X-Men: Dark Phoenix movie review: dark matter, done way too light

X-Men Dark Phoenix red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

A lazy treadmill of a sci-fi morality play that wastes a terrific cast. A numbingly dull game of mutant checkers that has no idea how to tell a woman’s story except filtered through the eyes of men.
I’m “biast” (pro): big fan of superhero movies
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, female coprotagonist
(learn more about this)

Haha, remember when, in 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse, the third episode in this current batch of movies about superpowered mutants, someone said, “Everyone knows the third movie is always the worst,” in a sort of preemptive meta deflection of the negative criticism it seemed to know was to come? Yeah, well, joke’s on everyone now, because Dark Phoenix, the fourth installment, is even worser still.

This is a lazy treadmill of a science-fiction action morality play that wastes a terrific cast of big talents — they look as bored as we are watching them — and has less than nothing to say. It trots out the occasional cliché of a “message” while neglecting to ensure that anything going on is remotely connected to that truism, and sometimes hypocritically undercuts itself. Explosions and superbattles trump all here, and yet even they are numbingly dull, tedious games of mutant checkers. Every character is nothing but a one-dimensional pawn on Phoenix’s board.

X-Men Dark Phoenix Kodi Smit-McPhee Sophie Turner
Fortunately, Charles Xavier just happens to have a plane that can reach space without any of those tedious booster rockets or massive amounts of fuel.

That starts with Jean Grey herself (Sophie Turner: Game of Thrones, Barely Lethal), one of the most powerful mutants — she can read minds and is intensely telekinetic — and the putative protagonist here. Except screenwriter Simon Kinberg apparently has no idea how to tell a woman’s story unless it is filtered through the eyes of the men around her. Mentors — Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy: Glass, Sherlock Gnomes) — and lovers — Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan: Ready Player One, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse) — and colleagues — Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult: Tolkien, Mad Max: Fury Road) — and admirers — Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender: The Snowman, Alien: Covenant)… they all spend a shit-ton of time talking about Jean and how much they love and respect her and how worried that are about her seemingly going evil, after absorbing a strange interstellar force cloud while on a mission to Earth orbit to rescue a space-shuttle crew. (Raven/Mystique [Jennifer Lawrence: Red Sparrow, mother!] does actually talk to Jean, rather than at her or around her, but the movie quickly shuts Raven up.)

X-Men Dark Phoenix James McAvoy Kodi Smit-McPhee Alexandra Shipp
“Fifty points to Gryffindor if anyone can tell me why we’re hanging around in a park at night. Anyone?”

“You have no idea who I am!” Jean cries in despair at one point. Neither does her own damn movie. She is shockingly indistinct. Later someone will snidely inform her that her “emotions” are a “weakness” (you already know what her response to that will be), as if that were even the shallowest of glosses on what is happening to her. It isn’t. A less generous interpretation of where her emotions take her is that the movie is frowning on her fully justifiable anger at all the men surrounding her who have lied to her, gaslighted her, and treated her with condescension. I’d love to see what a female filmmaker would do with Jean Grey’s journey. It might look something like the brilliantly feminist Captain Marvel, with which this movie shares some broad themes. (It also shares shapeshifting reptiles as the villains, led by an absurdly underused Jessica Chastain [Molly’s Game, Miss Sloane], though here they are generic aliens who merely generically want to take Earth for themselves. *yawn*) Kinberg also wrote 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, the worst of the batch in the previous cycle of mutant movies, which was also concerned with Jean Grey’s “Dark Phoenix” storyline (picked up from the comics). One wonders why he got another shot at it, particularly if this was the best he could come up with. (One also wonders why Kinberg, with zero feature-film-directing experience, got to graduate to his first such gig with this movie, which cost $200 million and yet couldn’t be more bland. Except that Hollywood seems to be falling over its own feet to give white men such juicy opportunities, which happen constantly.)

X-Men Dark Phoenix Sophie Turner Jessica Chastain
“Why didn’t you warn me, Turner, how appallingly these movies treat women? No paycheck is worth this!“

At a cursory glance, it seems as if Phoenix is about to come full circle, retroactively catching up to where we began with the story of these Marvel Comics mutants: the bulk of the movie is set in the early 1990s, just a few years before 2000’s X-Men. But not only does Phoenix end up wildly contradicting the earlier cycle of movies — this now indisputably set in a different timeline — it cannot even keep itself squared with its own cycle, consisting of, quick recap: 2011’s First Class, 2014’s Days of Future Past, and the aforementioned Apocalypse, from 2016. This does not feel like it is set in the early 1990s; it might as well be today, but that would be even more deeply problematic. For none of these characters seem to have aged since the early 1960s setting of First Class! The older characters should all be in their 50s and 60s. Magneto was in a Nazi concentration camp as a child! Beast and Mystique were in their very late teens in First Class, 30 years ago! None of this cast is anywhere near old enough to be playing these characters.

That’s not merely a problem of how everyone looks; much more profoundly, it is accompanied by the sense that little time has actually passed, that these characters have not, in fact, changed or grown over the course of decades. Dark Phoenix is appallingly insubstantial, for all that it wants to consider very dark matters. It has no weight to what it supposes is its human drama: it has no real interest in it. It cannot even be bothered to address the most basic idea that we’ve come to expect from comic-book stories, the ethics of using one’s superpowers. Lip service is paid to it, as in how Xavier is keen to show his mutants to be useful and not a threat to normal humans, but the moment it’s time for a bang-up fight, that’s all forgotten, and injury to innocent bystanders and massive property damage be damned. There might have been a time when summertime would-be blockbusters could get away with crap like this, but that time is long past.

see also:
X-Men: First Class (review)
X-Men: Days of Future Past movie review: time for hope
X-Men: Apocalypse movie review: everyone knows the third movie is always the worst

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