Cinema Dispatch: Dark Phoenix

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Dark Phoenix and all the images you see in this review are owned by 20th Century Fox and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Directed by Simon Kinberg

I’ve probably been nicer than most about the X-Men franchise, going so far as to be somewhat positive about Apocalypse, and even I can’t be bothered to muster any enthusiasm for The Last Stand: Remastered.  I mean I GUESS I can see why Fox would want to prove that it was the other guy’s fault and not their own, and it certainly worked well enough for Dexter Fletcher, but with this franchise being so easily overshadowed by Deadpool, the MCU, and even some of the better DC films, it’s starting to feel more Quixotic than artistically advisable.  Still, I have been surprised by  movies I didn’t expect much out of before, and it’s not like they have much to lose considering this franchise is more or less done whether they make this movie or not, so hey!  Let’s see if Fox can pull it off one more time for old time’s sake!

It’s the radical nineties for the X-Men with Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his crew of charismatic comrades more popular than ever; much like the ACTUAL nineties.  Newcomers Jean Grey, Scott Summers, Ororo Munroe, and Kurt Wagner (Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, and Kodi Smit-McPhee) are fitting in well enough, Mystique’s (Jennifer Lawrence) barely contained annoyance with all of this is about as same as usual which is greatly contrasted with Beast (Nicholas Hoult) who looks like he couldn’t be happier to be there, and Quicksilver (Even Peters) is… around.  ANYWAY!  The big difference in this film that I alluded to just now which I don’t BELIEVE was the case last time is that The X-Men have become household names and everyone wants to be them!  No more mutant discrimination, at least not outright, and all the jerk mutants went with Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to some island somewhere to keep things nice and peaceful.  Why, the only thing that could ruin this perfect existence is if one of the high profile mutants on Xavier’s team went off and started blowing stuff up, but what are the odds of THAT happening!?  Yeah, so Jean Grey gets hit by some sort of cosmic ray in the beginning of the film during an astronaut rescue, and it seems to have overcharged her system to the point that she can barely control her powers as well as her emotions; the latter of which is exacerbated by some dark secrets she’s made keenly aware of and have made things rather awkward at the academy.  With one big public relations nightmare that could lead to Mutant internment AGAIN, Xavier and his crew have to find out what’s happening to Jean and if there’s any way to save her from whatever it is that will either destroy her from the inside or give her enough power to destroy us all from the outside.  Oh, and Jessica Chastain is in this somewhere in the background.  I’m sure she can’t be up to any good though!  Will Jean Grey succumb to the power she’s been granted and become the worst enemy the X-Men have ever faced?  Will Xavier finally learn that despite his idealistic rhetoric that he’s made huge mistakes in the past that could bring the world closer to destruction than anything his more militant counterpart ever came up with?  If this is worse than X3, does Fox get like a Lifetime Achievement award for how badly they can ruin a franchise?  I mean they should have already gotten one for their Fantastic Four movies, but you know the Academy!  Give it to them when convenient; not when they deserve it!

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“Here’s to the end of an era!”     “Here’s to the end of my liver functioning properly…”

After all this time, after all these movies, after all the money they spent on this darn thing, the movie is AT BEST… alright.  It’s far below the entire MCU and it’s not as good as the more recent DCCU films, but it’s not a complete disaster like X3 and Origins: Wolverine.  Even at its lowest point I still had a decent amount of fun with the X-Boot series, but if we were spinning our wheels with Apocalypse then we’ve finally reached the point where the wheels have been ground down to fine powder and all we’re left with is remembering how much fun it all USED to be.  I guess then that this is as good a time as any for them to STOP making these which looks to be the case, but we’re going out on such a whimper that there’s not much satisfaction to the finality of it all, which by the way there isn’t a whole lot of as they left SO much room for a sequel if Fox starts to get any strange ideas or finally does a proper X-Men/Deadpool crossover or Disney wants to see if even THEY have to ability to drag this version of the franchise back to relevance.

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“Just because it’s at a new studio doesn’t mean we have to be replaced, right?”     *SMASH*     “Alright!  I can take a hint!”

Right off the bat the movie doesn’t give a particularly great impression of itself, though some of it could be due to how little I remember of Apocalypse; to the point that I almost forgot they already introduced NIghtcrawler in this new universe.  Still, even with most of the actors from the last film returning for this one (sadly no Jubilee), it feels very much like a new status quo which is kind of a problem given the story they want to tell.  The time jumping idea for this franchise wasn’t necessarily a bad one (each movie more or less taking place a decade after the last one), especially considering how large and varied this particular team can be, but the big draw back in their execution (other than how laughably slow the cast ages) has been how little we get attached to many of the characters.  I KNOW That Jean Grey and Scott Summers were in the last film but I’ll be darned if they don’t feel like they’re only coming into this for the first time as they lack a lot of personality and don’t have much of a rapport with the rest of the X-Men which is a problem because so much of the movie (and the particular story this is based on) focuses on them.  Jean at least has a good chunk of the movie to herself to build up her character, but it doesn’t feel like an old friend turning to the dark side which I’m pretty sure was the Unique Selling Point of the original story.  This is the one area I will give X3 an edge on because if nothing else that series of films were consistently following on after the previous one and Famke Janssen had plenty of time to build her character over three films instead of the one and half Sophie Turner has to work with here.

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“HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN TO ME!?  FOX HAS MADE THEIR MISTAKES!  THEY’VE GOT NOWHERE TO RUN!  THE MERGER GOES ON AS DISNEY FADES THEM AWAY!!”

It just feels shallow overall and yet the movie seems COMPLETELY oblivious to this fact which I would almost say is the most interesting thing about it.  The movie is trying so desperately and shamelessly to be GRIM AND GRITTY falling somewhere between Batman v Superman’s clumsy messaging and Avengers: Endgame’s note of finality.  It’s a funereal march of a movie that ham-fistedly handles death, abandonment, revenge, and xenophobia with all the subtly and grace of a soap opera.  Almost everything about this movie cranked up to eleven, yet despite their best efforts it works about a three for the most part and reaches PERHAPS a six at certain high points throughout.  Within the first three minutes of the movie there is a hilariously violent car crash which I feel like we’re supposed to take seriously but I really couldn’t, there’s a character who “exits” the movie in what I suppose is meant to be a dramatic moment but you can tell they barely wanted to be there in the first place, Michael Fassbender’s interpretation of trying REALLY hard to use his magic powers is never NOT funny, and there are a few character turns throughout that feel perhaps not UN-motivated, but I don’t think they do a great job of selling them and is yet another example of how this feels like a new status quo.  These turns MIGHT make sense if there’s a lack of history behind the characters, but supposedly there IS (at least a decade’s worth if not WAY longer) and therefore some of the choices feel a lot more despicable than I think they intended.

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“I’LL HARM YOU!!”

Perhaps the most absurd thing of all is that this somehow manages to look VERY expensive and VERY cheap at the same time which is the worst combination imaginable as the studio clearly poured gobs of money into this thing yet the movie is so small in scale and character driven that it never feels like it needs it.  This was ALMOST a good thing about the movie, especially compared to Apocalypse where I THINK entire cities were lifted out of the ground or something like that, and I was kind of digging that the major action sequences only involved like a dozen or so people instead of THE FATE OF BILLIONS HANGING IN THE BALANCE, but it never quite comes together and the scope feels a bit all over the place.  In particular the villains of this movie feel really small time and perfunctory as some sort of invading alien force which I’m pretty sure are the first ones in ANY of the X-Men movies and yet it’s just kind of a thing that no one bothers to notice or care much about.  They’re plan is to control the MOST POWERUL FORCE IN ALL OF CREATION, and yet their plan for getting such a power involves a whole bunch of flattery and a month’s rent on a nice apartment building in New York.  We’re talking about the fate of all life on all the planets in the entire universe, but it never really feels that way because the threat we’re facing doesn’t match the gravity of the situation.

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“You have UNLIMITED COSMIC POWER!!  But an itty bitty green screen space.”     “Oh.  Well I can still blow stuff up, right?”     “Eeeeehhhhhhh…”]

Fox’s incarnation of the X-Men franchise, I’ve come to realize, is basically the Sonic the Hedgehog of superhero films.  It started out pretty great with a few original incarnations that felt unique to what was happening elsewhere, but over time they started to see where things were trending and were so desperate to jump on the bandwagon that they became an off-brand version of its far superior competition instead of an interesting thing on its own.  While this is certainly not the low point for the franchise that X3 and Origins: Wolverine were, I couldn’t imagine a much better sign saying to pack it in and let Disney do what it’s gonna do.  Yeah, it’s a shame that Fox is more or less no more and that Disney is one step closer to monopolizing the very IDEA of popular entertainment, but I’m still no more impressed with what they managed to do on their own with these characters.  Deadpool is still a vibrant franchise that I hope Disney runs with, but the reboot button is ready to be pushed with this film being the final nail in the coffin.  Not a particularly BAD nail as it’s got a few shiny parts on it, but it’s certainly not enough to keep the mouse from finishing what he started and burying this franchise six feet under; at least as soon as he figures out what the heck happened to that New Mutants movie.

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