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Thursday, June 6, 2019 12:04 am

Little fire in Dark Phoenix

“The women are always saving the men around here.  You may want to think about changing the name from X-Men to X-Women.”

So says defiant X-Women herself, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) in Dark Phoenix, signaling that the #MeToo movement has come to the franchise as well as a couple other significant changes. The intentions of one of the group’s most stalwart of characters are now coming under scrutiny, while the entire purpose of the team is being called into question.  More importantly, the production values and quality of the writing that have been hallmarks of this series take a significant step down under the eye and pen of writer/director Simon Kinberg. This seventh entry proves to be a lackluster affair, a visually bland exercise populated by uninspired performances from a cast that, by and large, seems eager to move on.

Based on the seminal comic book series by John Byrne and Chris Claremont, Kinberg wastes little time throwing the heroes into action.  When a space shuttle mission goes awry and the craft and crew need rescuing, Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) dispatches Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), Phoenix (Sophie Turner) Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Storm (Alexandra Shipp) into space on a rescue mission.  However, all doesn’t go well.  While the crew is saved, Phoenix is bombarded by a cosmic force that increases her already formidable powers.  Upon returning to Earth, she finds she cannot control them, does irreparable harm to the group and goes on the run, hoping to find salvation with Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and his colony of outcasts.

Time and again, Raven and Phoenix are at the forefront of the action, pushing the narrative along, feeling they’ve both been victimized by Xavier. His role as the benevolent mentor to all mutants is cast in a different light here as he’s seen as having used all he’s taken under his wing for the purpose of brokering peace with humans.  A noble cause to be sure, but one that feeds his ego, as he basks in the limelight as a part of the president’s inner circle, all while young members of the team die in his service.  It’s an interesting new take that provides one of the few meaty narrative hooks in an otherwise pedestrian story.

Jessica Chastain is also on hand as Vuk, an alien in human guise who wants to harness Phoenix’s new power in order to resurrect her near-extinct race.  Her pursuit of the altered mutant takes up a good chunk of the film’s running time, a quest that should have lasted half as long, yet seems twice the length.  Kinberg’s approach seems to be one of expedience, as scenes are rendered simply, with little thought given to imaginative framing or execution of the action scenes, which is the franchise’s bread-and-butter. Even more damning is that this extends to the dramatic moments in between.  One gets the sense that each scene was done in one take and that the filmmaker was loath to give notes or suggestions as to how to take a different approach.  Other than Fassbender, the cast simply isn’t engaged here, though with the simplistic dialogue they’re saddled with, one can hardly blame them.

To be fair, the movie ends strongly.  An extended train hijack/fight sequence is quite exciting, ranking among the best action set pieces in the franchise, while the conclusion ends up being as poignant as one could hope.  Yet, there’s a sense that this series is running on empty as Dark Phoenix has a tired feel to it. While some may lament the fact that these heroes probably won’t be seen on screen for some time, thanks to Disney’s recent acquisition of 20th Century-Fox, this could end up being a blessing in disguise.  Those in charge of this franchise need a bit of time to recharge and regroup.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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