Article by: Anthony Florez
The X-Men’s Greatest Threat…Will Come From WITHIN.
Holy hell, is that the ever-loving truth when it comes to Dark Phoenix, what will surely be the last Fox produced film featuring the gang that started it all, who helped usher in the era of the superhero tentpole franchise. The enemy that tagline is not referring to, but should be, is writer/director Simon Kinberg, an accomplished screenwriter responsible for the guilty pleasure Mr. and Mrs. Smith and the enjoyable RDJ take on Sherlock Holmes. But Mr. Kinberg is also the scribe that first took on the whole Jean Grey/Phoenix saga in Brett Ratner’s tone deaf, shapeless X-Men: The Last Stand, a movie so middling it required a reboot of what was originally the first solid comic book adaptation. Phoenix is Kinberg’s directorial debut and it really shows here in almost every way, from the listless back and forth dialogue hammered together in the editing room to the absolute lack of relative physics in its slapdash action scenes. This is one of those films without a sense of itself or seemingly any awareness of its source material, and in its wandering confusion it might dissolve into an incoherent mess if it had, at any point, coalesced into something that had the capacity to dissolve.
Say what you will about Bryan Singer and his character, the guy could put together an action sequence — and Brett Ratner, while being a hack, is at least capable of emulating better directors without having any signature style of his own. Here, Kinberg can’t seem to identify what kind of movie he’s trying to make, and the result is an attempt at a super serious drama, a breakdown of the internal family structure that the X-Men represents. Fundamentally they are misfits and outsiders and, to greater and lesser degrees, clandestine. This is not the case in Dark Phoenix, and where it relates to any of the other eleven films in the franchise is anyone’s guess; they are both a public paramilitary organization with a fan club, and just a kindly school for mutants who are no longer feared or distrusted. There’s always been a complexity to the X-Men Universe, it’s always been a metaphor for… well, racism, homophobia, fascism, government overreach, vigilantism, eugenics, etc., it’s always been smart enough in a simplistic way to be relatable and entertaining as a parable for modern society with, you know, blue people and explosions. That last part is the only thing that seems to be the focus of this film.
Personally, I’ve always had a soft spot for the X-Men films and Fox’s treatment of that IP, even when they strayed from the path, especially when they strayed, because there’s so much potential – they really do deserve their own Cinematic Universe for how complex and nuanced it can be. Every character has some fascinating arc that blends together, and Fox has been able to do something that the Marvel Cinematic Universe really can’t, and that thing is to play jazz, to really reach out and get weird with the properties without having to worry about continuity and building a greater, single arc. For every X-Men Origins: Wolverine and this particular dumpster fire, there’s a Logan or a Legion, a film and a show, respectively, that absolutely shirk off the superhero conventions and tell real, unique stories, that take actual chances with the source material. The X-Men can be, oddly enough, the most relatable and flawed characters on screen in a story about people with super powers, and as much as I groaned at how often Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine has been shunted into the film series for the sake of having Wolverine show up, it’s immediately apparent how much water he was carrying, even in sub-par movies.
Let’s talk characters. Who are these people? Mystique, a villain, is the leader of the X-Men. Xavier is a self-satisfied alcoholic. Magneto is a benevolent colonial leader of mutants. Also, those last two are just pals, #friendsforever. What the ever-living hell is going on here? This would be like Harley Quinn leading the Justice League, Superman being a pothead, and Lex Luthor running a commune – and also he and Clark Kent get together to play Hearts every now and then, so shambolic and distorted is this take on the X-Men Universe. These are arch-nemeses, they are at the core of the greatest rivalry in the Marvel Universe and all that is set aside because… well… unclear. The kindest thing that this film does, in relation to the rest of X-Men films, is omit the word ‘X-Men’ from the title because this ain’t that. Even worse, if the MCU is guilty of stuffing random, meaningless villains into a story for the sake of having someone for their heroes to punch, Dark Phoenix barely manages to come up with a coherent enemy, one that succeeds in being creepy but fails at having a, what’s it called? — Right, a gameplan or even a purpose. Are they trying to kill Jean or help her? Or both? Also, unclear.
You know those videos of puppies learning how to howl for the first time, how they go ‘AWWOOOO’ and it’s adorable? That’s the musical motif for the Dark Phoenix phenomenon that has possessed Jean Grey and turned her into a jerk for no clear reason. Her past, a senselessly tragic one that has no explained impetus, is exploited in graphic detail and although that would be reason enough for her to become resentful towards Charles Xavier, it’s missing the motivation that turns her into an unstoppable supervillain. Is the Dark Phoenix force that she absorbed sentient? And if so, why is it evil? What makes her special? What does evil Jessica Chastain want with it? If you’re hoping for answers to any of those things it’s a long wait for a train that ain’t coming. Further, if there is one skill that Simon Kinberg has, one superhuman ability if you will, it’s the talent for writing dialogue that – when you hear it – you can predict exactly how it will end… because you’ve heard it approximately a million times in a million other films, and yet it still somehow pisses off the viewer (or at least, me).
Jean Grey: “Who are you?”
The Villain: “The better question is….”
Me: Don’t say it don’t say don’t say it…
The Villain: “….who are YOU.”
The reviews and scores for Dark Phoenix have been on the internet since last week, so it’s no surprise that this is not a dissenting opinion: this movie, despite the desperate efforts of the talented cast and crew, flounders completely at the hands of a first time director who, as Kevin Smith once appropriately described it, appears to have failed upward. I have nothing personal against Kinberg, in fact I will always prefer him to his partner in crime Zak Penn, who is somehow an even worse writer yet somehow continues to get jobs in Hollywood. But if I had a dollar for every time a group of characters are just standing clustered together in a scene, motionless and awkward, for every time the story dead ends with Jean Grey unconscious on her back, for every time I finished a line of dialogue straight out of some kind of movie cliche reference guide… well, I might just have enough money to buy a ticket to another movie, hopefully a much better one (like… and I cannot believe I’m even thinking this… X-Men: The Last Stand?), with enough leftover for popcorn. Maybe.
MG Rating: 3/10