The Pitch: Five years after rebooting the X-Men franchise with 2014’s Days of Future Past and three years after muddying it up again with 2016’s Apocalypse, franchise screenwriter (and now director) Simon Kinberg gives the Dark Phoenix saga another go. Once again, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his gifted mutant students must contend with the twisted side of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). But this time there are other problems at hand, including an alien shapeshifter (Jessica Chastain) hell-bent on mass destruction, a principal cast ready to tuck and roll out of the franchise, and Disney executives waiting in the wings with moving boxes.
The Last Stand: It’s a shame that Brett Ratner had to go and waste that title back in 2006, as The Last Stand feels apropos for this latest chapter. Even beyond the reality of Disney waiting to take over the Marvel property, there’s a pungent malaise to the film that suggests this is old hat for most of the parties involved. Too many of its veteran key players seem to have checked out — particularly Jennifer Lawrence, who’s all but holding her luggage in her handful of scenes — and the flimsy character development in Apocalypse does precisely zero favors for the remaining stars forced to the front lines.
To be fair, Michael Fassbender still earns his paycheck playing the decent-but-not-evil-though-also-not-good Erik “Magneto” Lehnsherr, and Nicholas Hoult slams his fist down for a highlight reel moment as Hank “Beast” McCoy, but Dark Phoenix gives off the feeling that they’re around solely out of obligation. In a way, it feels like watching a small-town comic convention, where the only panels are for franchises that haven’t been out of commission long enough to build up the requisite intrigue. At one point the film even jokingly tosses around the word “senioritis” in a self-aware nod, but the overall tone is more funereal.
It’s a strange note given that the franchise got a proper ending two years ago with James Mangold’s Logan. When Dafne Keen rotated that grave marker to the side, it felt like a poetic sendoff to everything that preceded it, from 2000’s X-Men to Apocalypse. It was meant as a gesture to the first wave of X-Men films, but in hindsight, it happened to arrive when the series was facing a quick decline. Just months later, franchise face Bryan Singer would be outed for his history of sexual misconduct, and then word came that the Mouse House was devouring Fox.
So yes, Dark Phoenix really is the last stand for the franchise, only the film feels less like a triumphant battle and more like a violent skirmish waged by those who haven’t been told the war is over. That sense of futility is sharpened by this being the second time Kinberg has managed to fumble Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s legendary comic arc. To his credit, Dark Phoenix is at least an improvement from the mess he made with Ratner over a decade ago. To his benefit, the responses will likely be more apathetic than vitriolic this time around.
The First Stand: Very few names in Hollywood make the leap from the typewriter to the director’s chair within a week, but Kinberg has risen quickly. The seasoned producer and screenwriter made his television directorial debut on last week’s season finale of The Twilight Zone, and he likewise makes his feature film debut with Dark Phoenix. While it’s arguable that Kinberg could be out of his depth with such a project, a colossal blockbuster with an unenviable demand for spectacle, Kinberg’s faults aren’t actually behind the camera, but instead with his expected strong suit: the screenplay.
Whether it’s because the Dark Phoenix saga just isn’t for him, or because he’s solely accountable for the story and screenplay credits this time around, the cracks in the film can all be traced back to scripting issues. There’s little to no humor; whatever wit or spirit that once coursed through the franchise is completely absent, replaced by hypnotic exposition and stoic diatribes about humanity and power that would have Clark Kent rolling his eyes. Every line reads cold, calculated, and scarce of any semblance of humanity, doled out with the finesse of predictive text.
Turner, in particular, is done no favors. For a good third of the film she simply wanders around city streets while mumbling “What is happening to me?” When she does flip the switch, she’s tasked with chilling one-liners like “Are you threatening me? That would be a bad idea.” Terrifying. Rivaling her is Chastain, whose character walks off the more intriguing path of a Cronenbergian being, only to adopt the more prescriptive role of a shoulder devil from an afternoon special. “Your emotion makes you weak,” Chastain intones, trying desperately to sell it with her chilling gaze.
All of this is distracting, and even laughable at times, but Kinberg soldiers through with a handful of effective sequences. That’s always been the luxury of this franchise, leaning on mutant powers and all, but Kinberg at least earns these moments by capitalizing on the utility of his eclectic rogues’ gallery. Whether they’re blasting into space to save a NASA shuttle, or fighting over a raised subway car to save Jean, or fending off an alien invasion on another moving train, the mutants always have a purpose, and the way Kinberg orchestrates them in each scene moves in sync with the great X-Men comics.
It helps that much of the story is pared down. Aside from its trips to space, this isn’t the large-scale adventure of the past two films. Most of the film’s action sequences are relegated to specific locations, and that’s when Kinberg thrives as a screenwriter and filmmaker. His imagination takes over, leading into tightly-wound sequences thriving on singularity and wonder. That’s something you can’t always say about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which tends to recycle epic battles between every other film.
Whoa, Hans Zimmer Scored This? Yes, and he’s easily the most emblematic facet of Dark Phoenix‘s general resemblance to a ’90s set picture. Zimmer dials back to his salad days (think Days of Thunder, Crimson Tide, and The Rock), revisiting an era when his larger-than-life themes managed to embody the orange skies onscreen. It’s a fitting marriage, given that so many of the aforementioned setpieces could have easily followed the lightning that bore the Bruckheimer/Simpson name. If only he dusted off “Brothers” from Broken Arrow.
The Verdict: Dark Phoenix could have been a climactic final chapter, even in the face of its tumultuous production. But for whatever blame lies with the Fox-Disney merger, or the series’ countless issues carried over from Apocalypse, it really boils down to Kinberg. After all, it was Kinberg who insisted on revisiting the Dark Phoenix saga, it was Kinberg who took it upon himself to write and direct the film, and it was Kinberg who had over a decade of hindsight to lean upon while he sorted through the rubble of what went wrong with The Last Stand.
In the end, he only improves marginally upon the past, bringing the franchise right back to where it was when it first burned out in 2006. There’s something poetic about that loop, especially given the metaphorical implications of the titular phoenix, but it’s why this most recent reboot was never built to last. There has long been too much reverence for what came before and very little respect for what could follow, and Dark Phoenix is the end result of that obsession. As such, there isn’t much to love, there isn’t much to hate, there’s mostly just indifference. That’s not how anyone should feel when watching a franchise die.
Where’s It Playing? Dark Phoenix descends upon theaters on Friday, June 7th.