'Dark Phoenix': What the Critics Are Saying
The end of the world is nigh in Dark Phoenix — or, at least, the end of Fox’s X-Men movie franchise.The film comes ahead of the inevitable relaunch as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, now that Fox has been acquired by Marvel’s parent company, Disney. Is it a happy ending for Charles Xavier, Magneto, Mystique, et al? How does Simon Kinberg fare in his first outing as director as well as writer for the series? The critical response to the movie is relatively united, even if not entirely favorable.
As of late Wednesday morning, Dark Phoenix sits at a 21 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, the lowest score in the 19-year franchise's history.
This Week In Heat Vision breakdown
“At its heart, this is a story about what an immeasurably talented woman chooses to do with her life; unfortunately, it doesn't play like one, as Kinberg pitches his script in the most melodramatic direction possible while the exceptional impulses multiplying inside Jean grow as well as fester by the moment,” writes Todd McCarthy in The Hollywood Reporter’s review. “Compared to the conclusions of other major franchises — the most recent being Avengers: Endgame — this one seems distinctly minor-league. The men who have anchored most of the X-Men outings are just spinning their wheels here, and while Jean's central dilemma is certainly dramatic enough, and is most closely entwined with the actions of two other women, what should have registered as genuinely powerful instead plays out in a pretty low-key way.”
That might be a flaw of the format, suggests Screencrush’s Matt Singer, who writes, “It’s very hard to tell this story in a satisfying way in this little amount of time. Multiple characters undergo life-altering changes of perspective — flipping from good to evil, sympathetic to monstrous — in a matter of seconds. The whole movie hinges on Jean Grey, a character we hardly know (the Sophie Turner version was introduced in a minor role in X-Men: Apocalypse) and her relationships to a team of heroes we’ve hardly seen. The film is like an adaptation of the original Dark Phoenix comics, and also of the Anchorman ‘Well, that escalated quickly’ meme. Everything happens too fast, until the whole structure goes down in flames.”
Or perhaps it’s writer/director Kinberg’s treatment of the material that’s at fault, as Anne Cohen suggests at Refinery 29. “The most problematic aspect is that deep down, this isn’t Jean’s story at all. It’s Charles’,” she writes. “There is a fascinating, gut-wrenching story to be told about a young woman’s inner conflict between the societal pressure to curb her darker emotions, and the precarious freedom that comes with surrendering to them fully. This is not it.”
Of course, there’s also the option that maybe … it’s just not that good. According to Time Out’s Phil de Semlyen, the movie is “a fairly pointless retread of Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s ‘The Dark Phoenix Saga’ [comics], which we’ve already seen (and hated) in Brett Ratner’s 2006 disaster X-Men: The Last Stand. It bolts on a pallid alien invasion storyline that’s more X-Files’ than X-Men and is laden with lumpen dialogue about destiny and ‘controlling your inner power’ that could have been lifted wholesale from a tai chi manual.” That doesn’t sound that appealing, but perhaps it’s not that bad…?
Actually, maybe it is. “The story leans hard into drama, but there are choices here that feel straight out of the 1990s X-Men cartoon,” writes Collider’s Matt Goldberg. “When the president calls the X-Men for help, he has a special “X” phone. The new X-Jet has a special periscope specially made for Cyclops’ optic blasts (Cyclops sold separately). One of Magneto’s henchmen’s special power is really powerful hair braids that he uses as whips. The movie takes place in the 90s, but the X-Men’s HQ is filled with flat-panel screens. Thirty years have passed since X-Men: First Class but everyone looks pretty much the same. Magneto is a Holocaust survivor who appears to be in his early 40s. How are we supposed to take this story seriously when so little care has been put into the world in which it takes place?”
“Its atrocious, expository dialogue, cumbersome plot, whiplashing character motivations, unintentionally funny moments, and often corny costumes, ensures Dark Phoenix will be remembered in the annals of mediocre movies (and for somehow utterly wasting Jessica Chastain, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence and James McAvoy in the same film),” agrees The Playlist’s Rodrigo Perez, but he adds, “There is a kernel of what it could have been, and in case you’re wondering it’s not quite the nadir of the series.”
(Let’s agree that’s probably X-Men: Apocalypse)
Over at io9, Charles Pulliam-Moore is disappointed by the movie’s failures to live up to its own promise, writing, “What’s most dispiriting about the film, however, are those fleeting moments when it lands on something so right — like the glimpses of Xavier’s campus where multiple classes of students matriculate and certain very iconic, unexpected mutants make surprising cameos — that it feels as if it was plucked out of an alternate universe where Fox had long-since figured out how to make consistently excellent, vibrant X-Men features.”
“Dark Phoenix’s lack of imagination is all the more disappointing because it glimmers of promise early on. Its first act promises two interlocking character journeys with rich thematic potential: one of a woman realizing her rage at what has been done to her, and one of a man facing up to the mistakes he made with the best of intentions,” Mashable’s Angie Han agrees. “Somewhere along the way, though, [the movie] loses sight of what it was trying to say about female anger, or male arrogance, or love or rejection or oppression or forgiveness. It forgets to explain who these people are or why they're worth our time.”
Perhaps the film’s ultimate sin is a sense of over-familiarity, however. A.A. Dowd of The AV Club notes that, despite some impressive staging, what Kinberg is unable to do “is fend off the sense of fatigue that’s fallen over not just the X-Men but also the actors playing them. No one here can be said to be giving it their all — Jennifer Lawrence, whose Mystique plays a less prominent role than usual, seems to wake up exactly once, when hitting Professor X with a slam about the team name.”
Similarly, Tim Grierson of Screen International complains, “Unfortunately, despite the serious tone, Dark Phoenix mostly recycles the same themes and central conflicts that have been at the heart of this franchise since 2000’s X-Men. Once again, honorable but shortsighted Charles will lock horns with the ferocious but mournful Magneto … both of whom must navigate a fragile cease-fire with an untrusting human population that fears them. Jean’s anxiety about being ‘strange’ is just the latest iteration of a standard X-Men trope; what makes these mutants feel like outcasts is also what makes them special.”
If nothing else, comfort can be found in the fact that it seems as if the Fox iteration of the X-Men movie franchise ends as it began. Surely there’s something to be said for a sense of consistency …?
Dark Phoenix is released June 7.
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