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Film Reviews Dark Phoenix fails to rise from the ashes of the burned-out X-Men franchise

Sophie Turner stars as Jean Grey, a.k.a. Dark Phoenix.

COURTESY TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

  • Dark Phoenix
  • Written and directed by: Simon Kinberg
  • Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Sophie Turner
  • Classification: PG; 113 minutes
  • Rating: 1 out of 4 stars

I am old enough to remember when the first X-Men movie arrived in theatres. It was an innocent, practically prelapsarian age, when the superhero action film was still a novelty, and not the de facto mode of blockbuster moviemaking. Special-effects technology had advanced to such a point that the adventures of a team of genetically altered mutants, with their knives for hands and lasers for eyes and capacity to control metal and the weather, could be sold as both believable and genuinely exciting.

It was also a time when prefilm chatter was dominated by the sort of asinine schoolyard speculation common among comic-book fans: “Will Wolverine do his drill claw move?” “Will Magneto stop a hail of incoming bullets and then send those bullets flying back at the people who shot them?” “Can Superman outrun The Flash?!”

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So it’s a bit despairing when the buzz in the theatre in advance of Dark Phoenix – said to be the last of the however-many X-Men films released in the past two decades – has less to do with speculative super-heroics and more to do with corporate takeovers, character licensing and the fate of the beloved X-Men since 20th Century Fox – which owned the franchise – was bought out by Disney – which now retains the rights. Whatever ecstatic, subcultural power superheroes and comic-book movies may have possessed circa 2000 is now long gone. Fans have mutated into armchair boardroom generals. They don’t want to be Wolverine, or Storm, or the magnets guy anymore. They want to be Kevin Feige, or Bob Iger, or one of the other chief executives who play with billion-dollar franchises like they’re ToyBiz action figures.

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Dark Phoenix is billed as an epic conclusion to the onscreen X-Men mythos.

COURTESY TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

Sad, perhaps. But no more so than Dark Phoenix itself: a film so dull, flat and totally joyless that, in the absence of anything compelling unfolding on screen, one’s mind may be forgiven for turning to the corporate machinations grinding behind it. As with Disney’s recent Avengers: Endgame, Dark Phoenix is being billed as an epic conclusion to the onscreen X-Men mythos. Yet, unlike the proper “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” the X-Men films are muddied by reboots, time-travelling continuity revisions and multiple casts playing the same characters. Likewise, little in the way of table setting had occurred in the run-up to Dark Phoenix, which makes it feel less like a grand finale, and more like a rushed ending hammered out under a tight deadline.

Dark Phoenix rehashes the story of troubled mutant Jean Grey’s possession by an omnipotent cosmic spirit called the Phoenix. It’s a plotline familiar to comics readers, X-Men: The Animated Series viewers and whatever fans of 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand might exist. While it’s wise to never feel bad for wealthy movie stars, it’s difficult not to pity the series’ heavyweight talents (including James McAvoy as Charles Xavier, Michael Fassbender as reformed villain Magneto and Jennifer Lawrence as the sometimes-shapeshifting Raven/Mystique), whose appearances here suffer under the heavy weight of contractual obligation. McAvoy, fresh off of M. Night Shyamalan’s deconstructed superhero satire Glass, feels especially out of place, like a post-Clouseau Peter Sellers asked to play a police detective straight.

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Dark Phoenix feels less like a grand finale and more like a rushed ending hammered out under a tight deadline.

DOANE GREGORY/TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

Relative franchise newcomers Sophie Turner (as schizoid telepath Jean Grey, a.k.a. Dark Phoenix), Alexandra Shipp (as Storm), Tye Sheridan (Cyclops) and Evan Peters (Quicksilver) don’t fare much better. Their performances are so cornball, and their line-readings so hacky, that one might be forgiven for confusing Dark Phoenix with some low-rent porno parody of itself. Save for an intermittently compelling late-game train robbery, writer/director Simon Kinberg exhibits absolutely zero knack for directing a compelling action sequence, and long-suffering superhero movie composer Hans Zimmer serves up a diluted, choral-driven score that sounds like someone is waterboarding Enya.

If there’s one silver lining here, it’s that Dark Phoenix spells an end for the X-Men: a movie franchise which, despite occasional flirtations with excellence (Days of Future Past, The Wolverine) has largely suffered diminishing returns since its welcome debut way back in the year 2000. But as the diehard true believers and excitable wannabe-Marvel Studios execs shoring Cineplex seats will tell you, there’s no end for X-Men, or the juggernaut trend of superhero blockbusters it inaugurated. Sold off to Disney, its characters will be sewn into the existent Marvel movie universe, rejigged, recast and reborn from the ashes, just like some kind of flaming, mythological bird … thing.

Dark Phoenix opens June 7.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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