Sophie Turner in Dark Phoenix (Photo: Fox)
★½ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Simon Kinberg
STARS James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender
And so it ends, not with a bang and not even with a whimper. Instead, the once-proud X-Men franchise ends in muted repose, rendered comatose by the shockingly bland and startlingly bad Dark Phoenix.
X-Men: The Last Stand? It looks as accomplished as Batman Begins by comparison. X-Men: Apocalypse? It’s been elevated to the status of Captain America: The Winter Soldier when placed alongside this dud. Even X-Men Origins: Wolverine offers a whiff of Avengers: Endgame quality in relation to this latest superhero saga.
Dark Phoenix is like Smokey and the Bandit 3, when even Burt Reynolds knew enough was enough and bailed before filming got underway. Dark Phoenix is like A View to a Kill, the 007 entry in which poor Roger Moore needed a walker more than he needed another shag with a Bond babe. Dark Phoenix is like Police Academy 5: Assignment: Miami Beach, so feeble that it couldn’t even keep series star Steve Guttenberg in its clutches. Wait, scratch that: Nothing is as bad as those infernal Police Academy movies.
The point is that the X-Men franchise should never have ended on such a dreary note. While the rest of you have the Avengers to keep your thoughts warm on a cold winter night, I had the X-Men. It was my favorite comic book as a kid, and the 2000 X-Men, the movie that primarily jump-started this entire cycle of superhero cinema (although Blade, which preceded it, also deserves a salute), was like a godsend to those who had long dreamed of seeing Wolverine, Cyclops et al on the silver screen. X-Men, X2, X-Men: First Class, X-Men: Days of Future Past — all excellent (X-cellent?), and all indicators that this was that rare franchise with more highs than lows (and this is coming from someone who thinks Logan from the sister series is vastly overrated).
None of that counts for naught in the face of Dark Phoenix. In comic lore, the Dark Phoenix saga is one of the greats, and X-Men: The Last Stand botched the assignment when it tried to transfer it to the multiplex. Dark Phoenix is yet another stab at the same material, and it mangles the task even more horribly than its predecessor.
Of course, The Last Stand was one of the films that featured the X-Men as adults, whereas Dark Phoenix arrives as part of the reboot that imagines the characters as younger versions of themselves. Thanks to inspired writing and spot-on performances, this worked beautifully in First Class and Days of Future Past, but some ill-advised casting and lack of depth in the characterizations turned Apocalypse and now Dark Phoenix into basically Muppet Babies X-Men, as Sophie Turner (Jean Grey/Phoenix), Tye Sheridan (Scott Summers/Cyclops) and Alexandra Shipp (Ororo Munroe/Storm) fail to capture the essence of their iconic characters (only Kodi Smit-McPhee as Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler seems likely to morph into the older version of himself, the one played by Alan Cumming in X2).
As before, Jean Grey is exposed to extra-terrestrial elements that transform her from the heroic Phoenix into the villainous Dark Phoenix, and it’s up to the others to either save her or destroy her. Those who seek to assist her include Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), while those who want to off her include Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult). Entering the proceedings as a wild card is the alien evildoer Vuk (a dull Jessica Chastain), who hopes to absorb Jean’s newfound powers and use them for her own nefarious purposes.
Even when the results are as accomplished as those in Avengers: Endgame or the Star Trek reboots, it’s becoming increasingly irksome to watch all these alternate reality storylines that basically wipe away years of investment in earlier movies and their attendant characters. That’s most pronounced in Dark Phoenix, since we’re now made to accept that The Last Stand never existed. Yet Famke Janssen’s turn as Jean Grey was worthy of our sympathies as to the heroine’s fate, a condition gravely missing from this latest rendition. Turner is a colorless Phoenix, and with little built-up backstory to this new interpretation of the role, nothing’s really at stake.
Jean isn’t the only character to receive rough treatment. Inexplicably, Charles Xavier has been refashioned as a self-centered glory hound who craves public adulation and thinks nothing of tampering with the minds of his young charges. Honestly, this interpretation of the character is only slightly less offensive than the one displayed in Logan, the dotty old man forced to sit in his own piss and vomit as his brilliant mind faded away. As for Mystique, she’s largely a non-entity here, although that’s more on Lawrence than even on the scripters. Rarely have I seen a performer so bored with her role — if you squint really hard, you can probably spot her in the background of various scenes checking her watch repeatedly.
On the plus side, there’s Fassbender, who’s probably just as bored as Lawrence and McAvoy but does a better job of masking it. There’s also an extended battle aboard a train that provides the expected action in satisfactory style. Otherwise, Dark Phoenix is a dour and depressing disappointment. The X-Men franchise may yet rise again from the ashes, but for now, it’s still being administered its last rites.