‘Dark Phoenix’ has its merits, but falls apart as you’re watching it

Look how pretty! Images courtesy — oh, god damn it! Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios.

3/10 X-Men: The Last Stand was a doomed production. Franchise director Bryan Singer and two of X2’s writers had jumped ship to makeSuperman Returns, which had its own problems, and 20th Century Fox producers set a May 26, 2006 release date and refused to move off of it despite an inability to find a new director. After being publicly turned down over a period of several months by four different directors, including Matthew Vaughn who explicitly said he quit the job because he didn’t want to rush to meet Fox’s deadlines, Fox settled on their eighth choice in Bret Ratner, who finally began production in August 2005. The Last Stand released on schedule, which is the best thing that can be said for it.

X-Men: The Last Stand is one of the first film credits for co-writer Simon Kinberg, who has since made a powerful name for himself as a writer and producer of several high-performing movies, but has always remained involved in the X-Men franchise. Kinberg considered it a personal failure to have written an adulterated, studio-mangled adaptation of the Phoenix story, and revisiting it was unfinished business for him. This time, he would be in the driver’s seat – Singer, who had returned to the franchise, was stepping away again as his personal problems began to affect his work, and star Jennifer Lawrence demanded that Kinberg direct the next X-Men film.

But 13 years later, Dark Phoenix was also a doomed production.

On a mission to space to save the crew of the Endeavour, which is critically damaged by what appears to be a massive solar flare, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) absorbs the flare, which is revealed to be a cosmic god called the Phoenix Force – sort of. We’ll suss that out later. Grey’s psychokinetic powers are increased to astonishing levels, but she also develops extreme sensory overload issues that cause her to lose control of them. Now more psychically powerful than Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), she confronts him about the myriad secrets he’s kept from her about her power level and her parents, who she was told were killed in a car crash when she was 8. Meanwhile, skrulls from Captain Marvel green, alien shapeshifters called D’Bari, which have absolutely nothing in common with aliens from any other movie this year, led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain), hunt the Phoenix Force.

Dark Phoenix is one of those movies that I kind of don’t want to talk badly about because you can see the excellent movie it was meant to be peeking through the cracks. There are a lot of excuses I want to make here, but the bottom line is the movie is just not very good.

The core problem with Dark Phoenix is that it pulls in too many different plot threads and doesn’t forge them into a single story. Part of this comes from the source material, but much of it comes from the bloat of the X-Men franchise that now sits at a dozen movies.

Even in the comics, it’s kind of wishy washy as far as whether the Phoenix Force is an external cosmic entity, as it was originally drawn, or the manifestation of something that was always inside Jean Grey – not because it was ever intended to be an internal force, but because, in 56 years of publication, no one has ever thought of anything else interesting to do with Jean Grey, so this cosmic god keeps coming back to her and became a presumptive extension of her character as the plot point kept repeating over the years.

Dark Phoenix offers both these origin stories, which causes it to it to have essentially two distinct plots – the dark side Grey always had drives conflict with Xavier, and the cosmic god that’s possessing her drives conflict with Vuk.

A major strong point that Dark Phoenix mitigates for itself is Hans Zimmer’s score – it’s beautiful and threatening, but it’s so quiet you can barely hear it, and the rest of the movie doesn’t pause to give the main hooks room to ring. Kinberg personally convinced Zimmer to go back on his statement to not score superhero films, but then went back and buried that score.

The ‘10s leg of the X-Men series has had some public “inmates running the asylum” problems, mostly revolving around Lawrence. She was initially cast as Raven Darkhölme just before The Hunger Games made her a superstar, and she’s obviously wanted out of her contract ever since. Instead of killing her off, Kinberg and the rest of the creative team spent that time awkwardly stuffing her character into a Katniss Everdeen-like role as a revolutionary and a leader. In Dark Phoenix, Lawrence finally gets her way, and the movie also indulges McAvoy’s desire to portray Xavier in a negative light and Michael Fassbender’s desire to take his character, Erik Lehnsherr, to Genosha, a mutant sanctuary from the comics.

This leg of the series has also been marked by a strange relationship with its own continuity. At times they’ll make wild reaches to give side characters more screentime or explain their absence, but at others, continuity will be completely ignored.

In Dark Phoenix, this shows up in star moments for Peter Maximoff (Evan Peters) and Kurt Wagner (Kodi Smit-McPhee), but really it’s everywhere – because the movie doesn’t settle on a single story, just about everything feels like it could have been cut. Lehnsherr could have been removed entirely, but much more awkward are the allusions to Darkhölme’s and Hank McCoy’s (Nicolas Hoult) on-again off-again relationship and Scott Summers’ (Tye Sheridan) creepy, almost Twilight-esque relationship with Grey.

If all that weren’t enough, Dark Phoenix famously had to reshoot its entire ending in order to avoid being too similar to Captain Marvel. They all get arrested and have to repel a train heist from Vuk that feels straight out of a stagecoach movie.

Comics-savvy viewers, and really almost everyone, will know that Summers and Grey are star-crossed lovers in the comics, but all that’s been established about their relationship in this continuity is Summers’ awkward crush, so at a certain point in Dark Phoenix, Summers just starts touching her from behind, and it doesn’t feel OK at all. It’s a bad touch.

The thing about this kaleidoscope of disorganized plot points and scenes is none of them are necessarily bad. The principle conflict between Grey and Xavier is highly personal for both parties. Finally faced with a student he cannot control, Xavier is forced to examine how his pride and his ability to control others have guided his perceptions and led to some questionable actions. For her part, Grey is forced to come to terms with disquieting truths about herself.

Her outer conflicts with Lehnsherr and Vuk aren’t nearly as personal, but feel quite intimate as well. Where previous X-Men movies focused much more on physical fighters like Wolverine, Dark Phoenix has many battles between psychic combatants, which don’t have nearly as much visual language built into them, and Kinberg uses that freedom to make things feel personal – the fight between Grey and Lehnsherr feels particularly claustrophobic, in a good way.

The train sequence, which has more reason to feel out-of-place than anything else, is one of the scenes that feels the most natural, gracefully bringing both of Grey’s conflicts to a close, and is one of the better sequences in the entire franchise from a pure action perspective.

So the bloated plot isn’t the problem here, it’s how that plot is brought together, and it seems like Kinberg never had a clue how to do that. Even the two biggest plot threads in the movie, the ones surrounding Grey herself, don’t come together until the ending that wasn’t ever supposed to be shot.

It’s painfully obvious that this is Kinberg’s first time directing because he doesn’t seem to have a complete idea for the film. For scenes that work, he and cinematographer Mauro Fiore clearly had a strong framework going in for how they wanted things to play out visually, but there are plenty of scenes that seem like afterthoughts. The petulant resentment Lawrence oozes in each of her many scenes doesn’t help.

Dark Phoenix is getting a lot of press as the worst of the series, which it definitely isn’t – there are some truly irredeemable turds in the X-Men punchbowl. Dark Phoenix has plenty of strong scenes and is worth watching overall. It’s just not great.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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1 Response to ‘Dark Phoenix’ has its merits, but falls apart as you’re watching it

  1. Pingback: The crippling ennui of ‘Men in Black: International’ | Reel Entropy

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