Dark Phoenix is in theaters. It’s very not good. Most of you aren’t going to see it. I don’t blame you. It’s a contractual obligation superhero movie which substitutes the over-the-top goofiness of Apocalypse for a far somber, character-driven tone. However, I’d rather remember Apocalypse as the final X-Men film over this joyless, self-important affair.
Soon enough, the actors responsible for it will make their final appearances on their endless PR tour. They’ll finally be freed to retreat back to their lives where they can drop the act that this movie was anything other than a disaster of endless delays and reshoots born out of a need to paper over a terrible script and unimaginative direction. Years from now, the X-Men will return in some form, and we’ll move on to our third cinematic versions of Professor Charles Xavier and Magneto and, sadly, our second version of Wolverine. Dark Phoenix will be but a distant memory by that point.
Not for Simon Kinberg, the film’s writer-director-producer. The son of a film professor, Kinberg joined the X-Men franchise with The Last Stand and stuck around to produce Deadpool, Logan, Deadpool 2, and The New Mutants and write the scripts for First Class, Days of Future Past, and Apocalypse. That last one just about broke him. Literally.
Shortly after production, Kinberg came down with a severe flu and was sidelined for an entire month, during which time he lost 15 pounds. He thought he was going to die. An experience like that tends to opens a person’s eyes to the changes they need to make in their life. For example, when the Ike Perlmutter-run version Marvel Studios done Jon Favreau dirty on Iron Man 2 and his rebound fling with Cowboys & Aliens left him feeling empty, he disappeared into himself and came back with a deeply personal movie, Chef, about a father and son reconnecting by going into the food truck business together.
Kingberg tried to do that. As an uber-producer masterminding the X-Men universe and helping out with the Star Wars universe as well, he realized he was spreading himself too thin. Maybe it was time to take a break and make a passion project, something that won’t make him a nickel but will nourish his soul.
Instead, he made Dark Phoenix. Not only that, he decided it would be his directorial debut.
“The truth is I find myself in the movies,” he told Ben Fitz in The Big Picture. “I’m not writing them on an assembly line. My brain is always living in these stories, even when I think I may die from the flu.”
When he sat down to brainstorm ideas for a passion project, the themes he wanted to explore – love and loss, pain, jealousy, anger – all seemed like they belonged in a Dark Phoenix movie, never mind the fact that the story has already been done twice in the past 30 years, first on X-Men: The Animated Series and then in The Last Stand. His passion project was to finally get the damn story right and make up for Last Stand.
There’s more to it for him than that, though. Kinberg’s marriage of 14-years fell apart during the production of Days of Future Past and turned his two kids into children of divorce. Dark Phoenix gives the impression he’s still working through that. That’s why the film largely plays like a repentant father apologizing to his wayward daughter.
The entire story bends itself around Xavier (James McAvoy) suffering the consequences of the lies he told an 8-year-old Jean Grey to protect her. She (Sophie Turner) discovers the truth 17 years later – I won’t spoil the specifics of what he lied to her about, but I will say this particular twist needed to be stronger. At the same time, she loses control of her newly supercharged powers, meaning the entire planet might just pay for Xavier’s sins. That is, of course, unless he has yet another lovely speech about hope and love in his back pocket, which is kind of his specialty, so much so that Kinberg’s script hangs a lantern on it.
The emotional climax of the story – and insert spoiler warning here – pulls from the Days of Future Past playbook and involves Xavier and Jean using their psychic powers to talk to one another in a peaceful place inside their minds while carnage surrounds their physical bodies. In this psychic setting, Jean reverts back to being the 8-year-old girl we met in the opening scene and Xavier compassionately makes the case that everything he ever did for her was born out of love and a desire to protect her. While not literally her father, this man who helped raise this girl from the age of 8 is pretty much a parent dropping his best “I tried my best, I made mistakes, can you ever forgive me?” speech.
In a film which lacks imagination, urgency, or the sense that anyone on screen truly wanted to be there, this emotional climax feels like Kinberg working through some stuff.
But film studios aren’t usually in the business of turning $200 million blockbusters into therapy sessions. Such films demand spectacle and lots of shit blowing up. As a first-time director, this is where you’d most expect Kinberg to struggle, and you’d be right. He may have been the one to write those older movies, but Bryan Singer and Matthew Vaughn are the ones who directed them.
Their capacity for staging superhero action set pieces is far superior to Kinberg’s, who orchestrates several of them so awkwardly you’ll be forgiven if you laugh out loud. I swear you can almost still see the safety harness on the actors anytime they fly or levitate. Don’t get me started on when Sophie Turner and Michael Fassbender take turns just standing there and awkwardly gesturing their hands at the CGI helicopter they’re meant to be controlling with their minds.
Kinberg’s not much better at extracting any emotion out of the performances. Jennifer Lawrence, as she did in Apocalypse, gives as transparent a DGAF performance as as you’ll ever see and most everyone either follows her lead or just doesn’t have nearly enough to do in the script to stand out. Sophie Turner, whose very actorly preparation reportedly included 6 months of studying/observing schizophrenia patients at mental hospitals, does at least give it her all. However, the script loses track of the female empowerment message it’s trying to send in this story which is ultimately about a woman learning to embrace her own emotions.
If none of it is enough to convince you Kinberg was probably in over his head on Dark Phoenix, did I forget to mention his surprising Rocky IV tendency to keep flashing back to earlier scenes in the movie, as if audiences need fresh reminders every 25 minutes? Because that’s a thing that happens.
Mercifully, though, Dark Phoenix does eventually end. There’s no post-credits scene meaning you can leave right away, which is how I imagine most of the actors ended their days on set during principal photography two years ago.
I described much of the behind the scenes personal drama before in an article last year when the first Dark Phoenix trailer was released. That was back when the film was supposed to come out in February 2019. It got delayed. Obviously. That wasn’t the first time either. All told, Dark Phoenix was pushed back a total of 7 months, during which time its budget ballooned. They had to reshoot their ending because what they originally came up with was apparently far too similar to Captain Marvel’s ending, particular the usage of the shapeshifting aliens called the Skrulls.
That’s how X-Men, the longest running superhero movie franchise, closes things out – being forced to reshoot an ending because a newer, far more popular superhero movie had some of the same ideas as them. That feels right, actually. As another superhero franchise once put it, you either die the hero or live long enough to become the villain. The third option is you simply live long enough to see yourself become obsolete and passed over by the competition. Dark Phoenix, despite Kinberg putting a lot of himself into the story, is exactly that kind of whimper.
THE BOTTOM LINE
They should have stopped after Days of Future Past, but they really, really should have stopped after Apocalypse.