Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.
About two-thirds into this latest chapter in the X-Men saga, our mutant heroes encounter soldiers wearing a patch that reads “MCU” on their sleeves. While never spelled out, this acronym is most likely intended to stand for Mutant Containment Unit, or something similar. With the movie being released in the shadow of Disney buying 20th Century Fox, however, those letters stand out as a sign of what is surely to come for all of these characters: their introduction into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While no such official plans have been announced, it is inevitable, meaning that Dark Phoenix—filmed prior to the deal—suddenly finds itself likely representing the last time we see these characters in their current iteration. Unfortunately, if that is the case, they are going out with a whimper.
Strangely enough, this wouldn’t even be the first time that a chapter of the X-Men franchise has ended with the Dark Phoenix saga. 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand ended the franchise’s original trilogy by focusing on telepath Jean Grey’s struggle with a dark power that possesses her and which she cannot control. Although the quality of that film has been well criticized, what that original trilogy did right was build up to the Dark Phoenix storyline by introducing Jean Grey as a main character in the first movie and lead up to her transformation in the second movie, before then making her the focus of the third film. In contrast, the Jean Grey who takes center stage in Dark Phoenix was only introduced one film ago in X-Men: Apocalypse and had a fairly minor role in that easily forgotten movie. Which means that the audience has very little investment in her character before suddenly being asked to buy completely into her struggle in this chapter.
The movie tries to make up for that by opening with a flashback to a crucial moment in Jean Grey’s past, the event that ultimately brought her into the care of Dr. Charles Xavier. Flash forward to the year 1992 and the space shuttle Endeavor has encountered some strange cosmic force out in orbit. The X-Men fire up the jet to perform a rescue and while trying to hold off the cloud of energy long enough for her teammates to save the shuttle’s crew, Grey ends up absorbing the power. Back home, she first feels better than ever, but shortly thereafter finds that she is unable to control this strange power within her. This uncontrollable power, combined with her learning about the secret Xavier has been keeping from her all these years, leads Jean down a murderous path.
Jean’s turn to the dark side also breaks the peace between the mutants and the rest of society, leading to the aforementioned encounter with the MCU soldiers. In addition to this, survivors of an alien race have come to Earth to reclaim the power that lies within Jean, in order to use that power to recreate their world. These aliens can take the form of any human they come across, with the humans being duplicated getting unceremoniously murdered.
The biggest offense of Dark Phoenix is not that it failed to properly establish the characters who would be most crucial to its storyline or that its action scenes are muddled and just plain uninteresting, but rather its complete failure to take advantage of the casting of Jessica Chastain as its Big Bad. Chastain is one of the best actors working in Hollywood today, but if her acting talent was her mutant power, then this movie slaps one of those power-inhibiting neck braces used by the MCU soldiers on her, completely neutering her performance. After her character’s body is taken over by the alien leader in her first scene, Chastain is forced to speak in a monotone voice and express no emotion or humanity. The result is that Schwarzenegger’s original Terminator felt more alive.
The aliens themselves are not well established. Outside of learning that their home planet was destroyed somehow, we know little about them. Their abilities are not even clearly defined. One moment, they seem invincible. The next, they are dispatched easily. Without giving any personality to these beings or better explaining their purposes, they only serve to steal away from the main storyline that could use all the extra time the movie could give it.
Sophie Turner as Jean and Tye Sheridan as Scott/Cyclops are talented young actors who do what they can with the emotional core of the movie, but the movie that surrounds them just is not very good. And it is unfortunate that this movie spends very little time focusing on the relationship between James McAvoy’s Professor X and Michael Fassbender’s Magneto. Their relationship was at the core of X-Men: First Class, the film that rebooted the X-Men franchise, setting it in the 1960s, and kicking off the current series of films that bounce from decade to decade. That relationship should have been the common thread through all four of those films, but it is all too forgotten about until this movie tries to make up for it with too little, too late in the end.
Having debuted all the way back in 2000, the 20th Century Fox X-Men franchise has played a major role in developing the dominant era of superhero movies that is still booming in Hollywood today. And so it is a shame to see it go out on such a down note. The Marvel Cinematic Universe beckons, however, and maybe a few years removed will be the perfect time to breathe new life into a comic franchise that offers many story possibilities. Though, perhaps the Dark Phoenix storyline should be retired for more than just a little while, having already killed the franchise twice, at least until the foundation for its characters have been properly established.
Dark Phoenix opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16, the AMC Kent Station 14, the Century Federal Way, and Regal’s Stadium Landing 14 in Renton.