With 12 down and a proposed 2020 installment likely to never see the light of day, the “X-Men” franchise as we know it has come to an end. Containing not nearly as much comic relief or marathon running times as the Marvel movies, the “X-Men” productions – at least to those not familiar with every scrap of Useless American Comic Book Minutia – generally tended to be a tad cleverer, less cloying and more consistently watchable.
It took a while, but both franchises finally broke down this year and produced movies with a female lead (“Captain Marvel” came in second by a metaphoric nose) and that might be one reason why “Dark Phoenix” could do better than expected. (For the record, D.C. beat both “The Avengers” and “X-Men” by close to two years in this particular gender race with the much better “Wonder Woman.”)
Everything that served the first 11 previous outings so well is sadly absent in “Dark Phoenix,” and not even a strong female lead (Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, a.k.a. Dark Phoenix) and/or a vile female villain (the once-promising Jessica Chastain looking a lot like Edgar Winter’s fictional kid sister) can save it. Funny (meaning lame) in far more places than ever intended (with special effects on a par with something from the early ’90s), this coda for the franchise might also become the same thing for the career of longtime “X-Men” writer and first-time director Simon Kinberg.
Even the most dedicated and forgiving comic book fanboy is often left speechless when asked to make sense of a series of events which — even by illogical sci-fi standards and newfangled new math — just don’t add up. This same sort of thing happens in daytime soap operas where Lazarus-inspired characters magically and mysteriously rise from the dead or — as the title might imply here — the ashes of a phoenix.
Big-time, non-spoiler alert ahead: anyone who has seen all of the previous 11 movies will come to the conclusion after watching this one that nothing of consequence takes place at any point. In the comic-book/superhero world there is never any real death, just performers appearing so because their contract has ended and they don’t want to play the same character anymore. If you were to re-edit all of these movies and assemble them in chronological order, true character death is in woefully short supply.
Does this pesky observation of the obvious mean this movie is a complete waste of time? Not completely – not by any stretch. There are a bunch of very talented performers charged with delivering some truly silly dialogue within the context of what is essentially a sci-fi parody and never once does a single one of them let the audience know they’re in on the joke. That takes skill and true acting acumen.
The best performance of the bunch doesn’t come from Michael Fassbender (Magneto), James McAvoy (Professor X), Nicholas Hoult (the Beast) or even Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence (Mystique), but rather first time X’er Turner. Having just finished a long run as a major character on the “Game of Thrones” TV series, the fiery-redheaded Turner not only takes on a role originally inhabited by the older (hint-hint) Famke Janssen, she makes it her own and totally runs with it.
After a truly throttling opening scene where an even younger Jean (Summer Fontana) is involved in a brilliantly shot, ultra slow-mo car wreck involving her parents, the narrative by Kinberg clicks into pure autopilot mode. Something of a do-over of the iffy 2006 Kinberg-penned “X-Men: The Last Stand” mixed with an adaptation of “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” Kinberg’s amalgamation could have worked well as a moody character study with minimal action. Instead it becomes a series of fake Herculean set pieces where the laws of physics are taken to task yet miraculously survive intact within every frame.
A ’90s nonfictional NASA flight provides the backdrop for a Stanley Kubrick-wanna-be space event where Jean achieves infamy, but in the process it leaves her a heaping mess of self-doubt with multiple psychoses. Try as he might, love interest Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) can’t rescue Jean from her lingering resentment of the past and her ever-escalating uber-id ego, which leads to well-founded feelings of crippling self-loathing.
For those of us non-comic-book-believers who were largely pleased with the bulk of the rest of the “X-Men” catalogue, “Dark Phoenix” is a big letdown, but diehards should have no fear. With Disney now fully in charge of the entire Marvel “X-Men”/“Avengers” future production docket, it will be entirely possible that your children and your grandchildren will be able to watch completely different movies where Wolverine and Iron Man will have multiple battles to the death – or something resembling it.