Dark Phoenix (2019)

Directed by Simon Kinberg

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At first Dark Phoenix, by way of its title and prologue, seems to narrow its focus to Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), much as Logan did for Wolverine.  Then it turns out to be the loud, obnoxious finale to the most recent rebrand of the X-men franchise, choosing to end the story with an epilogue concerning Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), two characters who hardly share any screen time within the movie.  It claims to be a singularly-focused superhero civil war but devolves remarkably quickly, overstuffed with underdeveloped characters, the blandest villain of recent memory and a main character with little to say and even less conviction to say it.

The movie begins with an already tired flashback in which young Jean Grey rides in the backseat of a car with her parents.  It’s innocent, nostalgic and almost inevitably going to lead to someone dying.  And it does.  The same thing happened at the beginning of Shazam! so maybe it’s just that this happened to be the movie between the two that came out second that makes this feel groan worthy.

Then long-haired Professor Xavier introduces himself, and it seems like this should be the story.  But nope.  We instead cut to 17 years later, with Jean a uniformed member of the X-Men.  It seems all the bumps in the road that an origin story would tell have instead been ironed out already.  And that’s fine, but the movie struggles to tell a Logan-like story because we don’t have the same history with this version of Jean Grey as we did with Wolverine.

She is instead frustratingly vague, just another superhero with superpowers and some kind of tragic backstory.  On a strange but actually quite enthralling opening space mission we see them help save a crew of astronauts from a solar flare.  One of the X-men, Quicksilver (Evan Peters) makes what is supposed to be an amusing remark, “we’re doing space missions now?” and which is a line featured in the trailer.  Well, this is the only time they go to space, and Quicksilver will disappear from the story less than halfway through the movie.  It’s a little bit of a detour, but it’s a good representation of all the dropped story threads and sudden cameos that fill the movie.

Another character whom I didn’t even realize was in the movie then departs the story too, written off surely for reasons that had to do with a resistance to playing the character rather than anything more motivated within the story.

So the main story is supposed to be Jean dealing with trauma, and that’s a fine idea.  She (and we) realize that Professor X walled off certain memories, in essence making them repressed, so that she could heal.  He thinks he’s helping her, and when she learns what he’s done she is so overcome with emotion and distrust that she breaks bad.  It’s fine in theory, but the movie never really takes a solid stance with her.

She becomes the villain to some extent but is always overshadowed by another villain, Vuk (Jessica Chastain) who is just there to make us not root against Jean Grey, at least I think.  She’s more like a Yoda type of character, there to whisper stuff into Jean’s ear, but y’know, like the opposite of Yoda, a bad Yoda.

What’s so strange about this movie is the pacing.  It wasn’t until halfway through the climactic battle that I realized I was watching the climactic final battle.  There are so many characters introduced into this narrative at odd points and who either stick around too long or depart too soon, so that I was never sure where we were in the narrative arc.  It felt like the movie was introducing characters and ideas all the way until the end, and then when it ends it never really felt like much of an ending because it was just a series of set ups with no payoff.

The inciting incident would seem to be the solar flare… or Jean’s unexpected ‘explosion’ that night… or when she kills [REDACTED] and goes on the run.  I don’t know, there are a lot of inciting incidents.

Then Jean runs to a new character (not to the franchise but to this particular movie), is turned away and runs to another new character.  After that (and a strange action set piece) she and the others are imprisoned and hauled away on a train.  ‘Great,’ I found myself thinking, we’ve reached the midpoint, but no, this was interrupted by another action set piece and then the movie was over.

Nothing here was all that bad on its own, albeit one of the action set pieces literally takes place between a park and a building, across a single street.  It involves very questionable character decisions that don’t vibe with their motivations, and it just looks like something you’d find in a Netflix cash grab movie, not a movie of this scale.

But for the most part individual moments are done well enough, it’s just that they are a bunch of puzzle pieces that don’t fit.  There are redundant story beats and character actions, a forced subtext which has been better executed in past X-men movies, a couple open-ended plot questions which instead are ignored in favor of a time jump and then a resolution which carries no weight, no sense of catharsis.

It’s just a fascinating mess.  Apparently there were significant reshoots and storylines cut out of the movie, which certainly make sense for what’s on the screen.  It’s just kind of a bummer, I suppose, because I remember very much enjoying X-Men: First Class, and to see that this is what it comes down to, huh.

Up Next: Aniara (2018), The Dead Don’t Die (2019), A Separation (2011)

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