X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019) offers us the chance to dine on ashes while flipping us the bird.
To the surprise of literally nobody, rising with an entirely unmerited sense of entitlement from the ashes of “X-Men: Apocalypse”, writer/ director Simon Kinberg has only managed to conjure a turkey from the flames.
In the 1990s, the X-Men are enjoying a golden age of public and governmental approval. The President even has a brand X-Phone on his desk in the oval office. When a space shuttle mission runs into deadly trouble, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) sends his X-Men into space to mount a rescue effort, despite the misgivings of the senior team members. When Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is accidentally exposed to a mysterious surge of cosmic energy, her survival astonishes everyone. But as Jean struggles to contain the power of the cosmic energy source, The D’Bari, a race of shapeshifting aliens, arrive on Earth intent on gaining control of the Phoenix force for themselves.
Although explicitly set nine years after the world-wide devastation shown in “X-Men: Apocalypse”, there’s almost nothing here that acknowledges or even makes sense from that movie to this one. Of course, the biggest fiery, winged elephant in the room is the fact that Jean clearly manifested her phoenix power to destroy Apocalypse in the finale of the last movie, an event which goes unremarked on in this film. In fact, there’s such a sense of disconnection from every single one of the other X-Men movies, you have to wonder if Kinberg’s memory of the other movies has somehow been erased by Professor X, possibly for his own protection even though it endangers us, the audience.
As a writer, you can feel Kinberg patting himself on the back for having found a dark‘n’edgyTM new take on these characters; his sense of smug self-satisfaction is palpable in almost all of the turgid ‘character moments’ which retard the film’s attempts to develop any momentum. The dialogue is terrible – a franchise low against a not very high bar and given most of the cast seem reluctantly [contractually] obliged to be there it suffocates what excitement there might be in rehashing one of the main plotlines from “X-Men: The Last Stand”. Even with the achingly clumsy ‘here comes the science bit’ where Jessica Chastain is forced to recite the required exposition over an updated Genesis Device presentation from “Star Trek II” to the borderline laughable ‘major death scene’ which features a long phoned-in performance finally, mercifully, being cut off, this shouldn’t be as difficult as Kinberg makes it seem but he’s his own worst enemy having set out to bring a kind of nasty ersatz Zack Snyder’s DCEU tone to the X-Men franchise.
As a director, though, Kinberg has laid an egg with his feature debut. The visuals are drab, ineptly shot and desperately lifeless except where they’re so deeply derivative of other movies he might as well have spliced in the original footage. “X-Men: Dark Phoenix” also features hands-down the worst, most ineptly choreographed, lit and filmed X-Men fight sequence in the franchise’s history as various X-factions converge on the New York base of the D’Bari to kiss/ marry/ kill Jean which is why it comes as such a surprise that the infamously re-shot train-based grand finale actually works pretty well and at least provides a kinetic and exciting (if illogical and inconsistent) battle scene that actually briefly threatens to resurrect this flatlining franchise.
If nothing else, we do finally get to see Dazzler on the big screen but that’s the problem: “X-Men Dark Phoenix” literally offers us nothing else.