Car crash, train wreck… call it what you will.
It’s no coincidence the two events that bookend the final chapter of 20th Century Fox’s X-Men franchise perfectly describe “Dark Phoenix.”
The X-Men films under Fox were an up and down journey. From the highs of “Logan” and “Deadpool” to the lows of “X-Men: Apocalypse,” fans never knew what to expect heading into the theater. Then, there’s the unspeakable “X-Men Origins – Wolverine,” but at least it has some company at the bottom now.
When Disney completed its takeover of Fox back in March, it was clear the X-Men were destined for a reboot before being incorporated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That left “Dark Phoenix” to act as a send off for this era of mutants, but unfortunately, it’ll be one to remember for all the wrong reasons.
During a rescue mission in space, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) barely escapes with her life after being engulfed by what looks like a solar flare. But back on Earth, Jean quickly realizes she’s become far more powerful – and unstable – than ever before. After learning the truth about her childhood, hidden from her for years by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), Jean finally snaps, unleashing the full magnitude of her newfound powers. As Jean searches for revenge and truth, Charles, Erik (Michael Fassbender) and the rest of the X-Men discover Jean has become consumed by a dangerous cosmic entity – one the evil alien Vuk (Jessica Chastain) and the D’Bari race are after to weaponize.
As confusing as that last paragraph may feel, it still makes far more sense than anything on screen in “Dark Phoenix.” A combination of sloppy dialogue and worn-out performances turn an already jumbled story into a film that’s borderline unwatchable.
With the X-Men’s impending reboot on the horizon, it seems as if many of the franchise’s major players threw in the towel during “Dark Phoenix,” particularly Jennifer Lawrence as Raven. However, her makeup may be more telling than her lackluster performance. The transforming mutant’s signature blue scales have become fewer and fewer the more famous Lawrence has become, and what started as an all-out commitment to Mystique’s traditional appearance now looks like a handful of blue rhinestones pressed onto Lawrence’s forehead.
A majority of the X-Men’s soft reboot, beginning with 2011’s “X-Men: First Class,” has centered around the relationship between McAvoy’s Charles Xavier and Fassbender’s Magneto, setting the foundation for what they will eventually become. While the films have been advertised as ensemble adventures filled with superheroes, these two have always been at the core. Yet this time around, the focus shifted from the reluctant enemies and onto Turner’s Jean Grey. Turner was one of the few bright spots of the film, as she expanded on her character first introduced in “X-Men: Apocalypse,” but was still held back by a poorly crafted narrative and a lack of compelling dialogue.
Turner may have delivered a convincingly moving performance, but she was certainly the only one capable of producing any semblance of emotion. Instead, the death of major character can barely garner a single tear. *MINI-SPOILER ALERT* As if it wasn’t spoiled enough in the film’s trailer, Raven’s death early on in the film is used as a McGuffin to demonstrate the danger of Jean’s uncontrollable powers. While angered, Jean loses control, resulting in a blast that sends Raven flying through the air, impaling her on a wooden stake. Congrats Jennifer Lawrence, you can officially be done with X-Men now!
But what should be a heartbreaking moment ends up completely butchered. A central character to the X-Men universe has just tragically died, yet I feel nothing. It’s not like it’s glossed over, Raven’s death is a central event in the film’s story, but its impact never truly feels consequential, like deaths in other recent superhero movies have. Maybe it was the fact the death was totally given away by the trailer, maybe it was Jennifer Lawrence’s known unwillingness to continue with the franchise, but what resulted was a big moment with little payoff.
The greatest problem with “Dark Phoenix” lies in its lack of stakes. In its defense, this is due in large part to the upcoming reboot. Audiences know that none of this really matters, and in a few years we’ll have all new X-Men to root for, but until then, better care should have been placed on the franchise at hand. By shifting the story to focus on Jean and a team of young mutants no one is truly invested in, “Dark Phoenix” essentially removed audiences’ emotional connections to the franchise. What’s left is an ending that’s a disservice to the last two decades of the mutants.
As the movie comes to a close, Jean delivers a final voiceover that’s quite on the nose, saying, “This is not the end of me, or the X-Men. It’s a new beginning.”
Let’s just hope the new beginning with Disney and Marvel Studios results in a more stable series of mutants.
Star Rating: 1.5 out of 5
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.