Dark Phoenix is the cinematic representation of a shrug.
For a film with a budget of $200 million, it’s astounding how lifeless this conclusion to Fox’s long-running X-Men franchise feels. Scenes come and go with the energy of a hungover college student stumbling to the grocery store for their next serving of Pizza Rolls. Even the worst entries in this series at least had twinges of campy life flowing through their veins. Now even franchise mainstays like James McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence play their parts like they’re wishing a runaway train would crash through the set and put them out of their misery.
Once the biggest franchise in the world, the X-Men series is now clearly nothing but a burden for everyone involved. Anyone attached to these increasingly futile movies feels like they’re on autopilot, waiting the expiration date to set them free. With Disney’s acquisition of the property giving further installments little reason to exist, it seems they’ve got their wish. But the disinterest is so palpable that longtime series writer and producer Simon Kinberg, who is also making his directorial debut here, hasn’t crafted a grand sendoff for a property that rewrote the rules of blockbuster filmmaking. He would rather just let it drift off to sleep.
It’s grimly fitting that he administers the killing blow with yet another adaptation of the comics’ iconic “Dark Phoenix Saga”, a storyline he already took an ill-advised crack at with the widely hated X-Men: The Last Stand. The script is more faithful this time around, opening with the comic’s set-up of the X-Men venturing into space to save a crew of astronauts from a solar flare. In order to save both the astronauts and her team, the tortured mutant Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) uses her powers to absorb the flare, inadvertently amplifying her abilities. Her newfound strength comes with unfortunate consequences as her past traumas come to a head, turning her into a ticking time bomb that her friends are forced to confront.
There’s plenty of potential in adapting this story again, but unfortunately Kinberg has little to no idea of what to do with it. The movie simply chugs along with no real sense of purpose, with character motivations assigned but never explained and the action scenes having the impact of watching paint dry. None of the characters have any real depth, especially McAvoy’s weirdly arrogant Xavier and Jessica Chastain’s alien villain Vuk, who exists only to spout exposition and be the devil on Grey’s shoulder. Turner is the star but is given essentially nothing to do outside of cry and occasionally look menacing. This is a film so mindbogglingly inert that one of its flashiest scenes is two groups of mutants struggling to cross the street. It’s impossible to try and understand where all the money in the colossal budget went, as it appears only a quarter of it ends up on screen.
Kinberg’s reasoning for all of this is seemingly so he can take a stab at a Captain Marvel-like tale of female empowerment, but being a man, he doesn’t have the faintest idea of how to achieve that idea on his own. That movie has its problems, but at least it never explicitly states that it’s looking for feminist brownie points. Meanwhile, Dark Phoenix is desperate for a pat on the back, chalk full of embarrassing scenes like Lawrence’s Raven quipping that the team should be called X-Women, and Turner cringing her way through saying emotions are her strength. It’s no surprise that a writer who is known for writing terrible female characters is incapable of creating a script that earns its supposedly progressive elements.
Dark Phoenix’s ultimate sin is that it’s utterly unremarkable, not good enough to make a case for its existence and not bad enough to even be ironically entertaining. It’s a beached whale of a film, the representation of a once mighty franchise now stranded on land and desperate for death. We may never again get a comics franchise as deliciously campy as this, but hopefully that also means we never get a finale this dull and pointless either. Farewell, X-men, we hardly knew ye.
Dark Phoenix hits theaters worldwide tomorrow, June 7th.