Review: Simon Kinberg's 'X-Men: Dark Phoenix' Goes Down in Flames
by Adam Frazier
June 6, 2019
Written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by John Byrne, the "Dark Phoenix" saga is one of the most enduring storylines in the history of Marvel Comics. First published in Uncanny X-Men #129-138 (1980), the iconic story follows Jean Grey's transformation from gifted mutant into a god-like cosmic entity known as the "Phoenix". In 2006, screenwriters Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn adapted elements of the story for Brett Ratner's sequel X-Men: The Last Stand with mixed results. Now thirteen years later, Kinberg is taking another stab at adapting the classic tale with Dark Phoenix, the twelfth installment in Fox's seemingly-never-ending X-Men film series. A direct sequel to Bryan Singer's X-Men: Apocalypse (2016), the film is the final installment of the main X-Men saga after The Walt Disney Company's acquisition of 20th Century Fox.
It's 1992 – the same year that X-Men: The Animated Series debuted on Fox Kids – and the X-Men are called upon by the current President of the United States to rescue the crew of the Space Shuttle Endeavour, whose mission has been jeopardized by an astronomical phenomenon. Led by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), the team reaches the damaged spacecraft and recovers the astronauts but loses one of their own in the process. During the mission, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner of HBO's "Game of Thrones") absorbs the Phoenix Force, a mysterious cosmic entity described as "the embodiment of the very passion of Creation—the spark that gave life to the Universe, the flame that will ultimately consume it." Reborn as the Phoenix, Jean Grey returns to Earth with powers beyond her understanding or her control.
Complicating matters is the fact that secrets about her past—truths kept from her by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) – are soon uncovered, making Jean emotionally unstable and increasingly destructive. Enter Vuk (Jessica Chastain), a new villainess who encourages Jean to abandon her humanity and give in to her darkest urges. Now the current X-Men – including Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and Quicksilver (Evan Peters) – and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), of course – must unite to stop Jean before she destroys humanity.
Dark Phoenix is, to use the parlance of our times, a hot mess. Kinberg's directorial debut is a dull rehash of X-Men: The Last Stand – one of the long-running franchise's worst entries anyway – complete with baffling out-of-character moments, cringe-worthy dialogue, and lots of contrived conflict. The movie doubles down on the idea that Xavier manipulated Jean's mind and suppressed her abilities, emotions, and memories for "her own good." Xavier – who should be an altruistic person who strives to serve the greater good – is depicted as a self-serving schemer who risks the lives of his students for a chance to hobnob with the elite.
In The Last Stand, it's Magneto who plays the devil on Jean's shoulder, urging her to eradicate mankind so mutants can inherit the Earth. This time around, it's Vuk – a shapeshifting alien who, you guessed it, wants Jean to perform a hard reboot on the planet so her species, the D'bari, can move in. The Oscar-nominated Chastain tries, but Vuk and her business casual-clad henchmen might be the most generic, underwhelming, and all-around uninteresting baddies in recent history. As for Jean, Sophie Turner does a perfectly adequate job of channeling Famke Janssen's Dark Phoenix, but she's undermined by a script that has absolutely nothing new or interesting to say about the character – she's just the same ol' Redhead Possessed By Evil Space Bird™, decked out in a Stylish Maroon Leather Trench™, hurting the ones she loves most.
Jean isn't the only member of the X-Men to go dark, though. At one point, Cyclops threatens Magneto by saying, "I'll fucking kill you." Nightcrawler snaps a dude's neck with his tail. (Fuckin' sick, bro.) It's like X-Men: The Last Stand went out for dinner and drinks with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, invited it back over to their place, put on some Hans Zimmer, turned down the lights, and made a Very Stupid Baby™. In addition to being a retread of The Last Stand, Dark Phoenix is also a bootleg of Captain Marvel. Both movies are set in the 1990s, with a hero who can't remember her past, who absorbs an insane amount of cosmic energy and becomes all-powerful, and is then pursued by shapeshifting aliens.
It's contrived, derivative, and entirely joyless, but Dark Phoenix's biggest sin is that it's boring. Beyond the space shuttle rescue, the rest of the film's action set pieces are entirely forgettable. Perhaps it's because the movie takes place primarily in school hallways, suburban homes, trains, and hotels. There is one new location – a place X-Men fans have wanted to see on-screen for 19 years – but when we finally get there, it looks like a farming community out of The Walking Dead. In addition to the uninspired production design, the X-Men's matching uniforms are the dullest superhero costumes since the black leather suits in Bryan Singer's original film. The special effects look equally as cheap. There isn't really a single eye-catching thing about this movie, which is crazy considering it's about a bunch of mutants fighting a bunch of space aliens over a Redhead Possessed By Evil Space Bird™.
Needless to say, I did not have a good time with Kinberg's Dark Phoenix. While it isn't as bad as X-Men Origins: Wolverine (what could be?), it's tied with X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men: Apocalypse for the worst installment in the main series. Who would've thought that one of the co-writers of The Last Stand would essentially remake his own movie 13 years later and it would be just as bad as his first attempt? That's the most infuriating thing about this whole debacle – no one learned anything from the mistakes of the past. In 1980's Uncanny X-Men #137, Jean Grey explains to her true love Scott Summers: "Jean to Phoenix to Dark Phoenix – a progression as inevitable as death." How fitting for Fox's franchise to go out on this note – rising from the ashes only to go down in flames. It was inevitable, I guess.
Adam's Rating: 1.5 out of 5
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