Dark Phoenix, the depressed blockbuster

The new X-Men movie isn’t great, but it does forge a weird, broken identity of its own.

Though it seems impossible now to imagine a world where superhero movies do not utterly dominate the cinematic landscape, all one needs to do is take a look at the X-Men franchise. Bowing out just a year shy of its 20th anniversary, the X-Men series has gone through innumerable highs and lows in its seven-film run (12 if you count the Deadpool and Wolverine movies); it has ingested and sometimes poorly digested the major trends of blockbuster filmmaking, it has gone through dozens of A-list stars (some of whom they turned into the A-list, while others went in either direction away from them) and it has, for better or worse, become a more or less obsolete franchise despite being, in many ways, the one that started it all.

The X-Men films have an almost 10-year advance on the Marvel Cinematic Universe and they’ve been more obviously mishandled, with constant personnel and talent changes, not to mention misguided attempts to steer the boat in another direction. Nevertheless, Dark Phoenix arrives cautiously and with a lot of baggage, leaving behind poisoned / poisonous director Bryan Singer and arriving on the heels of the Fox / Disney merger that finally brings the X-Men back into the MCU.

Of course, all of this extraneous bullshit says nothing about the film. It’s all adaptation / marketing / business piffle on the surface, but it also does explain a lot about Dark Phoenix – a banal, somewhat anonymous, somewhat entertaining Johnny-Come-Lately chapter in a rapidly withering franchise that no one quite knows what to do with any more. It’s a film whose stifling production context represents, bafflingly, one of its most interesting aspects.

A few years after the events of Apocalypse (1992, to be precise), the X-Men have finally reached an equilibrium within the world — the President now calls on the X-Men when they need otherworldly help. In this case, the X-Men need to fly up to space to save a spacecraft that is being sucked into a solar flare. The mission proves harder than they predicted, and a turn of events leaves Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) stranded for a second too long on the doomed spacecraft, which in turn leads to her absorbing the solar flare with her body.

Though the accident seems to have no obvious negative effect on her health, Hank McCoy (Nicolas Hoult) notes that she seems to be stronger than ever before. The change also sparks a newfound rage in Grey when she discovers that her father — who she presumed died in an accident that she caused as a child with no idea of her own powers — is still alive, a fact that has been hidden from her by Professor Xavier (James McAvoy). At some point, an alien (played by an entirely wasted Jessica Chastain) shows up; the solar flare destroyed her world, so now her and her people need to take over Earth. You know, the usual.

Dark Phoenix is extremely rough going in the early stages. The X-Men movies directed by Singer have always had this chintzy, cheap-plastic feel to them that rendered their attempts at profundity rather pointless. Here, director Simon Kinberg (who wrote and produced several prior installments of the series) swaps that out for generalized moroseness and indifference that lends a little bit of gravitas to the film’s most dramatic scenes but turns everything else into garbage. The space rescue scene — arguably the centrepiece of the film’s first half — is particularly bungled, with anemic mise-en-scène and blorpy Hans Zimmer music that suggests the world’s most expensive high school play. It’s hard to describe without actual images, but Dark Phoenix looks expensive and feels cheap.

That having been said, the tone is certainly an unusual one for a blockbuster of its stature. Despite going to outer space and offering a handful of explosive action setpieces, in retrospect Dark Phoenix feels like it happens mostly indoors. It’s a depressed blockbuster, even when it puts forth a long and elaborate train-based action sequence that truly gives the film a jolt of energy that carries it through. (I have to say that any movie that inserts a ripoff of The Raid midway through is pandering to me — it’s certainly never made a movie worse.) Even if the narrative is banal overall (it, in fact, has already been explored in the now more-or-less-ignored X-Men: The Last Stand) and familiar, Dark Phoenix stands a little off to the side from the pack.

In a way, I’ve always appreciated the X-Men series’ more pragmatic approach to stakes. The films don’t necessarily try to one-up each other with each new chapter, and characters are a lot less likely to stay alive (aka be tied to a long and complex contract) than in other films. This one feels more resigned somehow, less of a triumphant end of the series and more of a hunched episode amongst all others. Mind you, in most ways, this is a big, loud, boisterous blockbuster with cringe-inducing dialogue and flurries of incomprehensible, mind-melting CGI; it is absolutely not subversive or interesting in any meaningful way. But by trying not to take the paths of films before it — or, more accurately, by choosing which paths it does and doesn’t take — it manages to forge its own weird, broken identity. ■

Dark Phoenix is in theatres June 7. Watch the trailer here: