Closure is a tricky thing. Getting closure from a long relationship, between lovers or even friends is tough. Getting closure professionally or mentally can be even tougher. The mere act of closing something has a finality to it even if it’s for a moment. Closing a book to open it later. Will I remember where I left off? Closing the front door to my house. Did I remember to turn on the alarm?
Imagine being tasked with closing out a near 2-decade long film franchise that helped pave the way for the Comic book/ Superhero Movie genre.
A tall order!
2019 has been a year which has already churned out the final stories to 2 of the more heralded cinematic franchises in pop culture; “Game of Thrones” and the Infinity Saga in “Avengers: Endgame”. Each different, but similar in many ways. Both tales are adapted works with the challenging task of being faithful to the source material while offering something new and fitting for the screen. Some choices worked out better than others in both, but we can all agree the effort put into perfection would be futile. All we asked for is the payoff in story and characters that bring about engaging, entertaining and fitting ends, with maybe a sliver of hope for the future.
I contend “Endgame” succeeded in more ways than the divisive season 8 of “Game of thrones” and it feels I’m not alone in that camp. Unfortunately, Simon Kinberg’s directorial debut in “Dark Phoenix” fails even harder, but not for the reason you may think.
Jean Grey the level 5 telekinetic mutant and the X-Men thrust into action at the request of the President to help save a troubled space crew escape what appears to be a catastrophic solar flare. Holding the space craft together while Nightcrawler saves one last crew member, Jean is consumed by the solar flare and engulfed with a burning light in a massive explosion that leaves her presumably lifeless body floating in space. With some good old duct tape and a space helmet Nightcrawler vamps out into the vacuum of space and returns Jean to the X-Jet, which is still not called the Blackbird then returns to the X-Mansion. She miraculously wakes up feeling better than ever; stronger, more energized, sexually charged and ready to explode. What seems like a miracle turns to a curse as a cosmic entity now inhabiting her body unlocks horrendous childhood memories that makes Jean an unstable and possibly unstoppable threat to everyone around her.
The Dark Phoenix saga that I kind of knew from the comics and really enjoyed more on the incredible 1990’s animated TV series was a sprawling story line that spanned several comic issues and many episodes. Compressing the story to another solo film in under 2 hours was never going to work.
I repeat, NEVER GOING TO WORK!
“X-Men the Last” Stand”, the first go around with the arc was the biggest failure in my opinion of the entire franchise. We were in a unique age of heroes on the big screen as films like “Blade”, “X-Men”, and “Spider-man” brought about the purchase of many comic book intellectual properties to be gobbled up and spit out to turn a profit. Technology wasn’t all the way on our side, but with each year advancements were made to bring to life what we could only dream and see drawn on the page.
What seemed to suffer though, was the story.
It’s always been peculiar at how the artists who drew and wrote some of the greatest comic book runs ever could not have a faithful, yet effective cinematic translation produced. Not to say that the writers of comics can’t write screenplays. There’s just different skill sets at work. But, why not have a collaborative effort bring a meeting of the minds to get it right? Some call it lazy, I see it as business. I can’t say whether it’s good or bad business as the box office tells one story and criticism tells another. I guess the time, effort and money needed to get more of what we all wanted wasn’t as practical for studios and production companies looking to earn a quick buck.
So that may explain the “why” “Dark Phoenix” wasn’t set up to succeed, but there are many more layers that would take too long to get to in this review.
To be honest, reluctance to this tale being retold and the finality with this franchise and its actors, I believe helped my overall impression. We knew it was coming. I’m not going to be butt hurt by its existence especially after another flop critically with “X-Men: Apocalypse” so why start now.
I like to think of my viewing experience like I do with my food. May sound weird to you but it just makes too much sense to me. We all have our culinary preferences. I know when I’m on Uber eats or Yelp, if I’m looking to get some grub I typically steer clear of ratings 6 and below.
Can I get a witness?
Not saying I haven’t tried food below a 6, but that typically and unfortunately comes after the meal. Take for instance Applebee’s. It’s not a 10, for almost anyone I know but for a quick lunch I know what I’m getting. And I go back. Not often, but I do go back. Just because it’s not a 10 doesn’t mean I’m never dining there again.
So after “X-Men: The Last Stand”, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” and “X-Men: Apocalypse” (the poorer films critically) the bar has been lowered so much so the critical response to “Dark Phoenix” set the table for an under cooked and a little raw, lets… Southwest Steak Salad.
However, I walked out not feeling to bad about my evening and think I got a nice Build Your Own sampler. A little bit of this mixed with a little bit of that, it doesn’t hit all the way around, but still had some redeeming qualities to it. I wish we, as critics would fess up to the biases we hold and how expectations create bars that are easier and harder to get over or under depending on the viewer. Film is an art form I like to call subjectively objective. Many critics went in wanting to hate this film and were dammed to do so regardless of what happened.
Yes, the script is trash. I’ll get that right out of the way. Simon Kinberg may be a first-time director, but he’s a seasoned writer with a slew of hits and misses. Well, more misses then hits and that should’ve been a red flag, except he was responsible for notable films like “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” (love), “Jumper” (worked for me), and “X-men: Days of future past” which is considered the best in the X-Men franchise. The man clearly displays a capacity for writing somewhat well received big budget blockbusters. That's a skill I hope to develop and hone. To be able to tell a story on a large scale that grasps the scope of its plot and the relatability to its characters is essential to being considered one of the greats. So, how does this guy not only get a 2nd crack at the Dark Phoenix story, but also gets to direct it?
Clout is everything and he has it. He’s a name. My mama told me there’s power in a name, and if Simon Kinberg isn’t proof of that I don’t know what is.
It was all there for him. Laid out in dozens of issues in comics. He had access to all the tools and resources and even his missteps in the Brett Ratner directed Kinberg written “X-Men: The Last Stand” bastardization to steer far from. The plot is derivative. The arcs, regardless of how challenging they were to nail down have had years and years to form and write themselves organically yet, he chose to force conflict between teammates, forced an inorganic feminist narrative that hurts more than it helps and does nothing new to the characters we’ve spent too little time with nor provide a satisfactory closing to the franchise at Fox.
It’s equally as challenging to provide satisfactory performances when the script is at the root of most of the problems with the film. But dammit, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender just don’t care. At this point, 4 films in, these men are just automatic. What they did to add to the legacy Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen started has been one of the greatest hand offs in cinematic history. They both could speak gibberish and make it feel compelling. It’s far from their delivery, but more so their raw emotion eviscerating every scene they’re in. They’re imperfect in their ideals and in their friendship yet they work together. Their journey from “X-Men First Class” to “Dark Phoenix” are the pillars to this Quadrilogy that is going to be sorely missed.
Good luck to whoever is expected to fill those shoes in the MCU.
The other characters in the film weren’t so much that they were bad, just not offered much to work with. Nicholas Hoult’s Beast isn’t bad, but like the prospects of ever being good with the film in generally was never off to a good start. He’s a fine Hank McCoy, but a way too young one. That was ok in the 60’s but, it’s going to be hard for a lot of viewers to ignore this 30-year-old man playing what is supposed to be an almost 60-year-old professor.
The continuity throughout the franchises run has been the butt of many jokes. Even their spinoff film “Deadpool” and its titular anti-hero hilariously chastises the studio for its blatant disregard.
Hoult is fine, Tye Sheridan, better than James Marsden if you ask me. Alexandra Shipp surprisingly is okay too and you get your standard from Evan Peters as Quicksilver, but definitely not enough Quicksilver. He’s been the standout in the 3 films he’s been a part of with the expert devotion to displaying his mutagenetic speed with the incredible VFX and camera work, but it was in a very small dose in “Dark Phoenix”. It’s those small doses that add to the stunting of this films potential. We just got to know Cyclops, Storm, Nightcrawler and Jean yet were expected to care for situations we haven’t had time to connect with. A romance that blossomed and we didn’t get a chance to invest in. Jean is central to this story, yet we haven’t had enough time to care about her because this is only film 1.5 for her honestly. Last movie she was at the mall and then developed sort of Phoenix powers on her own at the end of the movie against Apocalypse.
Man, oh man was that bad. No pay off there.
You see, that’s it. These films continue to just let the next film write out its problems by just ignoring it. Fans are smarter and building shared universes come with more responsibility. These Superhero films don’t get the luxury of being a self-contained story any longer. They are interconnected and interdependent on what came before to inform you on what’s to come and it’s the job of the director and writer to work their magic from there.
If you want Raven/ Mystique to beef with Charles and have it resonate with us, it can’t come out of left field. That means, you must write the 1st act to foreshadow the conflict to come in the 2nd, and not give it all away in the trailer.
SPOILER ALERT, Mystique dies.
Honestly, good riddance. I know that’s a terrible thing to say but Jennifer Lawrence’s displeasure with her role and its responsibilities and sacrifices has been too public for too long and thankfully is no longer a worry. Crazy thing is, she was phoning it in less here than in “Apocalypse” but still less impactful to the narrative except to be a plot device to derive much of the conflict, but not in a good way.
I said there would be redeeming qualities to this film and I meant that.
Hans Zimmer’s score is like a new X-Men character itself. It’s amazing. A supporting character that helps elevate the performances of everyone slightly and the setting in a way only a maestro can. This music almost feels like it doesn’t belong, but then is the only thing pulling you into the story. So, if a wasted Jessica Chastain gives the most wooden performance ever, which I think was written and directed that way, the score was making that easier to digest. Its hypnotic, with its blends of Trance and Synths. You absolutely forget about the primary villain’s goal, not that it was clear at all, and just enjoy the score set to the action. And, there is a lot of action. Watching this in Dolby was the best way imaginable to drown out the malaise of the plot and be treated to great VFX and camerawork around it. Even when in motion the amount of CG in use never let up except in maybe one scene and I’d say a lot of audiences wouldn’t be able to tell. I was pleasantly surprised with the heavy display of the X-Men’s power sets and how it worked cinematically. The colors in this film, the sound design was awesome. The film knew how to have fun with what it could outside of the script to make this all work.
So, maybe my expectations were so low this did indeed end up on the right side of favorability for me. It’s on the lowest possible side though. The score, the visual effects, and honestly some of the best displays of X-Men powers we’ve seen cinematically will do that. The action scenes were awesome too. Yes, the 1st act and script in general, isn’t good. I guess, now that I think about it feels eerily like another female led Superhero film that came out just a few months ago; yikes. But, if you look past that, what we got wasn’t all that bad. If you squint, the film could almost stand on its own if you separated it from the franchise and is not as bad as I thought it would’ve been. However, as the conclusion to an almost 20-year cinematic franchise, it’s as good as it could’ve been given the circumstances.
KOLBYTOLDME RATING- 6/10
Director: Simon Kinberg
Writer: Simon Kinberg
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Evan Peters, Jessica Chastain
Run Time: 113 mins