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'X-Men: Dark Phoenix': Dull farewell to first-generation superhero film franchise

Rizki Fachriansyah
Rizki Fachriansyah

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Wed, June 12, 2019  /  03:59 pm

Twentieth Century Fox’s flagship superhero franchise finally concludes with another adaptation of Chris Claremont’s The Dark Phoenix Saga – a popular Marvel Comics storyline that was first adapted to the silver screen in 2006’s critically divisive X-Men: The Last Stand.

However, unlike the mythical phoenix itself, which is reborn from the ashes to become something truly majestic, the franchise’s last hurrah is a hollow spectacle that ends on a disappointing note. 

Set in 1992, Dark Phoenix once again sees fan-favorite mutants fight an enemy from within their own makeshift family as they struggle to maintain a peaceful relationship with the rest of the world. 

After being struck by – and subsequently absorbing – a mysterious energy resembling a solar flare during a rescue mission in outer space, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) begins to develop extraordinary abilities that also happen to drastically alter her personality. 

Jean – known among her peers as a gentle soul – becomes increasingly unhinged and destructive as she assimilates with the alien force, threatening the lives of everyone she holds dear.

First-time director Simon Kinberg, who served as a producer in the previous three X-Men films, touts Dark Phoenix as a course correction following the less faithful adaptation that is The Last Stand

In this regard, Kinberg succeeds in recreating major plot beats from the original source material, such as the X-Men’s initial misadventure in outer space and their brief brush with a shadowy cabal of villains that resembles the comics’ Hellfire Club.

Kinberg, however, fails in almost every other aspect. 

The centerpiece of the X-Men franchise has always been the core ensemble; the interpersonal dynamics among the insecure mutants has consistently functioned as a beating heart for the long-running superhero saga. 

It is a shame, then, that Dark Phoenix abandons the series’ penchant for careful characterization as it rushes to its own nonsensical conclusion. 

Kinberg, who also wrote the screenplay for Dark Phoenix, treats major characters such as Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) as little more than mindless automatons whose baffling actions in the film betray their respective character arcs. 

To make matters worse, Kinberg glosses over the dramatically engaging push-and-pull between mutants. None of the characters are given adequate screentime to mull over their fatal decisions, making every single action that drives the narrative feel terribly mechanical. 

Even the usually compelling Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is almost completely wasted in Dark Phoenix as he is reduced to a mere pawn that serves no other purpose than to further the rote plot. Thankfully, Fassbender’s naturally magnetic screen presence lends the film a modicum of gravitas. 

The action sequences in Dark Phoenix are shot to appear more brutal than in the previous films – an apparent effort to drive home the point that anyone can die in this grim and serious finale. 

Read also: Watch Sophie Turner in the new trailer for ‘X-Men: Dark Phoenix’

There are interesting directorial flourishes to find here and there, such as the series’ signature slow-motion sequences that see Quicksilver’s (Evan Peters) rush to rescue his fellow mutants in supersonic speed. However, these grace notes are few and far between as the rest of the film is largely filled with weightless, often under-lit computer-generated spectacles that seem somewhat outdated. 

Deliberate artistic choices, such as frenetic camera work – evocative of Gareth Evans’ The Raid films – during a brawl on a fast-moving locomotive, are more exciting on paper than the actual cinematic execution. 

Above all, Kinberg’s biggest failure is his screen translation of Jean Grey – the titular Dark Phoenix herself. 

It is clear that Kinberg intends to frame her uninhibited powers as a thinly-veiled metaphor for female empowerment akin to Marvel Studios’ Captain Marvel. The notion of Charles Xavier telepathically controlling a young Jean Grey without her consent pays obvious lip service to the #MeToo zeitgeist.

However, Kinberg stops short of saying anything remotely resonant through his intended parallel to real-world sociopolitical reality, making the film’s feminist undertones feel shallow and perfunctory. 

Despite the film’s disappointing whole, Hans Zimmer’s operatic score remains a commendable diamond in the rough. 

Zimmer, who promised not to score for another superhero film after 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, returns in Dark Phoenix, sounding as invigorated as ever. He replaces John Ottman’s anthemic X-Men theme music with his own grand symphony of haunting piano and thumping percussion that recalls his film scores in the late 1990s. 

The musical score for Dark Phoenix befittingly sounds like an elegy, both for the tortured Jean Grey and the X-Men film franchise itself. 

The recent acquisition of the 20th Century Fox film studio by Disney signals the end of an era. The original X-Men film franchise kicked off in the early years of the new millennium, heralding an entire slew of superhero comic book adaptations that would go on to dominate popular culture until this very day. 

The legacy of the X-Men films, as tarnished with flaws and unfortunate behind-the-scenes scandals as it is, serves as a fascinating time capsule where geek culture still struggled to integrate itself into the mainstream. 

After Dark Phoenix, the X-Men will likely be adopted by Disney’s fool-proof blockbuster machine as another piece in the ever-expanding puzzle that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

Until next time, X-Men. It has been quite the journey, regardless of the underwhelming destination. (wng)

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