With Disney officially acquired Fox’s entertainment asset since March 2019, it comes to no surprise that Fox’s X-Men movie franchise is going for a full reboot route to accommodate with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in the coming future.
And so, here we are: X-Men: Dark Phoenix (or simply known as Dark Phoenix in the stateside) would mark the final instalment of Fox-era X-Men saga, which made its debut 19 years ago back in 2000. I still fondly remembered when the first X-Men arrived in the cinemas at the time when the superhero genre was still in shambles (mind you, this was way back before the MCU forever changed the movie landscape and turned superhero genre into a mainstream moneymaking success). Thanks to Bryan Singer’s efficient direction, it got off to a positive headstart and over the course of nearly two decades long, the franchise has endured its fair shares of ups and downs.
If the word “Dark Phoenix” sounds familiar to you, that is because it has been infamously done before in X-Men: The Last Stand in 2006 — the third instalment of the original X-Men trilogy single-handedly ruined by Brett “the franchise killer” Ratner. Simon Kinberg, the co-writer who also responsible for the script, was given a second shot to retell the comic’s famous Dark Phoenix Saga all over again and even took the director’s seat for the first time ever.
But before I proceed with my review, here is a brief synopsis of the movie: Following an outer-space rescue mission where Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is hit by a mysterious cosmic force, she miraculously survived but returns home as a different person. She soon develops a series of conflicting personalities that subsequently endangered the rest of the X-Men team members as her now-infinite power begins to consume her from inside out.
Unlike the previous X-Men movies — particularly the team-up versions — Kinberg’s overall visual approach is aesthetically grounded and more personal. Which is actually fine by me if his direction happens to be good enough. Although he does show some promises during the engaging opening sequence as well as displaying a few solid visual flairs (the slow-motion car crash and the outer-space rescue mission setpiece come to mind), most of the movie feels curiously hollow. I can see he’s trying hard to make his story atmospheric. But the so-called emotional weight is neither strong nor involving enough, even with all the primary focus on Jean’s internal struggle with her newfound power. This is where the problem lies: Sophie Turner’s portrayal as the younger Jean Grey. It’s not that she’s a bad actress. In fact, I enjoy her role as Sansa in TV’s Game of Thrones. It’s just that her role as Jean Grey isn’t given a sufficient emotional arc to make me invested with her tragic character. This is especially true since X-Men: Dark Phoenix is only her second movie playing the Jean Grey character after 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse. It would have been better if Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey was introduced way earlier in the X-Men universe, allowing enough time for the fans and audiences to grow with her character.
It doesn’t help either when the movie itself is streamlined to a two-hour length. Given this is supposed to be the culmination of the X-Men saga, such length obviously isn’t enough to wrap up the whole cinematic universe. Then, there’s the introduction of the mysterious shapeshifting alien species led by Jessica Chastain’s character. Neither solid, let alone worthwhile character development nor backstory is given whatsoever that justified their existence as one of the movie’s main antagonists other than serving a superficial purpose as stereotypical villains. Which is a pity to see a talented actress like Jessica Chastain being largely relegated into an underwritten supporting role.
The rest of the cast is adequate at best, even though some of the recurring characters are written haphazardly. This is particularly evident with the return of Michael Fassbender’s role as Magneto, whose character seems to be forcefully shoehorned into the movie just for the sake of making his presence known. But nothing beats the way Kinberg handles Jennifer Lawrence’s character as Raven/Mystique. Put it this way, she has been pivotal since her appearance in 2011’s X-Men: First Class and all she gets at the end is an abrupt send-off? Her subsequent death — which is hardly a spoiler-territory since it’s already revealed in the trailer itself — in the movie isn’t as impactful as it supposed to be. Which immediately reminds me how some of the major characters were killed off in X-Men: The Last Stand.
As mentioned earlier, I admired some of Kinberg’s keen visual flairs in the action department. But not all of them are worth praising here, as evidently seen in the climactic third-act that takes place in a military train. It was supposed to be the biggest set-piece in the movie and yet, Kinberg alongside cinematographer Mauro Fiore and editor Lee Smith favours lots of unfortunate quick cuts and whip pans. Perhaps he tries to add a raw intensity into the action sequence but somehow, it doesn’t work since it makes the elaborate choreography look like they are all hastily put together.
Originally scheduled to be released last November but got pushed forward to February 14 before postponed again to early June due to an extensive reshoot, it’s easy to see why X-Men: Dark Phoenix feels like a rejected product. Going in with a low expectation prior to the screening of this movie, I was actually hoping that Kinberg could prove me wrong. Sadly, that didn’t really happen. If only X-Men: Dark Phoenix is handled by a more experienced director, the result would have been potentially better than expected. But for what it’s worth, I have to admit it has been quite a cinematic journey of love-and-hate affair for the Fox-era of X-Men franchise for the last 19 years.