If “Dark Phoenix” feels like the nadir of 21st century blockbuster cinema, that’s not because it’s the worst film of its kind — hell, it’s not even the worst installment of its franchise — but rather because it might be the only $200 million tentpole that has no evident reason to exist. The movie industry is sustained by a silent contract between Hollywood and its audience, which stipulates studios and ticket buyers will both spend too much of their money to sit together in a room so dark that no one can see the line that separates art from commerce. The brazen needlessness of the twelfth film in the “X-Men” saga is nothing less (and nothing more) than a direct breach of that contract; it’s like watching a superhero movie with the lights on.
“Dark Phoenix” isn’t the first event-free event movie of the mega-franchise era, but this one is different — it’s a perfect storm of pointlessness. Not only does the movie fumble the baton pass between generations and fail to advance the series’ overarching story in any meaningful way, it also hardly seems to try. Not only does it botch the source material’s signature narrative arc, it also does everything in its power to flatten it out. Not only does it waste an excellent cast on a script that reduces all of its characters to basic constructs, it also puts them at the mercy of a first-time director who doesn’t even know how to make them look cool.
Without question, however, the most damning thing about “Dark Phoenix” is that it feels like it’s exactly the film that 21st Century Fox (RIP) had in mind when they hired franchise screenwriter Simon Kinberg to step behind the camera: safe, insubstantial, and skirting the surface of powerful ideas that even the kid-friendly animated series was unafraid to tackle. Diluted blockbusters are a dime a dozen these days, and this one at least has the decency to clock in at less than two hours, but there’s something especially grim and epochal about watching an undead franchise try to force its way through a story that hinges on the prospect of resurrection.
“Dark Phoenix” starts with death, and it’s the first of many scenes that have the bad luck of being very similar to moments from other, better superhero movies from earlier this year. It’s 1975, and a young redheaded girl named Jean Grey is sitting in the backseat of her parents’ car and unconsciously changing the radio station with her psychic abilities (enjoy those two bars from “Werewolves of London,” because it’s all downhill from there). Faster than you can “Shazam!,” little Jean comes face to face with her powers and causes the fatal accident that will haunt her as an adult. As tiresome as it is to see yet another film that opens with a car wreck, Kinberg and his stunt/effects teams deserve credit for staging a crash that’s tactile without being indulgent, and scarring enough to shadow the rest of the plot.
When the action jumps forward to 1992, Jean (once again played by Queen in the North, Sophie Turner) has become one of the most dependable upperclassmen at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, where she continues to assist the academy’s eponymous headmaster (James McAvoy) in his lifelong campaign to establish a lasting harmony between powerful mutants and the masses who fear them. Things are going well! The X-Men have saved the world enough times for the public to see them as more of a necessity than a threat — the President even has a cute little “X” phone in the Oval Office — though Charles acknowledges that his kind are only “one bad day away from being the enemy again.” (“Dark Phoenix” broaches the historical idea of marginalized people being granted conditional privileges, but when that “bad day” eventually comes all conversation of internment camps is shunted to the deepest corners of the background.)
On a personal level, Jean also appears to be in a good place. For one thing, she’s growing closer to Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), whose perpetual eye-laser burns extra hot for her; these two attractive twentysomethings don’t appear to have much in common beyond a big house and good cheekbones, but Kinberg’s script assumes that most people have seen enough of these movies to leave it at that. For another thing, Charles has used his cerebral superpowers to “scaffold” Jean’s broken psyche together, protecting her from the memory (or even the basic knowledge) of what she did to her parents as a child.
That sounds like a solid solution with no chance of going horribly wrong! Of course, even geniuses can be idiots, and there’s something ineffably human in the idea that one of the smartest people on the planet might still be liable to hurt someone he loves in a misguided effort to protect them from themselves. This critic is less willing to accept the fact that Charles gets so lost in his own simple metaphor that he forgets how scaffolding is — by definition — temporary.
Alas, “Dark Phoenix” has little interest in meaningfully interrogating the means of Charles’ mission. Kinberg doesn’t have the stomach to approach this as a story about a man trying to minimize a woman’s emotional experience, and so the professor’s questionable ethics are only relevant as a means of pissing off his most powerful student, whose memories come flooding back to her in a rotten torrent of decades-old rage when a dangerous space mission ends with Jean absorbing a raspberry swirl of cosmic gunk.
Instead of reckoning with the latent misogyny of Charles’ actions, Kinberg shoehorns in a cringe-tacular scene where Raven (once again played by an unapologetically bored Jennifer Lawrence) snaps at the unappreciative professor that he should consider calling them “X-Women.” Even though the entire climax of “Dark Phoenix” was reshot to avoid similarities with “Captain Marvel,” the two movies are still bound together by their shared insistence that girl power can be productively expressed through a series of empty postures. “My emotions make me strong!,” Jean declares, but dialogue like that doesn’t resonate when it’s spoken by a character who’s solely defined by her superpowers. What emotions is she talking about? We can only guess.
At least “Captain Marvel” boasted a compelling race of alien “villains” who complicated the drama instead of snuffing it out. The ominous energy “Dark Phoenix” collects in its first scenes begins to drain away as soon as a vagabond group of shapeshifting extraterrestrials come to Earth, borrow Jessica Chastain’s body, and — in an especially cruel touch — dye her eyebrows as white as her wig. (Did the galaxy learn nothing from the cosmetic atrocities of the first “Thor” movie?) Chastain is excellent as always, but her character is so underwritten that you’d be hard-pressed to remember its name. IMDB says it’s… Vuk? Why not. Whatever the case, the baddie is little more than a devil on Jean’s shoulder in the second act, and a convenient villain for her to fight in the third. Most of all, Vuk is a well-cast excuse to background Charles’ mind games in favor of some standard-issue alien blather about playing God.
Strangely enough, the reshot finale — set aboard a speeding military train — is the film’s only engaging action sequence, as Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) gets an excellent kill and Magneto (Michael Fassbender, who’s definitely in this) has some fun with metal. It’s not enough to make up for the dull torpor of the previous fight scene, or the exceedingly silly bit where Fassbender and Turner have a telekinetic clench-off as they battle for mind control over a helicopter, but the last-minute spectacle is hard to take for granted in a movie that hasn’t offered a single memorable image until that point.
It’s not like any of the previous “X-Men” films Kinberg produced have done much to move the needle forward, but their best moments dared to insinuate these superheroes into the real world with a hint of the subversive power they’re intended to represent. Magneto and his half-naked minions flying into Auschwitz and destroying its memory remains one of the most dangerous and excitingly problematic events in any modern blockbuster because it transgresses the simple platitudes that superhero movies typically use to express a character’s trauma.
“Dark Phoenix,” on the other hand, is designed to avoid pushing any buttons. Or doing much of anything else, for that matter. It just sort of happens, and not even the movie itself seems to know why. “Dark Phoenix” promises that the X-Men will rise from the ashes — that Jean Grey will be reborn from her own pain — but there’s no use holding your breath for a miracle; this entire franchise feels like it’s already been interred.
21st Century Fox will release “Dark Phoenix” in theaters June 7.