#12 in my ranking of the X-Men franchise
For the first directorial effort of a long time screenwriter, Simon Kinberg, you’d expect Dark Phoenix to have some semblance of narrative structure, but you’d be wrong. The adventures of the X-Men under Fox ends with a whimper of an adventure, so unfocused and meandering that the first time I watched it I completely forgot everything about it as soon as it was over. This movie, for all the visual flair brought on by its expensive visual effects, is bland and unengaging from beginning to end.
There’s an interesting idea at the center of this film, but it’s so mismanaged that it ceases to be interesting the second it’s introduced. Xavier, when he first met little Jean Grey as a girl, put up some psychic blocks in her mind to keep her from accessing her great well of telekinetic power. He’s held her back for years for her own good, but his judgment was the only barometer on which to measure her good. This was similarly addressed in The Last Stand, so I assume it’s part of the Dark Phoenix saga in the comics. Why this ends up not working as an idea in this film is because of the movie’s complete lack of structure.
It begins with an urgent mission. Before anyone is introduced, they are off to fly their experimental jet into space to save a shuttle crew from an incoming wave of energy. Raven/Mystique leads the team, giving everyone something to do (a mistake, but I’ll get to that), and it ends with Jean Grey (sans space suit) alone in the depressurized space shuttle getting hit by the cosmic energy and all of it entering her body. She’s rescued feeling fine, they all return to Earth, and they’re greeted with a hero’s welcome. This whole sequence bugs me. It’s too stuffed and too early. No one is clearly introduced (relying on the previous movies for even basic introductions), and the use of everyone as a team undermines the movie’s eventual focus. This isn’t Mystique’s movie as a leader. This is Jean Grey’s movie as a girl faced with trauma and recovering from a hidden past. Focusing on the team as a whole as they go through an adventure feels more like fan service to give us a traditional X-Men adventure even if it doesn’t fit the movie as a whole.
The movie relies far too much on the previous films in the franchise for its emotional support. This most particularly is evident when it comes to the relationship between Beast and Mystique. They have roughly half a scene together before they split up for the rest of the movie. When Mystique dies, Beast is so animated by her death that he berates his long-term friend, Xavier, blaming Xavier for her death, and then abandoning the team and joining their long-term adversary, Magneto, in an effort to commit violent retribution for the death. This is such a leap for what we know of Beast and Mystique’s relationship. They haven’t really been close since X-Men: First Class, and this movie does almost nothing to establish that they’re particularly close, much less potentially in love. This is one of the major problems of the movie’s complete lack of focus. There’s too much going on in too short a time for anything to get the attention it needs to make the later payoffs work.
So, the cosmic force is some kind of intelligent entity sort of possessing Jean Grey (this gets a real short shrift in the explanation department for some reason), and some aliens have come to Earth for vengeance upon it (I think, this also gets short shrift). They manifest mostly as Jessica Chastain’s Vuk in one of her dullest performances. They want the cosmic force from Jean’s body, though their methods are motives are just simply unclear. It doesn’t help that they get introduced shockingly late in the film and have shockingly little screen time. Again, this is because the movie is so badly structured.
Anyway, Jean, with the help of the cosmic energy, is able to break through them mental blocks that Xavier put up to realize that Xavier lied to her about her parents. Her mother died in a car crash, but her father still lives and gave her up out of fear to Xavier. Her emotional reaction of confusion makes some sense, I suppose, but when it turns to rage I find it thin unless the movie is calling Jean a purely emotionally driven woman who can’t think clearly. Maybe it’s the cosmic energy’s influence.
Confronted at her father’s house, she accidentally kills Raven (they show this in the trailers for some reason), and flies away. This is more than halfway through the movie, and it’s complete inability to structure a story just gets frustrating when she shows up at Magneto’s little commune looking for help. What help? She can’t stop killing! Even though she only accidentally killed one person. She should be sad about the death she caused, but the dialogue seems misplaced. She disappears after a faceoff with the military that shows up for her. She meets Vuk who convinces her that she can get rid of the cosmic power by giving it to Vuk. Before this can happen, though, Beast goes to Magneto dedicated to killing Jean for having killed Raven (Magneto, who hasn’t shared a scene with Raven since X-Men Apocalypse, gets all emotional for her death, of course). They appear in front of the New York townhouse where Vuk and Jean are right at the same moment that Xavier, Nightcrawler, Cyclops, and Storm show up. That coincidence leads to a fight which eventually ends with everyone captured by some kind of mutant force from the government.
The finale was completely reshot after the release of Captain Marvel, apparently, and it ends with an extended action scene on a train where the main character, Jean, is unconscious and has nothing to do until the very end. The action itself is fine, probably the best this film gets, but because of the movie’s inability to effectively connect emotionally it’s all empty spectacle.
For all the spectacle that occurs on screen, it’s amazing how boring the film ends up being. And that all calls back to the movie’s structure. Properly, basically structured, this film’s would focus on Jean from the start, introduce the aliens and Magneto early, give Beast and Raven a real scene where they demonstrate their barely concealed love for each other before she dies, and with a potential scene with Magneto to demonstrate their dormant affection that could be rekindled. That sort of basic work would create the emotional base on which to build the later catharsis. It would also need a more focused exploration of Xavier’s mental block son Jean instead of muddying it up with Beast’s outburst that feels out of place.
I will say this for the film, though, the special effects do look good and this is a really interesting score from Hans Zimmer. Other than that, though, this movie is a complete mess. It’s unengaging and dull, the main cast of the younger X-Men leaving with a whimper.
Originally published here.