Once upon a time movies like X-Men and Pirates of the Caribbean and their various contemporaries took their characters, mythologies and obligations to be spectacular extremely seriously, and audiences were fine with that. Then came Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, quipping his way through superhero battle and establishing an ironic postmodern sensibility in mainstream Hollywood films that the uncanny and unbelievable must be acknowledged, mocked and compared to an established 80s pop culture reference. It was Men in Black-era Will Smith on steroids. And it infected all of our popcorn entertainment.
Worst of all, it produced the Deadpool movies, sickeningly meta and utterly in contempt of their audience, a series of films that — on some level — exist in the same ‘cinematic universe’ as Simon Kinberg’s Dark Phoenix, a film notable as much for its transient role in the Disney/Fox studio merger as its unique and jarring lack of any self-awareness, attempts as humour or cockiness. It’s a simple, bleak adaptation of an iconic comic-book storyline starring two generations of overqualified young actors (the 2011 First Class team and their 2016 Apocalypse recruits), with a totally OTT Hans Zimmer chorally-infused score, and it’s one of the most expensive debut features in history, the first directorial effort of longtime producer and writer Simon Kinberg. By the standards of this genre and its recent output, Dark Phoenix is not at all terrible.
Kinberg has spoken of his initial desire for a “more contemplative off-peak winter release date” for this film rather than the June weekend it was ultimately dumped on. This instinct is consistent with the film’s lower-key action and melancholy mood. There are no traditionally sensational action sequences until around the 90 minute mark; rather there’s a Fantastic Four-esque space mission that opens the story (hear Hans Zimmer try to score space without repeating Interstellar) and an indulgent amount of Sophie Turner screaming and crying — including at a bizarre mutant forest party/concert — as she struggles to deal with her Dark Phoenix psychosis. Turner plays the role like a young adult with serious paranoid schizophrenia, and her weakness as a dramatic actress almost makes the arc more disturbing to witness, as Zimmer’s creeping choir increases its domination of the sound mix.
The cast is so stacked with the “Hot New Things” of six and seven years ago — you’d be forgiven for forgetting Tye Sheridan and Kodi Smit-McPhee have any involvement in these films — that the late arrival of one Michael Fassbender as Magneto actually takes you by surprise. Magneto is now mayor of some mutant trash island colony, a set recycled from Logan I imagine, and Jean Grey’s decision to pay him a visit initiates the most enjoyable stretch of overwrought melodrama the film has to offer. Fassbender doesn’t really do lazy performances, and he doesn’t look quite as embarrassed as he did in Apocalypse, so there’s a lot to like in Magneto’s role here. A few snatches of him and James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier interacting one-on-one is a reminder of their insane First Class chemistry and the sad fact that they were rarely allowed to share scenes after that one film. Jessica Chastain parades in as a body possessed by an alien leader called Vuk. It’s by some distance her flattest work ever, one can only hope she got sufficient time to flirt with Fassbender on the set so something productive may have come of her involvement.
Dark Phoenix, especially in its final minutes as the meaningless action is ramped up in a very “The studio made us shoot this” sort of way, bears many of the traits of a project that got lost in the process. Kinberg, unfortunately, does not have James Mangold’s creative leverage and this film does not have a guarantor like Hugh Jackman. Logan it could never be. Yet in escaping any simplistic genre categorisation (other than Teen Angst Drama, arguably) it’s one of the more distinct comic-book experiments of the past few years in its own, ultimately failing, way. The worst part is: nobody will ever be allowed to make a Marvel adventure without stupid jokes ever again.