Imagine a film about female power, so unquantifiable and unknowable that it grows roots before it can be quashed. Imagine a film where this power hooks its feelers in a woman already prone to disaster, whose life is marred with tragedy of her own making, and who can’t master her tidal wave emotions. Imagine that she grows fiercer and fiercer as those in her orbit—her boyfriend, her mentor—lose themselves as they fight for her spirit, fatally and detrimentally; a fight that builds to cosmic levels and has terrifying implications for the mutants known as the X-Men.
Imagine this film, because it is not Dark Phoenix, which is instead a plodding, lifeless, and generic superhero entry that feels more like a contract fulfillment than an actual movie. Nestled somewhere in its bad acting, middling set pieces, and faux-feminism is a story about the divine nature of female anger and the damaging ways men attempt to silence it. But it’s told so tepidly—and with such obvious studio tampering—that it feels like Hooked on Phoenix; more invested in hitting the mark than in reveling in its own weirdness. And shouldn’t these movies—about fringe outsiders wrestling with their morphed identities—be, at the very least, weird? Dark Phoenix isn’t weird, or interesting, nor does it save the franchise’s reputation after the disastrous Apocalypse. This is a movie that is so forgettable, that even writing about it is like grasping at smoke.
It’s a shame, because on paper, Dark Phoenix is doing all the right things. The film centers on Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey, whom we see first in a flashback to the day her parents died, as she fiddled with the car radio with her mind and accidentally triggered a fatal accident. The orphan is quickly taken in by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), who has a habit of collecting children with strange superpowers. He enrolls her in his academy, Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, where she’s raised among her fellow mutants. Her romance with Scott “Cyclops” Summers (Tye Sheridan) is carried over from Apocalypse, as is her place among the main hero troupe of the adult X-Men, who save the world from bad guys, both earthbound and cosmic.
Near the start of the film, on a mission in space, Jean is “infected” by an amorphous, iridescent cloud of matter as she uses her telekinetic powers to save a human spaceship. Upon her return to Earth, Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) notices something wrong when he screens her. Xavier attempts to read her mind, but is shut out forcefully. There’s something up with Jean, and things are about to grow steadily out of control as her new, terrifying powers mount.
If any of this sounds interesting, don’t worry, it’s not. It’s no real fault of the actors, who are certainly trying, but are failed by either poor direction or a leaden script. Turner, who is fantastic on Game of Thrones, is stiff in the part, and isn’t offered much help from the cadre of talent in her midst. McAvoy is giving it his all, and his natural charm carries him through his measly plot, which finds him turning often to alcohol—which would be an important detail in a better film, but here amounts to nothing—and an obsession with his own fame, to the detriment of his students. Michael Fassbender also shows up as Magneto for some reason; the movie doesn’t really need him and though he’s good at what he does, he ultimately feels like a distraction. Hoult is fine, although Beast gets little to do, and Sheridan does what he can with the scraps he’s thrown. But the most indefensible performance comes from Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique. Lawrence has clearly been over her role in these films for at least two movies now, but here she’s barely trying. As the only real female foil to Jean’s growing power, it’s especially unforgivable. One of the film’s key dramatic moments hinges on the relationship between the two, but the wooden acting and poor writing makes it totally hollow. If the actors don’t care, why should we?
Jessica Chastain also appears as the film’s main antagonist, a D’Bari shapeshifter whose planet was destroyed by the same force now occupying Jean. Her character is the one most obviously tampered with in edits, appearing at odd points and without much fanfare, and her army of fellow shapeshifters confuse a lot of the third-act action, which features so many clashing bad guys that it’s hard to parse out who’s fighting for whom and who we’re even rooting for.
So yes, the action is bad, Simon Kinberg’s direction is misjudged, the script is wooden, and the acting is barely passable. But the real sin of Dark Phoenix is just how little it tries to orient itself in Jean’s dilemma. The darkness in her—which trickles through her body with skin-raising lightning bolts—is barely defined. It makes her unreachable and destructive, but why? How does she feel? There’s one scene where Jean, crouched in a back alley after doing something bad, asks herself aloud, “Why did I do that?” That’s about as much insight we get into her character, who gets less to do than most of her male counterparts even though the film is literally named after her. That, coupled with a laughably bad Mystique line about how the X-Men should be called the “X-Women,” follows the current superhero trend of letting team lineups and empowering lines do what better characterization should instead. Kinberg, who also wrote the script, clearly has no desire to mine the depths of female trauma and autonomy, so why did he want to make a movie about it? It’s a question more male creators should ask themselves before they take on a comic storyline this important. As such, Dark Phoenix feels half-baked and barely alive. It should have stayed buried in the franchise ashes Apocalypse created.
Images: 20th Century Fox/Marvel Entertainment