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Friday, June 7, 2019

Review: Dark Phoenix

By Kurt Loder - June 07, 2019 at 07:00AM

There are several things wrong with Dark Phoenix. I'm tempted to say everything is wrong with it, except that the picture is largely in focus and the credits appear to be correctly spelled. Other than that, though…

If Disney really wanted to throw $200-million up on the screen and flick a match at it, it would make sense that they would hire Simon Kinberg to direct this movie. Kinberg has labored long in the X-Men vineyards, as both writer and producer. In fact, he cowrote X-Men: The Last Stand, the widely reviled (but not unprofitable) 2006 entry in the series. That movie attempted to incorporate within its tumult the tale of Jean Grey, the Dark Phoenix, a hallowed story arc in the Marvel comics universe. Kinberg has since admitted that the script he coauthored (with Zak Penn) failed in this regard. So when it was decided to take another whack at the Phoenix story, who better to bring in to write it—all on his own this time—than Simon Kinberg? And who better to direct the movie than, again, Simon Kinberg—a man who has never directed any sort of movie before, let alone one of the big galumphing blockbuster variety.

Here we have the result of those unfortunate decisions. The picture has a sometimes cheesy look—at one point there's an exterior sequence, situated on a suburban street, that might have been shot somewhere just off the New Jersey Turnpike, so lacking is the setting in any sort of visual interest. We're also treated, yet again, to the sight of an angry super-mutant towering up into the air with a menacing scowl, preparing to rain down havoc on the lesser characters gibbering away below. And while we're long past the point where complaining about an over-reliance on digital effects in these movies will be greeted with anything but mockery, there can be no ignoring the mistily unconvincing CGI with which this film is so generously endowed. (There's one strong action sequence toward the end, set on a train, but it's hard not to think of Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer while you're watching it.)

The actors are fine, but their characters, after 19 years of wearing out their welcome, seem as weary as we are. (They may soon be getting some overdue R&R now that Disney, which owns Marvel, has also engulfed Fox—which owned the X-Men, along with the pitiful Fantastic Four—and will presumably be stirring its newly acquired mutants into Marvel's well-established MCU.) Peacenik Professor Xavier (James McAvoy), still serenely gliding around in his wheelchair, is now so tight with once-hostile humanity that he has a hotline to the U.S. president installed in his office. (When something goes wrong out in space, Xavier rallies his forces and then tells NASA, "Not to worry, Mission Control, help is on the way.") Meanwhile, Xavier's brooding frenemy Eric Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) has moved his rival Brotherhood of Mutants to a commune in the woods, along with his kooky Magneto helmet, which he keeps tucked away in a box.

Back at Xavier's mutant school in upstate New York, we find a new generation of young oddballs thronging the halls—something the OG X-Men are noticing, too. In fact, one of them, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), has decided it's time to move on and she wants Hank McCoy—her furry blue squeeze, Beast—to come with her. The familiar contingent of other super-folk is also on hand—snowy-haired weathergirl Storm (Alexandra Ship), super-speedy Quicksilver (Evan Peters), blue-tailed teleportist Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and laser-eyed Cyclops (Tye Sheridan). But these ancillary X-Men are given little to do. This is, after all, a movie purportedly about Jean Grey (Sophie Turner, of Game of Thrones), the telekinetic telepath known, in her more dangerous moods, as Dark Phoenix.

Jean's backstory is sketched in quickly. (One good thing to be said for this picture: it clocks in at less than two hours.) At the beginning, in 1975, we witness the catastrophe that deprived little Jean of her parents and led her into the sheltering arms of Professor Xavier. Years later, in 1992, when Xavier dispatches the X gang on that aforementioned space mission (the real-life U.S. Space Shuttle Endeavour is being besieged by a fierce CGI force of some sort), Jean is chosen to board the distressed ship and stabilize it. Unfortunately, she is attacked by the intergalactic entity, which sets up shop in her mind, to chaotic effect. (One of the main characters will not be bouncing back from a violent encounter with this Dark Phoenix manifestation of Jean's personality.)

Jean's unhinged behavior soon draws the attention of a detachment of wandering aliens whose homeworld has been destroyed by the same "Phoenix Force" that is afflicting Jean. The leader of this group is an icy character called (in the credits, at least) Vuk, played by Jessica Chastain in white hair and white eyebrows. (She seems primed for some serious Edgar Winter cosplay.) Despite her deep-space origin, Vuk has a sadistic dislike of the weak and the hobbled that has an unpleasantly terrestrial familiarity. Badmouthing Xavier, whom Jean holds in such affectionate regard, Vuk asks, "Are you a scared little girl who answers to a man in a chair? Or are you the most powerful person on the planet?" Subsequently confronting Xavier himself, Vuk tells him, "She's not your little girl anymore." (If I may slip into spoiler territory for a moment, there follows here a scene of such baffling and repellent sadism with Vuk using her mind to lift Xavier to his useless feet and fling him around in a transport of pain—that defies understanding. There's no payback for this later in the film, and there'll be no sequel in which to address it, and it's hard to imagine an explanation for this scene's inclusion in the movie that wouldn't be entirely insufficient.)

There are in addition some inane girl-power flourishes (in a script written by a man). These reach a peak in an exchange between Xavier and an angry Mystique, who's tee'd off that the professor has turned into a fame whore and no longer does any of the hard work of guarding the world. "The women are always saving the men around here," she says. "You might wanna think about changing the name to 'X-Women.'"

In significant ways, the story here is as much about Xavier as it is about Jean Grey. Burdened with bad makeup (Turner's heavily penciled eyebrows have a presence all their own), Jean makes her way through the story only rarely displaying the turbulent emotions that are said to trigger the Dark Phoenix. (Kinberg is clearly not an actor's director.) Xavier, on the other hand, is taken to task at length for his long-ago protective behavior toward Jean (as he saw it), which is now being reevaluated as manipulative and sexist. For a movie that's set back in the '90s, this one feels clangingly up-to-date.


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