X-Men: Dark Phoenix quietly sneaks into cinemas, and Simon is there to greet it.
It’s a bold move in the current movie reporting climate to open a film with a – I’m going to use the word ‘literal’ – literal car crash.
Sure, when Simon Kinberg penned the script for X-Men: Dark Phoenix, he wasn’t to know that the movie – which is also his feature directorial debut – would arrive in cinemas under a cloud of delays, a review embargo that’s not been lifted until release date and an oddly modest marketing effort. But it’s not hard to imagine too many people using the sequence to lob a metaphor in the film’s direction, something I’ve seen already.
It’s also not quite fair. X-Men: Dark Phoenix is a muddled splurge of a film, certainly, but up against the arduously boring X-Men: Apocalypse, it’s an improvement, albeit a small one. Furthermore, it stays the right side of dull for the majority of its sub-two hour running time (something that lifts it above endurance-test Aquaman for me), and there’s the odd moment – a terrific effects shot early on, for instance, taken from overhead a space shuttle – that’s genuinely impressive.
But, well, stuff.
The film’s been seen as the closing chapter of the X-Men movie franchise’s current era, but it feels more of a wrap up of the narrative that started with the soft reboot, X-Men: First Class. Where that film was rooted in an era, though, and featured sequences of characters actually having conversations, Dark Phoenix has much less identity, and is far more interested in getting straight to the point. Robbing it of a definable period setting for a start feels like a very odd choice, that lessens the character of the film.
Perhaps there’s been some post-production chopping around here, but you get a lot of moments that feel like 90s computer games, where characters only spring to life and have a scripted conversation – primarily about an Important Plot Point – when the player walks into the room. In turn, leaving a sense that when the player leaves, the characters turn back to statues. Certainly if you’ve not sat your X-Men exams, or aren’t up to speed on the franchise to date, the film has no shrift with telling you who and why everyone is, outside of Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey, although in its defence, by this stage most of the film’s audience will be only too aware.
Still, it’s a real disappointment to see so many characters stripped down to the point of only talking in speeches. A global threat is established within minutes, there’s no space to really spend quality time with anyone, and the world needs to be saved. Two forces rise, therefore. Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey finally unleashes her inner-powers, and dramatically so. Set against her is Jessica Chastain’s antagonist, a vacuous shape-shifting alien apparently without a name, a background or anything of any depth at all. No slight on Chastain. She works with ingredients harder to see than a review of this film two days before its release date.
Everything feels like a movie. Sequences begin in empty spaces that you know are going to be filled with explosions soon. Also, I lost count of the number of times a scene was set up where a bunch of actors were nicely blocked effectively so they could stand alongside each other in a line with their hands by their sides, but I think it nearly hit double figures. Any plot development, too, tends to see characters having a drink and the briefest possible chat. Whiskey and tea are the tipples of choice in the movie, and there’s a reasonable amount of them. Oh, you get an F-bomb out of nowhere too, which sounds like a loud klaxon to make sure the movie gets a 12A/PG-13 rating, and not anything softer.
I’d suggest too that it’s on the bold side to have a sequence where a bunch of homogeneous military people arrive with patches bearing the letters ‘MCU’. It’s impossible to avoid the comparison that in a year when one major superhero series has come to a conclusion and smashed every record going, the X-Men – who kickstarted the current era of comic book movies, effectively – are limping out of the back door whilst others enjoy the spoils.
In its favour, I do think that it’s passably entertaining for the most part, only dulling the senses outright when it explodes into the usual cocktail of swirly special effects and stakes it’s impossible to really care about late on. The onus is shifted too far away from a dynamic between James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier and Turner’s Jean Grey towards people fighting as they attempt to save the planet. As such, characters that we’ve invested time and interest in over the past decade or two are sold short. But still, the film does keep moving adeptly enough.
Also, there is a moment where an X-Men jet comes out of a basketball court, that made me think they’d all moved to Tracey Island for a bit. I liked that.
Yet one of the things that’s underpinned the X-Men movies, for better or worse, is they’ve generally taken a fair few chances. Some haven’t paid off, some are utterly forgettable, some have soared, and some have been more rewarded for their risks than others. It’s a shame then that, for whatever reasons, the series is ending on what turns out to be its least ambitious entry (outside of The Last Stand). There’s clearly some story behind the scenes as to what’s gone on, as Simon Kinberg is nobody’s fool, and a fine writer. But as a paying customer, I found X-Men: Dark Phoenix to be a mildly entertaining blockbuster at best, and I’d suggest that even five years ago, few would have seen the franchise in its current guise ending in such an understated way. Yet that’s what’s happened.
Jessica Chastain’s character is called Vuk, by the way. Had to look it up.