Dark Phoenix (2019) Review

Rating: 2 Stars

The following review contains spoilers.


Since the events of X-Men: Apocalypse, the X-Men have become famous and beloved. They have cosplayers and action figures, and the President of the United States has a special phone with a big X on it to call them in times of danger. When a Space Shuttle is hit by a strange energy, the X-Men modify the Blackbird and head into space, with no space suits or anything, but whatever. They manage to rescue the astronauts, but not before Jean Grey is hit by the mysterious energy, absorbing it all into her person.

The energy unlocks some barriers in Jean’s mind that Xavier had put there years ago, to protect her from remembering that she caused the car accident that killed her mother, and from realizing that her father was still alive, but simply didn’t want her anymore. With this knowledge, Jean goes a little bananas, and leaves the school to find her father. When the X-Men go after her, she loses control, killing Mystique and several policemen. She flees, heading for Magneto’s new commune (I think this is supposed to be Genosha but I’m pretty sure they don’t say it) to ask for help, but realizing he won’t accept her if he learns she killed his beloved Mystique, she runs from there as well.

Meanwhile, some shape-shifting aliens (though apparently they can only change shape once, since it never comes up again) have arrived on Earth looking for the Phoenix Force. It destroyed their planet, but if they can capture it, they can use it to rebuild. They track Jean down and convince her to transfer the power to them, though she doesn’t realize they plan to use it to terraform the Earth into their new homeworld. Also, the X-Men are hated again (they even disconnect the phone!), because Jean attacked those cops.

Best Parts:

It’s nice to see the X-Men working together and using their powers in creative ways to save the astronauts (though would Storm’s weather powers work in the vacuum of space?).

Overall the action and the special effects are all pretty good, actually. The X-Men fighting on the streets of New York about whether to save Jean or kill her looks pretty good. The fight on the train looks pretty good.

I sincerely admire the restraint in not having another showy Quicksilver setpiece in this one.

Worst Parts:

Once I start to get distracted by something, it’s hard for me to shake it off. I spent a lot of this movie baffled at the choice to have each one take place about 10 years later, while also not acknowledging the passage of time in any way. By this time, Hank McCoy should be in his early 50s, but he’s still just boyish Nicholas Hoult, looking like a dude in his 20s. And what the hell happens in the next eight years to turn Michael Fassbender into year 2000-era Ian McKellen? No one was forcing them to skip a decade between films. Why, why, why did they do this?

Maybe the X-Men just doesn’t work as a movie franchise, because the comics rely so heavily on history and time spent with the team. The filmmakers seem completely oblivious to why the Dark Phoenix storyline in the comics worked as well as it did, and became so iconic. It matters that readers had spent years with Jean Grey, and that she was one of the most well-liked members. It matters that there were other adventures after she became Phoenix where she seemed to have it under control. This time spent building and maintaining affection for her and the other characters is why the story was so devastating at the time. Nobody cares about this new Jean Grey (and sorry but Sophie Turner’s performance is not good), and nobody cares when she gets the Phoenix Force in the first 10 minutes, and nobody cares when she almost immediately goes bad.

While we’re at it, it also matters that she was the one who chose to absorb the energy of a star, killing an entire planet of billions, and that she was the one who, overwhelmed with the guilt, took her own life in a moment of lucidity. Somehow the movie both exonerates her, by killing off the D’Bari planet before the movie even started, and then making the surviving D’Bari remorseless killers, while also making Jean even worse by showing her deliberately hurting people, and not just carelessly absorbing a star without thinking about the consequences to the solar system it inhabited. This isn’t a story about absolute power corrupting, because Jean goes from “I’m not trying to hurt anyone, but I can’t control it” to “Let me torture you, Professor” and back again in the same scene.

And hey what’s up with the D’Bari anyway? You can shoot one of them 50 times with an assault rifle, and they’re fine, but if Magneto stabs them with a piece of metal, or Nightcrawler snaps their neck (yes, that Nightcrawler; he’s a deadly killer now I guess) they go down for the count. It’s like their one weakness is a named character.

Why the big scene of their comic-inspired character costumes at the end of X-Men: Apocalypse just to go to generic yellow-and-black costumes in this one? It’s better than no costumes at all, but it’s odd.

Dark Phoenix may not be a trainwreck, though they do actually wreck a train, but it is boring. The Fox era of X-Men movies, after 19 years, goes out with a whimper. I’m not saying I wanted a bigger or louder action climax, mind you, just a movie that felt like it meant something, with characters people cared about, doing things that mattered.

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