Superhero fatigue. We keep hearing about it. Is it a thing? Well, like them or not, superhero movies have been around popular culture (in their current incarnation) for two decades now. In fact, this summer we see the X-Men franchise entering (almost unprecedented) new territory with its eighth film release. How does the newest installment stand-up? Is it a must-see, or a must-miss? Here’s everything you need to know about Dark Phoenix.
Dark Phoenix is the latest entry in the long-running X-Men franchise. This time out, the film examines the relatively well-trod story of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and her… impressive… set of powers. Series stars James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Holt all return to their established roles. Simon Kinberg directs the feature from his own script.
Jean Grey’s story is a popular one, not only in the comic book franchise, but also in the films. As followers of the lovable mutants will know, this is the eighth X-Men movie audiences have seen in the last 20 years. Could there be a little “X-fatigue” setting in?
The movie is called Dark Phoenix, as a result, much of the film’s weight sits on Sophie Turner’s more than capable shoulders. Luckily, the young actress (fresh off her dynamic turn on Game of Thrones) is more than up to the task. She proves herself to be a perfect casting choice for the complicated Grey, managing to not only bring her signature strength, but a sympathetic likability to the role.
Unfortunately, the film misses a bit of an opportunity to capitalize these fascinating characters due to Kinberg’s tenuous script. As to be expected, the movie’s action is very much centered around this group of individuals, as well as how they react to the changes spiraling around Jean. As a writer, Kinberg can’t quite decide who his protagonist is. While Jean is very much the focus of the story, the writer/director keeps trying to shoehorn Professor Xavier (McAvoy) into the narrative as the protagonist. This doesn’t work. In fact, the repeated attempts to inject his perspective into the story actually backfires, serving to actually make the legendary character unlikable. This isn’t his story, and truthfully, Dark Phoenix doesn’t need to lean on Xavier as a framing device.
Professor Xavier is the heart and soul of the X-Men franchise. Prior to this film, James McAvoy’s likable and personable portrayal has truly solidified him in his predecessor’s (Patrick Stewart) more than formidable shoes. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t support this. In this movie, Xavier has apparently forgotten exactly what makes him likable. Even the characters around Xavier see this, but this film doesn’t seem to be in on the message. As everything comes to its inevitable conclusion, Xavier ends up feeling like the narrative weak point. The once authoritative, likable and familiar head of the X-Men becomes starkly passive, yet seems set on imprinting his perspective on that story. It is he is who wants to define Phoenix’s actions, it is he who must justify what he did to her as a child, and above all it is he who decides she must be forgiven. Jean doesn’t need to be forgiven.
Dark Phoenix brings some really interesting undertones of a growing sense of feminism within the franchise. With the presence of the naturally strong-willed Jennifer Lawrence, Sophie Turner and the fierce Jessica Chastain, it’s only natural. And ultimately, it is the strength of the female characters which dominates this movie. Whether it is the relationship shared between Raven (Lawrence) and Phoenix, or the quirky persona exploration of the (criminally underutilized) Jessica Chastain, there’s a lot here to like.
There’s an interesting shift in Dark Phoenix, which is summed up best by Raven when she suggests the group should be called “X-Women”. The ladies shine the brightest in the movie. Whether it is the presence of Jennifer Lawrence, Sophie Turner or Alexandra Shipp as Storm, the ladies are far more memorable than their masculine counterparts. They are fierce, active and above all feel true to themselves.
The main point where the ladies struggle is in the portrayal of Vuk (Chastain). While the actress gives a traditionally dominating performance, there is little script depth to support her antagonist. Her character’s name is so rarely given that it required an IMDB look-up to write this review, and at times, she seems only needed for delivering exposition. If you have Jessica Chastain in your movie, use her for crying out loud! She is not a plot device.
At the same time, the script looses direction as it relates to the boys. The struggles with the passivity of Xavier are doubled in Magneto (Fassbender), Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan). While these men stand as some of the most interesting characters to grace the pages of X-Men comics, in Dark Phoenix they are largely defined by questionable character motivations. As a shaken and vulnerable Jean comes to find Magneto in the second act, is it truly believable that this champion of mutants in need would really turn her away?
As the second act takes shape, these characters are so one-note in their hatred of Jean (and in Cyclops’ case, puppy love) that the character development feel hastily written and purely generated for story contrivance. How has this film managed to loose a feel for Magneto, one of the most complicated and interesting characters in the history of Marvel comics? Michael Fassbender continually emerges as a strong performer in the X-Men movies and its a shame to see them struggling so much with the characters, especially in the hands of so many solid performers.
Finally, this franchise has seen much better days as a visual art form. Could this be a case of budget cuts? Could this be rushed special effects? It’s tough to say. However, there are moments where Dark Phoenix doesn’t feel as polished as its predecessors. Luckily, the film doesn’t bring the action level of some of the earlier X-Men films, so its less noticeable. However, in the moments where it goes all out superhero, as in (one) if the climatic battle sequences on a New York street, the struggles are real. Very real.
Ultimately, there is no denying that Dark Phoenix struggles in the face of some of the franchise’s previous films. In truth, it’s a shame. The movie crafts some very interesting work, especially in the smart casting of Sophie Turner as the conflicted Jean Grey. The actress is perfect in the role, and the thoughts of where she can take the part are tremendously exciting. However, there are too many problems and inconsistencies to make this stand apart from other entries into the X-Men universe.
Dark Phoenix is in theaters now.