The Last Stand Redux Slightly Improves
The Dark Phoenix story gets a redo thirteen years after the appalling X-Men: The Last Stand; a film I consider to be the worst in the franchise. Simon Kinberg, the writer of both films, makes his feature directorial debut with Dark Phoenix, and gets a chance to correct an egregious error. His second effort is better than the first, but the bar is admittedly low. Dark Phoenix has a loose narrative with a predictable plot and cardboard villain. A few action scenes are interesting, but the climactic showdown is near cartoonish with its obvious CGI effects. The strengths of the film lie in the characters. The X-Men and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) bring dramatic heft to the story. They continue to be convincing when the plot flounders.
Dark Phoenix takes place primarily in 1992. Charles Xavier’s (James McAvoy) mission of giving mutants a place in the world has largely succeeded. The X-Men are viewed as superheroes. Adoring children wear their costumes and play with X-Men toys. While Charles takes a victory lap and soaks up publicity, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) does not share his enthusiasm. The leader of the X-Men at the mission level, she feels they are endangering their lives to prop up a cause.
The X-Men are called in to rescue astronauts aboard the space shuttle. A mysterious solar flare has crippled the shuttle and cut off all communications. The X-Men push their ship to the breaking point. Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters) board the shuttle to save the astronauts. When the flare turns towards them, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) uses her tremendous power to save the astronauts and X-Men. While the world lauds their heroics, the space mission has an unexpected effect on Jean. She begins to remember the events that brought her to Charles Xavier as a child. A long held secret releases an uncontrollable anger that erupts in spectacular power. The Dark Phoenix is born.
Fans of Chris Claremont and John Byrne will appreciate a beginning more inline with the Dark Phoenix comics origin story. It melds perfectly into the brewing conflict between Professor X and Mystique. His leadership is openly questioned. Raising doubts in Beast (Nicholas Hoult) about his mentor’s motives. If only Simon Kinberg had kept the tension going. The film devolves into a hackneyed thread of mutant battles. A great underlying theme becomes diluted as the focus is put squarely on Jean Grey. Her transformation into the Dark Phoenix feels like flipping a switch. The same goes for her fellow mutants reaction to the change. It’s laughably apparent that something happened to Jean in space. Their lack of recognition is unbelievable and taints the remaining story.
The biggest problem with Dark Phoenix is the antagonist. Jessica Chastain is criminally wasted as the villain. I won’t get into her character’s specifics, but will say they’re never fully explored. Chastain, who’s decked out like an albino for no reason whatsoever, is robotic in her performance. Her efforts to control Jean Grey are weakly plotted and executed. Dark Phoenix was delayed by more than a year to do reshoots. It feels like Jessica Chastain’s character was cut or altered significantly in this process. Her performance in this film is not indicative of the tremendous character work we’ve seen previously. Simon Kinberg has to take a mulligan for squandering her talent.
Dark Phoenix recreates a couple of scenes from X-Men: The Last Stand. The standoff at Jean Grey’s house gets the redux treatment. It’s puzzling why Simon Kinberg would shoot these scenes again so similarly. My guess is that he was initially unhappy with how they turned out. Unfortunately, there isn’t much improvement on the second take. It unnecessarily draws comparisons to a failure that’s meant to be forgotten. Kinberg should have avoided hewing so close to the previous film.
The First Class and Apocalypse characters prop up Dark Phoenix. Professor X, Magneto, Mystique, and Beast play well with Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Jean Grey, Nightcrawler, and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan}. Quicksilver continues to steal the show, but he’s sadly just a blip in this film. Excellent casting holds the fort. Dark Phoenix has problems galore, is more entertaining than The Last Stand. That’s a victory I’ll take. Dark Phoenix is a production of Marvel Entertainment, TSG Entertainment, and The Donners’ Company, with distribution by 20th Century Fox. Now that Fox studios is owned by Disney, The X-Men will be under the purview of Marvel Studios and Kevin Feige. The franchise has a bright future with better installments.
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