newly arisen Dark Phoenix, converging to threaten the entire human race.
Although it appears to have been almost universally written off as a complete and utter trainwreck, those watching it might struggle to find anything awry in the entire first act, which sets the sombre tone - and maintains it - and builds the sense of menace and impending doom all the way through to a second act shock which is delivered with just the right amount of gravitas.
From there on out, the film - which is bolstered by a refreshingly straightforward (unlike the unnecessarily contrived nonsense in Godzilla: King of the Monsters), but also, unavoidably, predictable story - struggles to find much to do with itself as it rumbles towards a suitably engaging finale. Sure, it isn't the grand scale of a Marvel Avengers movie setpiece, but the smaller-scale confrontation works, mounting the jeopardy despite somewhat intangible antagonists (which are thankfully not just angered humans or rebellious mutants) and seeing unlikely but welcome team-ups helping to emphasise the threat and peril. Dark Phoenix hardly goes out on a high, but it offers a solid enough bookend to this extended franchise.
What this prequel series did for Mystique, they needed to do for Jean Grey, but they simply didn't take/have the time
The biggest problems come from an undercooked story (the Dark Phoenix saga is just too seminal to be rushed; as it has been, twice), underdeveloped characters, and intangible antagonists (Jessica Chastain never quite makes for a palpable threat). The younger cast fare the worst, with Game of Thrones' Sophie Turner doing her absolute best despite simply not having the experience or character backdrop to support what befalls her character, whilst Tye Sheridan offers some of the best we've seen from Cyclops and Alexandra Shipp has some fun with Storm, but none of them really go anywhere because, well, they simply haven't had the time invested in them.
Rushed from teen introductions to big leagues due to Studio politics more than by design (the polar opposite of, say, the MCU, and indeed closer to Justice League in terms of ineffective attempts at jumping the gun), the 'new' younger cast pale into insignificance in comparison with the older crew members, with McAvoy and Fassbender still providing the strongest offerings, afforded a respectful arc to the characters they've invested in over the last four films, whilst Nicholas Hoult gets a little more to do as Beast, and Kodi Smit-McPhee has a blast as Nightcrawler (stealing the limelight from an underutilised Quicksilver). Jennifer Lawrence, who feels like she's been tortured into returning here, gets the worst treatment, and it's easy to sympathise because, had the Phoenix saga involved her character, it would be a whole lot easier to be invested in the characters and the story. What this prequel series did for Mystique, they needed to do for Jean Grey, but they simply didn't take/have the time.
There is a whole lot more to enjoy in Dark Phoenix than, at first glance, might be expected. Hans Zimmer delivers a surprisingly powerful score that is deserving of a better movie than this, but draws some emotion even when the story and characterisation cannot; the first and last acts are decent enough, and the tone is pleasantly ominous, with McAvoy and Fassbender worth the watch alone. What is going to frustrate the most is likely that this is yet another waste of the defining Dark Phoenix saga, but it's hardly The Last Stand, and it's better than ending on Apocalypse, going out with more of a whimper than a bang, but at least a respectful whimper.
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