X-Men: Dark Phoenix is the final chapter to a 20-year franchise which has lost its way as of late, unless we’re talking about spinoffs like Logan or Deadpool which worked really well. The good news is that Dark Phoenix is an improvement from its Apocalypse predecessor, the bad news is that the bar was already pretty low.
This is, of course, the second film telling the story of Jean Grey being consumed by a powerful cosmic force and losing control of herself, becoming the cause of some really bad things -- mostly based on an iconic comic book series published in 1980, written by Chris Claremont. In fact, the movie starts with one of those really bad things, viscerally and intimately showcasing a car crash involving Jean and her family, setting the tone for the movie as gritty and raw right out of the gate. Not only is the film an improvement from Apocalypse but it also sets a higher bar for the Dark Phoenix story than X3: The Last Stand did (which, again, is not a hugely flattering compliment).
Beyond the opening sequences, the movie loses a good bit of steam despite some cool cosmic sequences, especially Evan Peters’ Quicksilver getting his classic speedy moment, but in zero gravity this time. It isn’t until Michael Fassbender gets on screen as Magneto that Dark Phoenix really gets rolling again; Fassbender's the best thing to happen to Dark Phoenix. While his relationship with Jean as she seeks guidance isn’t particularly interesting, the dynamic with James McAvoy and his Charles Xavier character is as great as its ever been. Still, Fassbender’s Magneto and Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey take part in a compelling sequence in which they use their powers to fight over a helicopter without actually touching it, and it’s not the last time Fassbender gets to shine. Since the film isn't particularly grabbing, it will prompt thoughts of how Fassbender dove so deep into what looks like a vein-popping performance, because the actor thoroughly sells his outmatching against a stronger character.
Unfortunately for Jessica Chastain, her villain role is dull and the performance matches. This could be due to the many changes Dark Phoenix went through during production, many of which completely altered the villain’s story and the film’s overall conclusion, but the baddie here is never particularly interesting. It never allows Chastain to offer up anything much more than a monotone expression and delivery. It is sad that the end result has an otherwise talented actress used as just a straight up baddie merely one expositional line attempting (translated via subtitles) to explain her motivations.
Heading into the third act, the X-Men are finally unleashed in visceral form which could have bordered an R-rating but doesn’t quite cross any violence lines in such fashion. Magneto and Nightcrawler are the standouts of a showdown which is entertaining purely due to their powers, and director Simon Kinberg shows them off, easily topping an earlier battle in New York which was so clearly shot on the streets of London that it included a red double-decker bus. The actionm sequences leading to the conclusion are truly compelling and even awe-inspiring at points. If there was an emotional core to go with such action beats, Dark Phoenix could have found itself being a home run. Instead, it is uneven and makes awkward use of an F-word rather than connecting audiences with its cast and characters.
Luckily, Hans Zimmer's breathtaking score accompanies each beat which needs a hand in the emotion department.
In the end, Dark Phoenix is not the conclusion fans of the X-Men franchise might have been hoping for and it doesn’t make much of an effort to tie every narrative thread into a nice bow as the franchise is probably coming to an end here. It's a bit behind its time. Still, the movie is fun and safe movie for fans of the characters to watch in a theater with a bass-heavy sound system, and leaves the key characters well enough to remember them fondly.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Dark Phoenix is scheduled to release in theaters on June 7th.
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