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Dark Phoenix

With the recent Disney-Fox merger now official, it became clear the X-Men as we currently know them was coming to an end. It’s been nearly 20 years, but we must recognize the X-Men franchise catapulted superhero films from gamble to license to print money, thanks mainly to compelling storylines and memorable characters like Logan/Wolverine, Professor Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto. Those characters were well-cast and were played admirably by Hugh Jackman, Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen, and they forged an amazing and lucrative path for the superhero genre which we know and love today.

Times have changed since the first X-Men was released in 2000, and the franchise has fallen behind while Disney and Marvel surpassed them in almost every facet. That being said, X-Men and Fox are still chugging along, hoping to grab a piece of the superhero cash pie.

Dark Phoenix (including the Wolverine and Deadpool solo films) is the franchise’s twelfth release. It is a retelling of one of the title’s most famous storylines and is (cinematically) another take with a younger cast. With a reported budget of $200 million, Dark Phoenix is written and directed by Simon Kinberg, and stars James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Evan Peters and Jessica Chastain. It’s set in 1992 and at the heart of its storyline is the notion that protecting loved ones from painful truths can come with dire consequences.

Dark Phoenix has been plagued with poor reviews and, considering this is the franchise’s denouement, this group of X-Men deserves a more satisfying send off. There are obvious problems with Dark Phoenix but it’s not nearly as bad as it’s been made out to be. In case anyone’s forgotten, X-Men: The Last Stand exists and, in my opinion, still holds the dubious distinction as being the worst in the franchise.

One of the biggest flaws is that Jean Grey (Turner) was only a bit player within this timeline. Sure, we saw glimpses of Jean’s power in 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse but audiences aren’t invested in this iteration of Jean. So, pushing her into the spotlight means viewers lacked any opportunity to identify with her. In addition, Fox cruelly decided to make room for Phoenix by casting Raven Darkhölme (Lawrence) aside, a move that was clearly inferred in early trailers. Somehow, there’s plenty of room for McAvoy, Fassbender and Lawrence to shine, but adding another woman was too much. Kinberg tried addressing that briefly with a quick #MeToo blurb about the moniker ‘X-Men,’ but it was too little, too late and pandered just a tad.

With that in mind, only viewers who can either: defer to Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey; defer to the comics; or refer to both, can come in with any attachment to Jean Grey. At that point, Dark Phoenix is more enjoyable but still flawed.

Besides that, seemingly only McAvoy, Fassbender and Lawrence were comfortable in their roles. McAvoy must've studied every cadence, mannerism and gesture Patrick Stewart used while playing Charles, and it shows. His role is crucial because his misplaced love for his students is at the center of Dark Phoenix’s plight. McAvoy delivers despite a weak script that depicts Charles as one-dimensional.

Same goes for Fassbender, who’s never phoned in any role. He’s as intense as ever, and X-Men sorely misses him as its main villain. Fassy’s already done some heavy lifting but he should’ve been asked to do more. He gets to be mad again and he gets to flex his powers again, but this lacks his raw anger and his powers are subverted by Jean (which is great because Jean is arguably the planet's most powerful mutant).

Lawrence, despite being an award-winning actress, is the one person who tuned out. I guess upon seeing the script (or maybe she asked for her character’s screen time to be minimized) she moved forward with minimum effort. Oddly, Lawrence was still more convincing than Turner, which makes pushing Raven out all the more confusing. Raven was never a major player in the comics, but her story arc deserved better considering she was a major contributor to this series.

Dark Phoenix continues the trend of terrible villains. Jean Grey is the conflicted antagonist, but the true villain is Vuk (Chastain), an alien who's as convincing as a one-legged Terminator. She and her alien buddies (known as the D'Bari) want Jean’s newfound powers, and Vuk tries to sweet talk Jean into getting it. It’s merely a Star Wars Palpatine-Anakin dynamic which sadly lacks the depth of THAT relationship.

Dark Phoenix, despite what many critics have exclaimed, is NOT the worst in the franchise. It’s certainly not the best because its flaws are glaring, but it still manages to entertain with its reused and remixed storyline.

X-Men has been losing steam, that can’t be argued. And the franchise’s swan song should’ve been 2017’s Logan. But there are remnants of its old, glorious self which save it from complete disaster. Because of that, Dark Phoenix has some entertainment value. Finally, Kinberg’s directorial debut moves briskly at 114 minutes and its action set pieces are admirable, if unoriginal.

But we’re in a post Endgame world, which means this entry is minor league level. Still, after 19 years Dark Phoenix carries some weight, even if that weight has gotten lighter over time.

2.5 stars out of 5

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