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‘Dark Phoenix’ an x-asperating x-perience

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Perhaps no 21st century film franchise has been as utterly uneven as the “X-Men” universe.

The first movie – “X-Men” – came out back in 2000, nearly a decade before the MCU hit the scene with “Iron Man.” By all rights, the X-Men should have been the cinematic blockbuster team well before the Avengers even showed up.

Instead, we’ve watched as the franchise has been yanked all over the map in terms of quality. The heights of the early films were undermined by 2006’s unfortunate “Last Stand” and the nigh-unwatchable 2009 standalone “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” The ship was righted thanks to the timeline-altering reboot that began with “First Class” in 2011, a good Wolverine movie (“The Wolverine”) and a capital-G Great one (“Logan”) and the introduction of Deadpool.

Alas, “Dark Phoenix” doesn’t rise to that level. Or the level below it. Or the level below that one. The truth is that one could argue that this latest installment – the last before the characters pass from 20th Century Fox into the control of the Disney machine – represents the nadir of the franchise.

It’s the second effort by the franchise to tell perhaps the most important arc in the history of the X-Men – and the second failure. This is an iconic storyline, not just for the X-Men, but for all of comicdom. And yet it is peppered with sloppy storytelling, disinterested characterizations and unclear decision-making (both on camera and behind it).

Despite extremely low expectations, “Dark Phoenix” still managed to disappoint me.

We’re in the early 1990s in the alternate timeline spun off from “First Class” and carried through “Days of Future Past” and “Age of Apocalypse.” It’s nine years after the events of the latter movie; over the course of that time, the X-Men have become protectors of sorts, having been gradually (and often begrudgingly) accepted by humanity, though the alliance remains tenuous at best.

Professor X (James McAvoy, “Glass”) remains in charge of both his school and the X-Men. The team is asked to help when a malfunction sends the space shuttle spiraling out of control. Led by Beast (Nicholas Hoult, “Tolkien”) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, “Red Sparrow”), the X-Men make their way into space to help the stranded crew. But something happens when Jean Grey (Sophie Turner, TV’s “Game of Thrones”) uses her power to try and save one last astronaut – something that nearly kills her.

After returning to a hero’s welcome, Jean starts to exhibit symptoms of … something. She’s different, more reckless and far more powerful, subject to attacks that make her a danger not just to herself, but to others as well. Her boyfriend Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, “Ready Player One”) tries to help, but instead, she flees, seeking help from outside the X-sphere. And when they try to bring her back into the fold, the results and tragic – and ultimately fatal.

Oh, and there’s also a gaggle of shape-shifting aliens that are trying to track Jean down to access whatever strange alien power is now trapped inside her and use it to take over Earth. Magneto (Michael Fassbender, “The Snowman”) is after Jean as well, for his own reasons and with his own cohort of allies from the mutant colony of Genosha.

And then there’s a bunch of fighting and rising anti-mutant sentiment and the heroes become the hunted and blah blah blah it really doesn’t matter.

It’s not even that “Dark Phoenix” is bad – although it is, boring and meandering and occasionally incomprehensible – so much as that it is bad in the EXACT SAME WAYS that the last effort to tell this story was bad. It’s as though they said “Hey, we really blew it the last time we told this story. Maybe this time, if we do pretty much the same thing, people will like it more.”

Dear reader, they did not.

There’s the abysmal box office performance and equally poor reception, obviously – “Dark Phoenix” promises to be the biggest bomb, both commercially and critically, of the entire series. But more than that, it’s the sheer ineptitude of it all. This story, it cannot be stressed enough, is one of the most beloved arcs in the history of comics, featuring some of the most beloved characters. And they screwed it up. TWICE.

We can talk about Simon Kinberg’s not-great directorial eye or even worse screenplay – he’s responsible for both – but really, his biggest sin is turning such an epic tale into something boring and forgettable. We’re not turning up to a superhero movie for the dense plotting, of course, but you have to give us something; this movie featured too many overlong stretches of nothing much happening.

For the most part, the cast proves game. McAvoy gets a little hammy in a self-righteous way; it’s a good fit for his take on Professor X. Turner gives it her best, and while she’s a bit lacking in affect, she gets by all right. Not great, but all right. Hoult’s in the same boat – he’s fine, but maybe just a touch removed from it all. Fassbender’s performance is decent enough, though he comes off as a little disinterested as well. Neither of them can hold a candle to Lawrence, however, whose every moment on-screen screams with contractual obligation; she might as well be holding a newspaper with today’s date and talking about how well she’s being treated.

The rest of the ensemble barely registers. Sheridan is inoffensive, while Alexandra Shipp and Kodi Smit-McPhee are … present? Which is more than we can say for Evan Peters, whose Quicksilver has been a highlight in the past. Oh, and poor Jessica Chastain, who plays one of the alien shape-shifters, appears to be oozing regret from every pore.

“Dark Phoenix” effectively marks the end of the “X-Men” franchise as we know it, leaving not with a bang, but with a whimper. We’ll have to wait and see how Disney folds the characters into the greater MCU, but hey – it’s almost certainly going to be better than this.

[1.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 11 June 2019 16:59

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