DARK PHOENIX May be the Best X-MEN Yet

Dark Phoenix may be the best entry in the X-Men movie franchise to date, and it’s certainly the best superhero movie we’ve seen since Wonder Woman. Energetic, vibrant and exciting, this is one comic book adaptation which successfully captures the feel of a comic book story, a feat far too many writers and directed have underestimated. The movie is being handicapped by bad buzz from the impossible-to-please fanboy crowd owing to a reportedly troubled shoot and extensive reshoots, and that’s a pity. This is a damn near perfect Saturday night popcorn movie.

As long-time fans know, the X-Men franchise is actually the longest-running superhero movie series going (six installments not counting three standalone Wolverine movies), although it’s often been variable in quality and cavalier about consistency. Some viewers may be confused about the characters Jean Grey and Cyclops/Scott Summers even being in the movie – both characters were killed off in the 2006 X-Men: The Last Stand. However, the time travel-themed 2014 X-Men: Days of Future Past changed history, and this time the series is playing fair.

GAME OF THRONES Star Sophie Turner Makes Leap to Big Screen

Dark Phoenix treads similar ground to X-Men: The Last Stand, a movie that is generally not popular with franchise fans. This time the screenplay, authored by Simon Kinberg, who also makes his feature directorial debut, is based on “The Dark Phoenix Saga” comic book arc. The glorious Sophie Turner, fresh from her long-running role as Sansa Stark on HBO’s Game of Thrones, takes over the role of psychic mutant Jean Grey, previously played in the X-Men movies by Famke Janssen. Although she played the role in the forgettable X-Men: Apocalypse, it’s here she really makes an impression. She’s perfect in the role, and proves that she has more than enough presence for the big screen. The movie reboots Jean’s first introduction to Professor Xavier (James McAvoy), this time via the aftermath of a car accident which resulted in the death of the young girl’s parents.

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Tye Sheridan, James McAvoy, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Alexandra Shipp in DARK PHOENIX. Courtesy 20th Century Fox 2019

Never Poke a Meteor With a Stick…

Years later, though only in the nineties, Professor X sends his X-Men into space to rescue a space shuttle disabled by a mysterious cosmic force. During the rescue, Jean is subjected to the full brunt of the mysterious light show – and her eyes periodically start to glow when no one is looking. Back at the lab, tests show her mutant powers are now off the charts, but she insists she feels fine. Anyone who’s ever seen a science fiction movie knows that’s how it always starts. Later we find that Professor X psychically meddled with Jean’s memories to spare her pain and torment, but if the annals of science fiction teach us anything, they teach us that you never, never poke a meteor with a stick and you never meddle with the minds of mutants with awe-inspiring psychic powers.

As Jean Grey rapidly turns into a global menace, Jessica Chastain, with alarmingly bleached eyebrows, leads a cohort of invading aliens who can assume the form of humans, and who have their eye on Earth as a replacement for their own dead world. Jean’s newfound near-omnipotence is just the thing to help them take over.

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Sophie Turner in DARK PHOENIX. Courtesy 20th Century Fox 2019.

Younger Cast Members Make Good

The recurring cast of the X-Men movies has transitioned over the years, starting with the franchise prequel/reboot X-Men: First Class which featured younger versions of several of the main characters. X-Men: Days of Future Past actually used both the original, older versions of the characters of the characters in scenes that took place in different time periods. This movie makes no reference to the Patrick Stewart/Ian McKellan versions of Professor X and Magneto, and the Michael Fassbender iteration of Magneto makes a more exciting entrance anyway.

Tye Sheridan previously played Cyclops in X-Men: Apocalypse and Deadpool 2, and gets far more to do here. He’s up to the challenge, and manages to make an impact despite the visor that covers his eyes for the entire movie. Franchise queen Jennifer Lawrence (although The Hunger Games movies seem like ancient history already) returns for her fourth time around as Raven/Mystique, who this time has become a rebellious moral compass to counter the increasingly aloof Xavier’s growing megalomania. This is probably Lawrence’s most interesting forary into the role, although it takes nothing away from her performance to note that she has the benefit of probably the most convincing prosthetic makeup she’s worn yet. The same can be said of Nicholas Hoult, who is developing some serious leading man chops in his fourth appearance as mutant boy genius Hank McCoy/The Beast. Alexandra Shipp, who took over the role of Storm in X-Men: Apocalypse reprises effectively. Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road, Let Me In, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, X-Men: Apocalypse) makes a welcome return as the young Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler. Evan Peters, returning as Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver, doesn’t get enough to do, but shine in a couple of his trademark super speed sequences, which are handled with dazzling special effects.

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Courtesy 20th Century Fox 2019.

Special Effects Dazzle

In fact one of Dark Phoenix‘s major selling points is the quality of the special effects, which are way above what has become average in the genre. Although Dark Phoenix is as dependent on CGI as most superhero movies, the results here are far more convincing, and the movie avoids the video game look that has become all-too common in modern movies. The special effects are dazzling, and frequently don’t look like special effects, which should be the goal. The outer space scenes are notably better than average, comparing well with Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity.

The action sequences are rousing, with an immediacy that rivals the Bourne movies. As a writer/producer, he’s had a hand in several other franchise properties, including some of the best X-Men movies, like First Class and Days of Future Past, and some of the worst, like Last Stand and Apocalypse. This is a big picture to cut your directorial teeth on. Kinberg plays traffic cop well, although he certainly didn’t shoot all of the movie himself. At least four different units worked on the movie, and second unit director Brian Smrz apparently directed all of a major action sequence set on a military train, added during reshoots, himself.

Series Could Continue With Younger Cast

Still, the finished product is slick, polished and entertaining, and it’s ironic that the marketing campaign is touting Dark Phoenix as the last chapter in the X-Men saga. The new cast seems perfectly capable of carrying the torch. Hopefully they’ll get the chance.

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