Stupidity in movies is a tough thing to ignore. It shouldn’t be ignored for one thing, as the amount of thought and intelligence put into a movie usually helps measure how good a movie actually is. Sometimes there are cases where the amount of dumb in a movie helps make it charming or can be part of its underlying message. But other times stupidity is a sign of lazy writing, poor editing, unfocused direction and overall bad filmmaking. More often than not, stupidity can be all of those things and so much more…unfortunately.
This week’s case study is Dark Phoenix, a movie that’s so braindead it’s a wonder if it ever had any life to begin with or was just too stupid to live. It’s also a case of the movie itself being the least interesting part of its own hype, what with Disney’s recent acquisition of 20th Century Fox and the fate of the current X-Men movie franchise. Fans are more concerned about whether or not the mutant force created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby will join the Marvel Cinematic Universe than actually seeing a competent film adaptation of one of the most acclaimed comic book stories. There were also release date changes, re-shoots and spoilers leaked out by cast members who clearly don’t care about this any more. Whatever hope or promise Dark Phoenix had has been driven into the ground and buried by a combination of distraction and disinterest, and this is before anyone even gets to actually talking about the movie.
Said movie is based on the 10-issue run of Uncanny X-Men comic books in 1980. Despite the cavalcade of mutants, the movie’s main character is the shy but secretly powerful telepath Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). Orphaned as a young girl and taken in by Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), she’s the more cautious and delicate member of the X-Men watched over by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). But when the X-Men are called to rescue a group of astronauts from a mysterious solar flare, Jean absorbs all of its energy and starts to have uncontrollable fits of rage-fueled power trips. She causes damage to the team and flees to figure out what’s wrong with her while being pursued by a mysterious woman (Jessica Chastain) who knows what Jean can really do. The X-Men have to stop Jean and decide whether or not that means destroying her.
Of course this isn’t the first time a movie version of the Dark Phoenix storyline had been tried, as 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand used the plot to be the crescendo of the original trilogy of films. That movie’s fatal flaw was trying to do too much, mixing the Dark Phoenix plot line with that of a mutant cure, the relationship between Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Jean Grey (then played by Famke Janssen), the continued theme of oppression against mutants and the mandate of a summer blockbuster. It’s a lot of ambition to put on the shrugged shoulders of Hollywood frat bro Brett Ratner but it was at the very least entertaining. Dark Phoenix is on the complete opposite side of the coin having absolutely no ambition whatsoever. Nothing is done to focus more on the development of Jean Grey or how she becomes so malevolent. None of the other mutants have any depth to them and everyone’s appearance in the film feels obligatory rather than exciting. Any miniscule morsel of an idea is passed over to get to either another action scene or another scene of Jean crying. It’s as if writer/director Simon Kinberg had his finger on the fast-forward button while editing the movie as every plot thread and character arc is rushed to get the movie under a two-hour runtime. Dark Phoenix has a similar feel to that of Fantastic Four, the 2015 reboot of the Marvel superhero team that was infamously plagued with reshoots and post-production problems. This movie appears to be edited down to keep the runtime short and yet so much is rushed and incomplete that it feels like 30 minutes are missing from the final cut. It’s another case of a movie telling the audience things that have happened without showing them, demanding the audience accept things and move on. There’s no indication as to how Mystique became the Mother Hen to Jean (and the rest of the team for that matter), how Professor Xavier adjusted to becoming so famous that the President has him on speed dial, how the X-Men suddenly became national celebrities or how Magneto ended up with his own private mutant colony to foster. This sped-up pace also nukes any sense of emotional weight or impact to scenes, like the movie is constantly shrugging off its own drama.
Digging further underneath the apathy coming off of Dark Phoenix is a hefty batch of laziness and stupidity. The way the X-Men are called to duty by the U.S. President via custom-made telephone and how people from the world around tune into their rescue like it’s the World Cup brings the movie down a level of camp not seen since Adam West’s days as Batman. Combine that with the more cosmic elements of the movie’s plot (think Degrassi meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and minor fallacies of logic (how do the X-Men breath in space with no space suits?) to make for an embarrassing endeavor. Dark Phoenix should be thankful for its rushed pace and total lack of investment distracting the audience from how stupid it is. If the movie wasn’t so mind-numbingly bland, it’s idiocy might be good for a laugh.
There’s certainly no joy coming from the actors in the movie. Turner’s take on Jean Grey is a lost puppy whose defining character trait is her delicate wrist movements. This may be more the fault of the dull script because Turner is given nothing to do in terms of dialogue and is swallowed whole by the special effect around her. A lot of the acting can likely be blamed on the script totally misusing its players, McAvoy especially as he’s asked to make Professor X an egotistical idiot in Dark Phoenix. McAvoy looks confused and underwhelmed in every scene he’s in, making him appear so defeated that Xavier sleeping on the couch like a homeless college student seems appropriate. The other key players here, including Michael Fassbender, Tye Sheridan, Evan Peters, Alexandra Shipp and Kodi Smit-McPhee, have little impact on the story as a whole and act accordingly, posing for movie stills and action figure tie-ins. Chastain and especially Lawrence are just here for paychecks and grasps at relevancy as they float through their scenes with bland disinterest. The only one who really tries to make something out of his time onscreen is Nicholas Hoult, who feels like the one with the most emotional weight on him as his Hank McCoy/Beast feels conflicted on whether the mission of the X-Men remains noble. It’s the most impact Beast has had on an X-Men movie for some time and Hoult does an admirable job trying to shake the rest of the movie awake.
It would be cliche to say that Dark Phoenix burns out and fades away, but that would imply the movie was even alive to begin with. For what’s supposed to be a climax to a story of such iconic characters, Dark Phoenix is about as epic and dramatic as an annual physical. Lord knows Fox wanted to get this off of their balance sheet as quick as possible so Disney could take the baton and run with it, so hopefully Kevin Feige picks up the slack left behind. Everyone involved in this production treated the movie like an obligation more than a creative endeavor, like getting an oil change or visiting a relative. I myself was thinking of better things to do with my time than sit through a hacked-up hollow blockbuster, like getting a car wash or a lobotomy.