Film: X-Men: Dark Phoenix

It’s perhaps indicative of how low my emotional investment is in the X-Men franchise that I started X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019) without realizing I’d completely skipped X-Men: Apocalypse. I suppose it’s possible that having seen the previous film might have increased my appreciation for this one, but somehow I doubt it.

Dark Phoenix is an adaptation—and, I suspect, a bastardization—of the famous Chris Claremont X-Men storyline from the 1980s, focusing on Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). When the X-Men respond to a crisis to rescue an imperiled shuttle crew, the mission nearly costs Jean her life when a strange space anomaly engulfs her. She miraculously survives, but the incident imbues her with even vaster powers. Jean’s struggle to control these new powers increases when it turns out that Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) has been gaslighting her about her past for her entire life, which only exacerbates her emotional state. Jean’s predicament leads to the standard superhero team conflict that propels the rest of the film—can Jean be saved, or should she be eliminated?

Unfortunately, you won’t care, because Dark Phoenix is a joyless, rote, spectacle-forward exercise in superhero filmmaking with no heart. It certainly strives for it, mind you, imperiling familiar faces and begging the audience to worry about them. But somehow the vast ensemble—colorful heroes with loads of character and lore in their histories—is leeched of virtually any trace of personality. With the possible exception of Evan Peters’ snarky Quicksilver (whose role is quite minor), there isn’t a glimmer of humor or spark on the screen, not even from Beast (Nicholas Hoult) or Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), characters who should be wildly entertaining. The entire cast basically delivers the same performance: angsty and contentious. The exception is guest villain Jessica Chastain, who must have wondered why she signed on to play a bland, emotionless alien.

It doesn’t help matters that Dark Phoenix shares the core messaging issues of WandaVision, but without that show’s inventiveness and ambition. This is yet another story about a woman—like Wanda, or Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer— who is apparently too emotional to control her powers. Although Wanda’s crimes are more horrible than Jean’s (who at least isn’t at fault), the story of Dark Phoenix is a more egregious example of that tired, toxic trope, because there isn’t much more to it. The script seems aware of that, at least, calling our Professor X’s gaslighting and giving Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) some choice feminist words for him. But in the end, self-awareness just makes the issue more glaring.

Ultimately, Dark Phoenix just feels empty, and more than anything else reminds me why the MCU proper still holds my attention even at its weakest: it always, at least, has personality, and remains entertaining and fun even when it falls short. Aside from well executed fight scenes that strikingly bring certain mutant powers to the screen, Dark Phoenix doesn’t have much going for it.

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