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-[Film Reviews]-, English Language Film Industries, Hollywood

‘Dark Phoenix’ (2019): The Audacity of Blockbuster Mediocrity

Directed by: Simon Kinberg || Produced by: Simon Kinberg, Hutch Parker, Lauren Shuler Donner

Screenplay by: Simon Kinberg || Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Jessica Chastain

Music by: Hans Zimmer || Cinematography: Mauro Fiore || Edited by: Lee Smith || Country: United States || Language: English

Running Time: 114 minutes

I must remind others how hard it is for me to avoid X-Men schlock. X-Men, along with Batman, is one of the few mainstream comic properties I’ve followed since childhood. While their film adaptations are much less consistent than, say, Walt Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU, 2008-present), the characters on which those former brands are built are far more interesting than, say, a glorified werewolf archetype (The Incredible Hulk), a straightforward tech geek with daddy issues (Iron Man), fun yet bland nationalist propaganda (Captain America), and whatever the hell Thor is. I’m not saying the brooding anti-heroism of Bruce Wayne/Batman or the tortured relationship between Charles Xavier and Eric Lehnsherr is comparable to the works of Charles Dickens, but there’s a bit more going on, thematically, with both the Dark Knight and X-Men’s principal characters than the Avengers “learning to work together as a team.” I mean, Lehnsherr (also known as Magneto) was a fucking Holocaust survivor!

Jean Grey (Sophie Turner, right) unleashes her Dark Phoenix powers on an alien combatant.

In support of objectivity, however, I concede that while I’m drawn to certain, few (better) comics over others, MCU adaptations staring the bland characters of Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America have been, top to bottom, far more consistent. The MCU’s production values are unprecedented, their lead casting, superb, and their highlight installments (e.g. Iron Man [2008], The Avengers [2012], The Winter Soldier [2014], Infinity War [2018]), truly powerful blockbusters. 20th Century Fox’s X-men franchise, on the other hand, is an erratic, bipolar, feast-or-famine series whose timeline has twisted itself in knots for over a decade. While the highs of the Fox X-Men (e.g. X2 [2003], Days of Future Past [2014], Deadpool [2016], Logan [2017]) are equal if not superior to the MCU’s best, its lows (e.g. The Last Stand [2006], X-Men Origins [2009]) make Thor (2011) look good.

Enter Dark Phoenix, the final main installment in Fox’s X-Men franchise (the 12th overall, counting various spinoffs) preceding the acquisition of 21st Century Fox, Inc. by The Walt Disney Company, and directorial debut of longtime franchise writer-producer, Simon Kinberg. Though one final spinoff feature, Josh Boone’s The New Mutants (2019), releases this August, Dark Phoenix effectively closes the longest-running superhero film series in history, and not on a happy note as critical reviews and box office revenue indicate. A myriad of reasons, from the film’s complicated production to the aforementioned corporate merger of Fox and Disney, set the stage for this final X-Men installment’s lackluster debut; however, I’d argue few of these oft-discussed reasons explore the movie’s actual filmmaking, like most controversies surrounded popular culture phenomena.

Dark Phoenix is an alright movie, and not even in a it’s-not-as-terrible-as-you-think(!) sort of way. Kinberg pulled a halfway decent superhero blockbuster out of his ass through sheer perseverance and force of will, concluding the entire franchise with a good degree of closure a la David Milch’s feature-length Deadwood (2019) movie. Those expecting another Russo Bros. Marvel epic will leave disappointed, as I’ve stated with regard to certain previous X-Men features; these Fox superhero adaptations have long been smaller scale, dramatic films having more in common with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films (2002, 2004, 2007) and various other superhero releases, good and bad, from the early 2000s than the MCU-dominated blockbuster landscape of today. Aside from their R-rated, niche spinoffs (Logan, Deadpool, and perhaps The New Mutants), which achieve critical acclaim, there appears little room for mainstream blockbusters, and comic book-adaptations in particular, that aren’t part of Disney’s intellectual property or, say, James Cameron’s upcoming Avatar (2009) sequels.

Dark Phoenix’s problems have little to nothing to do with comic fan complaints about faithfulness to the source material, nor the presence of the ever unenthusiastic Jennifer Lawrence, but rather a muddled backstory to the titular space entity that infects co-lead Sophie Turner, questionable development with regards to James McAvoy’s lead, Charles Xavier, minor but uninteresting antagonists led by Jessica Chastain, and the questionable motivations of Michael Fassbender’s Magneto. Though I like how Turner’s character resolves her conflicts with the eponymous Phoenix by story’s end, her symbiosis with the extraterrestrial entity is confusing within the context of this movie and truly baffling when taken in context of the previous film, Apocalypse (2016, Turner ostensibly unleashes some kind of “Dark Phoenix power” to defeat Oscar Isaac’s villain years before her encounter with said Phoenix in this film). This and all other problems have to do with Kinberg’s screeenwriting or storytelling decisions.

Top: Our X-Men fly their jet into near earth orbit in the film’s opening act. Bottom: Team-leaders Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, foreground left) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult, foreground right) prepare to rescue a NASA team in distress.

As far as direction and visual style go, however, Kinberg proves adept at captaining a Hollywood tentpole production by himself. His visual compositions fit both action scenes and dramatic dialogue, rarely using handheld camerawork save when necessary (e.g. Nicholas Hoult cradling a dead castmember in extreme close-up), thus avoiding one of my biggest filmmaking pet-peeves. Much, if not most shots in Phoenix are motion-controlled rather than handheld or composited from digital FX, a rarity among modern blockbusters, and give the overall picture a smooth, buttery tone similar to J. J. Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek (2009, 2013, 2016). This noticeable yet not flashy cinematography compliments the film’s restrained set-pieces; I was shocked at how scaled back and quiet (re: not filled with computer generated imagery [CGI] shit-storms) the opening space-rescue mission was, as well as how the final battle on a train featured mostly hand-to-hand mutant combat and shootouts.

Combine all the above with a reasonable total running time of 114 minutes, and Dark Phoenix is an inoffensive, relatable blockbuster that is being chewed up and spit out not so much for being bad, as Screenrant’s John Orquiola pointed out, but rather for the sin of not being great. Blockbusters are no longer allowed to be “just OK,” if I may paraphrase Red Letter Media’s Jay Bauman, and that pop culture sentiment says as much about the hyper-competitive haze of modern media franchises as it does about the increasing homogeneity of theatrical content. Dark Phoenix is not a terrible film or even a disappointing one, but in fact a reliable, average Hollywood picture that needed to be about $150 million cheaper. Exit stage left, X-Men.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Dark Phoenix is closer in style to Spider-Man 3 (2007) than Endgame (2019), but it’s closer in quality to the latter than the former. Simon Kinberg’s first credit as a director doesn’t go overboard with special FX or apocalyptic set-pieces, a show of restraint I respect and appreciate. Furthermore, his dedication to composed cinematic drama with minimal handheld holds up well against modern Hollywood’s infatuation with imitating Paul Greengrass to the industry’s detriment.

However… Kinberg struggles to explain the origins of Sophie Turner’s semi-villainous urges, not to mention James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender’s shifting motivation throughout the story. Jessica Chastain’s minor villain is less distracting than your run-of-the-mill, filler MCU antagonist, but no more interesting.

—> ON THE FENCE: Much like Apocalypse, Dark Phoenix isn’t strong enough to convince naysayers only interested in another Avengers-type mega-spectacle. On its own merits, however, its quieter, more dramatic, more character-driven story is memorable to those of us uninterested in further CGI schlock, and unlike Apocalypse, contains none of the latter.

? Are those the same alien bad guys from Signs (2002)?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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