REVIEW – ‘X-Men: Dark Phoenix’ is an astoundingly dull concluding chapter

It’s easy to forget how game-changing the arrival of X-Men was back in the year 2000. Almost a decade before the Marvel Cinematic Universe began its vice-like grip on the box office, this ragtag bunch of mutants re-ignited the lagging superhero genre and paved the way for the revival of the public’s interest in such cinematic fare. Over the last 19 years, the X-Men franchise has seen some incredible highs (X2: X-Men United, Logan) and some guttural lows (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men: Apocalypse). Sadly, they’ve saved their worst for last.

X-Men: Dark Phoenixthe (supposedly) concluding chapter in this incarnation of the X-Men series, limps to the finish line of this franchise in disappointing fashion. An astoundingly dull and frustratingly flat piece of cinema, the film is devoid of the pulsing heart and captivating energy this saga was once known for. This should have been the crowning glory of almost two-decades worth of groundwork. Instead, it’s just an utter mess.

Kicking off with a flashback sequence to 1975, we find eight-year-old Jean Grey (Summer Fontana) in the backseat of her parents’ car, as they drive blissfully down a country road. Unbeknownst to her parents, Jean is a mutant with wildly uncontrollable psychic abilities, which begin to cause the car radio to inexplicably switch stations. Distracted by the glitching stereo, Jean’s mother (Hannah Emily Anderson) loses control of the vehicle, leading to a spectacular accident with fatal consequences. Yes, this is the exact same opening prologue as seen in last year’s Shazam! Oops.

Moving along to 1992, the orphaned Jean (Sophie Turner, trying her utmost) still resides at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, under the guidance of the now-famous Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). After the events of the previous films, the X-Men are now beloved around the globe, having saved the world several times and shifted the public’s fear of mutants. As such, Jean, Scott (Tye Sheridan), Hank (Nicholas Hoult), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Kurt (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, contractually phoning it in) are called upon by the President to help rescue some stranded astronauts. Yes, the X-Men can now travel into outer space, apparently.

Naturally, the mission goes awry when poor Jean absorbs the entirety of a cosmic solar flare of energy and, somehow, miraculously survives. Back on Earth, Jean discovers the immense power now literally pulses through her veins, making her extraordinary abilities even more uncontrollable, unpredictable, and, gulp, dangerous. When she uncovers Charles has been hiding the truth about her unintentionally murderous childhood, Jean takes off, leaving a path of deadly destruction in her wake.

Meanwhile, a band of body snatching aliens have arrived on Earth, led by Vuk (a horribly underused Jessica Chastain), in search of the unwitting host who now harnesses the immensely powerful cosmic energy. Hellbent on utilising Jean’s powers to take over our planet, Vuk sets about twisting the former X-Men cohort to the dark side before Charles and co. can pull her back to the light. Oh, and Magneto (a very bored Michael Fassbender) also gets pulled into this plot for no other reason than an X-Men movie isn’t an X-Men movie without his involvement.

The inherent problem with X-Men: Dark Phoenix remains the inescapable fact we’ve done this storyline before in X-Men 3: The Last Stand, from the exact same screenwriter, no less. Given it’s widely agreed as one of the lowest points of the X-Men franchise, it’s unfathomable Simon Kinberg was given the keys to the kingdom again. In a foolhardy attempt to differentiate his latest effort at this beloved comic book arc, screenwriter (and now first-time director) Kinberg tacks on the pointless Vuk subplot, which hurls in a brand new villain with no semblance of narrative purpose or intent. Evidently, Jean was not enough of a threat on her own, which is rather laughable, given she’s clearly the most powerful being on the planet. But the film treats Vuk with such genuine disregard, making her involvement entirely useless and confoundingly idiotic.

Even someone as wildly talented as Chastain can’t save this one-note character from the utter doldrums of hell. Her flat performance is bleak and dull, thanks to her bizarre penchant for monotone dialogue delivery and droopy-eyed stare that will leave audiences in a state of genuine boredom, much like Oscar Isaacs woeful performance as the titular villain in X-Men: Apocalypse. There’s nothing wrong with adding an extra villain into a superhero film, but when that addition is providing absolutely nothing but total passivity, it’s a complete waste of time and talent. The opportunity for Chastain to play a villain with caustic bite and a wicked personality goes begging. Wasted is an understatement.

While X-Men: Dark Phoenix is gifted with a dazzling ensemble any director would kill to have at their disposal, Kinberg underuses every single cast member, which is incredibly frustrating for an audience to endure. Turner gives it her all, in what stands as her first major leading role. But without a director to truly hone her talents, she’s left with little to do but either be petrified in fear or fuming with anger, both of which consistently appear stiff, ineffective, and, occasionally, unintentionally hilarious. McAvoy is given a more meaty subplot regarding Xavier’s out-of-control ego and selfish hubris, putting him at odds with his old compatriot Mystique. While this interesting character arc is played with early on, it’s barely touched upon again, as the film becomes more concerned with action than the storyline.

Fassbender and Lawrence appear to be doing nothing more than obliging to their contractual duties, aided by the screenplay’s refusal to give them anything interesting to do. Both actors have clearly been done with this franchise for the last two films, offering up the barest of performances before they can exit stage left from this saga. Lawrence plays a key role in attempting to quell Jean’s rage in a turning point that will have ramifications on the entire narrative. But the sequence is so poorly scripted, even an Oscar winner like Lawrence can’t save it, resulting in an emotionless scene that should have soared. As for the rest of the cast, it’s easy to forget they’re even part of this film until they’re all called upon for the film’s bloated finale fight showdown.

As for that conclusion, it’s set within the cramped confines of a speeding military train, which robs the sequence of the spacial freedom it so desperately needed. There’s little sense of excitement and tension when you place such a bombastic finale in such tiny quarters. That being said, the sequence does include some terrific fight choreography, even if it becomes rather difficult to tell who is fighting who. It’s simply not enough to save this film from the dullness which precedes it. For a film that runs less than two hours, it agonisingly feels much longer.

It’s well-known X-Men: Dark Phoenix had its released delayed several times and went through various re-shoots and re-edits before finally being dumped into cinemas in 2019. And it shows. The pacing of the entire production is terribly inconsistent, resulting in an uneven final product that leaves very little impression. It’s possible Kinberg originally intended his film to be a magnificent feminist celebration that finally put the female characters of the X-Men franchise at the forefront. But this muddled mess of a film refuses to delve deeply into the female experience, leaving us with a piece of cinema that fails to celebrate anything at all.

After Avengers: Endgame showed the world how to bring a decades-old franchise to a rousing conclusion, X-Men: Dark Phoenix looks decidedly amateurish by comparison. The odd moments of entertainment are surrounded by a calamity of set pieces you’ll forget the instant you leave the cinema. For those who have faithfully followed this saga from its breathtaking beginnings 19 years ago, this flat finale will likely leave a bad taste in your mouth, made all the more bitter by the film being dedicated to the late Stan Lee. It’s a small blessing he’s not here to witness this.

Distributor: 20th Century Fox/Disney
Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jessica Chastain
Director: Simon Kinberg
Producers: Simon Kinberg, Hutch Parker, Lauren Shuler-Donner, Todd Hallowell
Screenplay: Simon Kinberg
Cinematography: Mauro Fiore
Music: Hans Zimmer
Production Design: Claude Pare
Editor: Lee Smith
Running Time: 113 minutes
Release Date: 6th June 2019 (Australia)