By Thom Ernst
If Dark Phoenix is meant to close the book on the X-Men and open the pages of a new mutant chapter, then consider it a noble but failed attempt. Better luck next time.
But if the movie is intended to send the X-Men off on a high note, bringing all the characters together for one last hurrah before saying goodbye forever… well then, the failure is worse than we thought.
Dark Phoenix is not so much a dark ending to the X-Men saga as it is a bleak one. A darker film would be a more fitting out for Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his clan of mutants. But uninspired dialogue, lame effects, and a flimsy storyline sabotages any effort made to give the characters a profound and poignant exit.
Instead, the film settles for soft-peddling rehashed themes of belonging, where misunderstood mutants struggle once again to be accepted. We've been here before, and it was better the first time.
Dark Phoenix is Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), a young woman with unstable telekinetic powers. Things take an unexpected and dangerous turn when Grey is injured during a deep-space rescue mission. The accident turns her into Dark Phoenix, but instead of becoming a productive new ally on the X-men team, Phoenix becomes scarred and angry and uncontrollable.
When she discovers something about her past that Xavier has kept from her, she strikes out on a vengeful and destructive mission. Her actions divide the X-Men with some trying to protect her and others out to destroy her.
This should be Phoenix's story. But the film is so wrapped up in X-Men infighting, that there are vast stretches where Phoenix seems all but forgotten. Instead, we are subjected to scenes of Professor Xavier defending himself against allegations thrown at him by a mutinous Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and an angry Hank/The Beast (Nicholas Hoult).
The film is directed by Simon Kinberg whose prior movie work has been limited to screenwriting and producing. Kinberg received a Best Picture Oscar nomination for producing The Martian (2015) then again, that same year he wroteThe Fantastic Four (2015) and received a Razzie nomination for Worst Screenplay. It all balances out.
Kinberg opens the film with a sequence so reminiscent of Shazam! that you might think you've walked into the wrong theatre. A few moments later, you begin to wish you had. Shazam is just one allusion Kinberg borrows. Brian DePalma fans will detect similarities between Jean Grey and Amy Irving's character in The Fury (1978), as well as there being ample reminders of Stephen King's Carrie (1976) and Firestarter (1984).
It's taken almost 20 years and 12 X-Men and X-Men-related films to get to Dark Phoenix. Dark Phoenix isn't just the last in the X-Men saga, it's fallen 12 stories from the height of the original X-Men, to the bottom of the heap.
It's hard to fathom Jean Grey rising from the ashes of Dark Phoenix, but stranger things have happened. The New Mutants is due for release next year; Who knows fresh marvels Marvel has in store?
Dark Phoenix. Directed by Simon Kinberg. Starring James McAvoy, Sophie Turner and Jennifer Lawrence. In wide release, Friday, June 7.