Dark Phoenix (2019)
Director: Simon Kinberg
Screenwriter: Simon Kinberg
Starring: Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jessica Chastain
If ever there was a time to wave goodbye to the superhero sub-genre’s seminal X-Men, it would be now. After 11 movies across 19 years, this genre-starting series about misfits with extraordinary gifts has run its course, this 12th instalment (Dark Phoenix) being the final hurrah for some of the genre’s most compelling characters, the House of Mouse now holding the fate of the X-Men in their hands as they look to integrate them into the MCU after years of purgatory at the now defunct 21st Century Fox. But, just as Fox left us under a mouse-shaped cloud of scepticism, so do the X-Men, with Dark Phoenix failing to reach the lofty heights of the likes of Logan or X2 and thus far receiving an unkindly reception despite managing to avoid a repeat of the central-franchise low-point Apocalypse. For fans of the X-Men, Dark Phoenix will either be a long-awaited goodbye filled with reminders of what made the series so memorable and influential, or it will be a gentle sigh into the wind that indicates the final breath of a franchise that had already been on its knees waiting to be put out of its misery.
Having weaved through controversy, spin-offs, resets and the debut of competition unlike anything the genre has ever seen before, it is astonishing that here, in the franchise’s finale, any reference to a history we’ve loved, lost and lost again can be of any emotional impact, yet Dark Phoenix produces this in spades, each major narrative turn offering a sense of catharsis to its patient audience who’ve stuck with it through thick and thin. Though not without its issues in this regard, namely an evident indecision regarding the future of the franchise during production (Dark Pheonix was finished with principle photography around the time the rumours of Disney’s Fox purchase began) that halted screenwriter-director Simon Kinberg from ever truly hitting the big red reset button in a story centred around a potential coming apocalypse, this feature does offer enough to have as great of an impact as any of the central X-Men films since First Class.
Kinberg, who has been involved with X-Men multiple times over the franchise’s 2-decade lifespan as a producer and writer, was making his feature directorial debut with this feature, and in-keeping with a man so closely tied to the franchise, he managed to capture the essence of some of the best elements in the series, providing moments of scripted inspiration, creative on-screen action and the franchise’s trademarked moments of overcoming adversity even in amongst a rather downbeat story wrapped in emotional fragility and serious issues regarding mental health, effectively holding up his end of the bargain.
Though some elements of the visuals were at times unbecoming of the modern action-fantasy superhero epic and instead more in-keeping with the X-Men’s heyday of the 2000s, Kinberg managed to pull together some creative, franchise-appropriate action set pieces, with one structured to take place on a moving train being a particular highlight. His understanding of the X-Men universe and the characters within it was clearly of assistance to the man at the helm in the creative process, this association coming to forge moments in the script where action was required rather than per the request of the studio or per ordinary genre conventions. To make a film of such a huge budget be so fundamentally tied to a central arc regarding one character was in-keeping with what brought the X-Men franchise to the dance, but in transferring the entire focus of the series onto Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), and more specifically her very personal battle with mental health and serious trauma, after several movies of virtual obscurity, Dark Phoenix also created an unfortunate “all or nothing” scenario for fans of the franchise: either you liked the character, the performer and the story surrounding her, or you didn’t like the movie; there was very little by the way of meaningful, spectacle-driven or emotionally-driven distraction.
Despite this, Dark Phoenix did offer reasonably effective narrative wrap-ups for the likes of franchise leaders Xavier (McAvoy) and Magneto (Fassbender), with arc fulfilment also coming for the likes of Mystique, Beast, Cyclops and Nightcrawler, though the way in which the film seemed to tack many of these conclusions onto the story as opposed to building them into the narrative is one way in which Dark Phoenix is certainly worth criticising.
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Though much of Dark Phoenix did work, it seemed to do so without the intricacies on show in much of the rest of the franchise nor the emotional gravity or meaning of neighbouring franchises like that of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Much too often did it feel like things were happening because they had to, as if written into the film passively aggressively by a group unwilling to truly make something of the scenario they had to manage. This was never more clear than with the handling of central character Mystique, a presence in the X-Men movies that grew with the star power of actor Jennifer Lawrence. Though central to the franchise from the beginning, the character was lost to a performance about as absent of investment as you’ll ever see from its star and a presence within the narrative that made her little more than a plot device; even the early X-Men films managed to do more with the character than Dark Phoenix did.
By the same token, the secondary plot following a villainous extra-terrestrial group was at best distracting and at worst downright damaging to the enjoyment of the film. Seemingly inserted into the plot as a means of achieving the conclusion of the piece, the group, which was led by Jessica Chastain with a purposefully blank expression, was expressively threatening only through its character origins (somewhere in outer space) and the phenomenal composition of the score by Hans Zimmer, whose work with traditionally villainous tones was reminiscent of the great John Williams and evidence of him remaining a powerful aspect of the filmmaking process at the very top of the game.
Conclusively, Dark Phoenix is a movie that was released with the explicit intention of recapturing the franchise’s fans for one last ride, but its original purpose in pre-production was to make another universe-building entry into the fabled world of the X-Men, and the disconnect between the original story and the re-shoots, the finished story and the promotional campaign, and indeed the finished movie and our own expectations, is what ultimately led the film to being less than spectacular. This picture was distributed simply because it was made (and cost so much money to make), but the passion behind some of its best creative decisions offers more than what such a scenario would usually determine, Kinberg’s work (and the richness of characters and themes he had to work with) being enough to elevate Dark Phoenix into something of a middle ground so far as X-Men movies go, though unfortunately not the huge send-off fans of the franchise would expect, especially in the aftermath of Marvel’s Infinity War and Endgame double-bill.
With Disney set to wrap their fingers around arguably the biggest and most popular of all of Marvel’s comic book universes, the legacy of Fox’s X-Men will not be judged entirely by Dark Phoenix but instead the many movies that make up the franchise and the characters within it who came to represent any individual or group that had ever felt discriminated against, the metaphors regarding sexuality, gender, race and/or class having been introduced to an entirely new audience of people. The X-Men, whether it’s the original group or the rebooted group, will be fondly remembered by many and will certifiably go down as some of the most important members of the genre ever put to screen, so while Dark Phoenix did little more than just enough to save itself from complete failure, the X-Men as a whole can now quietly fade into the night, awaiting their moment to rise from the ashes under a new banner with new faces playing the roles. Dark Phoenix is a fitting, albeit unspectacular, goodbye.