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EUR Review: ‘Dark Phoenix: An X-Cruciating X-Perience’

*Nineteen years ago, when “X-Men” first hit the silver screen, it had Hugh Jackman, freshness, character development, a cohesive script, neat action scenes and the feel that everyone involved was having a good time.

Dark Phoenix“, the latest and – unless Disney surprisingly releases “New Mutants” on anything other than a Hulu schedule – last big-screen version of this property, before Disney decides to reboot it to have it fit with its Marvel Cinematic Universe, has none of these elements.

It is an absolute mess. Given the characters and actors involved, the result is one of the most disappointing films you will ever see. Minutes after “Dark Phoenix” gets underway, it becomes apparent why the picture has received a franchise low Rotten Tomatoes score from critics, 22 percent, when 9 of the 12 X-films have received 57% or higher – even the much-maligned “X-Men: The Last Stand”, which also was a Dark Phoenix story that featured the original cast – and almost ended the franchise.

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Director Simon Kinberg swore this take would be different. He was right. This film is much worse. The first scene we see eight-year-old Jean Grey (Summer Fontana) in a a car with her parents. At first, she argues about wanting to hear a different radio station, then we see her switch it. Then, for some inexplicable reason, Jean seems to be battling with herself and lashes out with extreme force, causing a a car accident that, she is told by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) , has killed both her parents.

The scene encapsulates many of the problems of “Dark Phoenix” right off the bat. For one thing, it is never explained why she acted in such an extreme way. Is she schizophrenic? Is she already feeling the Phoenix Force? For another thing, mutants are not supposed to gain their powers until they reach puberty, so how does an 8-year-old have not only signs of her power, but is able to display and exhibit such abilities at a young age? None of this is even explored in the film.

Worst of all, Jean asking if her parents are dead and Xavier responding that they are, are both delivered with no emotion whatsoever. Not even shock on Jean’s part or any hint of sorrow, empathy or steely resolve from Xavier. Just totally flat, monotone delivery from both Fontana and McAvoy. So, what should be a strong, powerful scene isn’t.

Seventeen years later, the X-Men are asked to respond to a distress signal from the space shuttle Endeavour, by the President of the United States (Brian d’Arcy James). The astronauts are in danger thanks to damage by what they feel are solar flares, but is really the Phoenix.

Sounds exciting, right? You’d be wrong. Xavier going against the concerns of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) to impress the President is out of character and out of the blue. However, what’s worse is that this is done so quickly, the X-Men seem to have no plan. They are discussing the mission as they are engaging in it, seemingly making it up as they go along.

Cast of Dark Phoenix
Cast of Dark Phoenix

You know, like this film’s screenwriters. Then, their use of powers, in the vastness of space, is never plausible. This is especially true since we never see them training. But even if we had, that would not make any more of the rescue mission more believable. Then, when one astronaut has been missed, Mystique tells the X-Men to get to safety, while Xavier puts his students at risk. As a result, Jean is stranded and ends up absorbing all of the energy into her body. She survives and he powers are amplified astronomically as a result.

Oh, and the mental block placed in Jean’s mind to help her control her natural mutant abilities is also destroyed This still makes for what can be a great psychological character study of Jean. Or of the dynamic between Mystique and Xavier. Again, there is no real emotion. No character building. Worse, there is no building to moments. Almost no payoffs where there should be tons. When the mutants at the school, including a first-time-on-film Dazzler singing (Halston Sage), are celebrating, Jean, walking with Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), is triggered not by a danger or even an insult, but something innocuous, which causes mass destruction.

But was anyone seriously hurt? Why didn’t Dazzler use her light powers? How do the students now feel about Jean? Does anyone feel she should be “contained” until they can find what’s wrong with her? Again, these questions are never answered. Jean just acts confused and torn and then lashes out. But in a film that supposedly centered on “strong women”, having Dazzler appear but not assist the team in any way is a blown opportunity. Jean then is inspired to travel to her hometown of Red Hook, New York – where she makes a startling discovery. However, instead of dealing with what should be a powerful twist, Jean asks confused and torn – and then lashes out. Sound familiar?

This results in an injured Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and a really tragic fate for Mystique. But again, what should be a powerful moment is negated by the illogic of the character’s actions, trite dialogue and amnesia about her powers. Someone as battle-tested, intelligent and strong as Mystique walking inches away from someone she has already seen lash out and who she knows is incredibly powerful does not make sense for her character. At the very least, she would be prepared for an attack. Most importantly, a character who can transform themselves into various creatures and can, for instance, move their heart to the other side of their chest, should not have been so easily dealt with.

It’s like you can hear Jennifer Lawrence screaming, “Get me out of this franchise!” Jean then travels to a mutant refugee area – it’s called Genosha, but I don’t remember them calling it that – to seek assistance from Magneto (Michael Fassbender) in controlling her powers. Before he can consider it, she finds herself in battle with U.S. military forces tasked with her arrest.

In response – repeat after me – Jean asks torn and confused and then lashes out. This wouldn’t seem so monotonous and boring if Turner showed Jean a bit more angrier, a bit more powerful, each time or if she then explained her anxiety afterward. But none of that happens. As a result, the scenes come across with a certain sameness, almost to the point of being carbon copies of each other. Fassbender is one of the few who truly brings his A-game here. His concern for his Genoshans and anger at learning of Mystique’s death are palpable. But the script fails even him.

For starters, what the heck is he doing in charge of a U.S.-government approved refugee area anyway? In the previous two films alone, we hear or see him blamed for the death of JFK, attack Nixon and ally himself with Apocalypse. Did Xavier get him a pardon? Did something else happen? We’re never told.

While Fassbender is the highlight of the film, the same cannot be said of Jessica Chastain, who plays a villain so forgettable, I had to Google her name – even immediately after seeing the film. Chastain plays Vuk, the leader of a shape-shifting alien race known as the D’Brai, who manipulates Jean.

Despite being able to shape shift, the script finds it is required to slaughter those they impersonate, which is wholly unnecessary to the story. Again, the script fails big-time here. Why does Vuk want the power of the Phoenix now, after it’s already latched onto someone? Why is Jean so troubled and easily taken in by Vuk? Why lash out at her friends now, without the slightest provocation?

The younger mutants get short shrift here, as well. Until the final action piece, Alexandra Shipp seems a weak imitation of the Storm Halle Berry made famous. Kodi Smit McPhee has his moments as Nightcrawler, but they are few. After his early injury,the levity that Evan Peters brought to the previous two films is sorely missed. So are the badassery of Olivia Munn’s Psylocke and the coolness of Daniel Cudmore’s Colossus, neither of whom were included in “Dark Phoenix”.Worst of all is the raw deal Tye Sheridan’s Cyclops gets.

One of the core parts of “Dark Phoenix” in both comics and film is how love – particularly intense love – causes Jean to remember her humanity. In the comics, it was Scott. In “The Last Stand”, Scott was replaced by Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine as the one whose love got through to Jean. However, in “Dark Phoenix”, they are seemingly so intent on making a film accentuating “strong women”, you never even feel any passion between Scott and Jean. They never kiss. Heck, they never tell each other they love each other.

In short, they are so intent on making a film with seemingly “strong women”, they fail to give us “strong action sequences”, “strong acting”, “strong directing” and a “strong script”.

This film is a disappointment on almost every level. It’s only partially saved by the strong cast and strongly conceived characters. But most of its potential is turned to ash, as if burned by a Phoenix.

Grade: C-

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