Review: Dark Phoenix (2019)

Few films have put up as many red flags before release as Dark Phoenix – a fact that seems doubly sad when you consider the fact there’s yet another movie in this franchise giving off more. This film was plagued by production issues and was repeatedly pushed back, all while being carried by a man who had no business being in the director chair. Add on that it revisits a story that the series already dabbled in (and failed) while again neglecting to set it up properly, and Dark Phoenix has all the makings of a Hollywood disaster.

Conceptually, the Phoenix story line is hard to capture in a single film; that force works better as a building threat than an immediate antagonist, yet both films just spring it upon us. Though we’ve had twelve X-Men related films at this point, we don’t necessarily have a meaningful attachment to these specific versions of the characters; Phoenix as an invasive force doesn’t land when we don’t really care about this Jean Grey yet. Even if every other part of this movie was handled well, the impact would have still been muted by a lack of attachment.

Of course, this film isn’t handled well. You don’t need to get further than the opening flashback to get a taste. “You’re not like the other doctors,” young Jean has the nerve to say as she meets Professor X, who responds with an even more laughable “And you’re not like the other patients.” Cliche statements such as these plague the dialogue.

So much of this film feels like actors going through the motions, a simulacrum of a legitimate X-Men adaptation. Characters are burdened with dull motivation, earnestly pursuing goals they should be too smart to follow. It’s so painfully melodramatic; can the supposedly super-intelligent Professor X and Hank McCoy not think through their emotions? Every action is rash, serving the sole purpose of delivering our characters to the next set piece.

One particularly egregious scene has Jean meet up with Magneto in the hopes of asking for help – but she decides to show up in a blood-covered shirt. I’m not quite sure how the blood ended up there considering the incident that happened, but even ignoring that, can she not think through this enough to hide the blood or change her shirt first? Especially when she knows it belongs to someone important to Magneto that will likely set him off? Even if she didn’t have time to change, it’s established she can make people see her differently than she physically appears.

Jean is written as if driven by raw emotion, but I’d still expect her to have some sort of self-awareness here. It’s not like she somehow missed the blood, as an earlier scene shows her desperately trying to wash it out. This is a classic idiot plot, characters making stupid decisions that only make sense in the context of a writer trying to move a plot forward with no logical reason behind most of what happens.

Jessica Chastain’s Vuk and her alien associates are about as generic as superhero movie villains can be; I understand that they’re mainly a backdrop for Jean’s internal struggle with the Phoenix Force, but that doesn’t excuse how surface-level evil they are. They’re genocidal maniacs, the type that adds no moral complexities to the idea of watching our heroes slaughter them.

As a franchise, X-Men has always been a bit morose compared to other superhero stories; this is a series that tends to tackle prejudice and its surrounding violence. Dark Phoenix is dreary to the point of lifelessness, all while lacking any real moral relevance. There’s little here beyond poorly written character drama. Why make a blockbuster-style movie so consistently bleak while not bothering to say anything? It’s a relief this film has such cheesy dialogue, as it would otherwise be dominated by ineffective melancholy.

There are so many minor distractions that dot this film. This is set 30 years after First Class and features many of the same characters, yet none seem to have aged. I can understand Mystique due to her shape-shifting abilities, but why does Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey look just a few years younger than Nicholas Hoult’s Hank McCoy? Could they not have added some makeup to show some aging? There’s really no reason to have had so much time pass between these movies; all it does is muddle our understanding of the supposed timeline.

Dark Phoenix fumbles as expected, mishandling established characters with poor dialogue and worse motivation. The story is entirely structured around a few concepts and set pieces without finding a believable way to get from one to the next. The worst thing about this experience is that, after so many films, a lot of the people involved still know how to make an X-Men film on the surface; this is a semi-polished Hollywood production. None of these details drag the movie down into the truly awful territory. Instead, it’s joylessly bland.

2 Stars Out of 5

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