It is hard to overstate the importance of “The Dark Phoenix Saga” to the X-Men line of comic books or to its parent company, Marvel Comics. It made stars out of its creators Chris Claremont and John Byrne, took a title that was once on the brink of cancellation and made it Marvel’s best selling book, gave Marvel a financial boost in the arm it sorely needed and gave the company an army of loyal fans that stick with them to this very day.
It is one of the most important stories in mainstream comics, and fans have long wished to see it done right on the big screen. We got a smaller, tacked-on version of the epic in X-Men: The Last Stand, but that reduced the epic story to a bad part of a bad movie. Every comic fan knew that the seminal X-Men work could only be done justice in a full length film.
However, that film is not Dark Phoenix, which provides a stunning swing and a miss to wrap up Fox’s involvement with the main X-Men characters.
The X-Men are called upon to rescue a group of astronauts stranded in space after a solar flare knocks out the electrical systems in their space shuttle. Unfortunately, it is not your ordinary flare, but an energy cloud of immeasurable power. The X-Men manage to rescue all the astronauts but not before Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) becomes enveloped and absorbs the energy cloud into herself.
Upon returning to Earth, the X-Men are hailed as heroes and Jean seems to show no ill effects of her exposure other than becoming vastly more powerful. Problems arise when her powers spike uncontrollably and she starts to become corrupted by her newly heightened abilities. While her friends debate about what to do with her dangerous new power levels, Jean draws the attention of a mysterious woman (Jessica Chastain) who wants to use the mutant for her own nefarious purposes.
As a comic fan, I was amazed by how many story beats Simon Kinberg, who wrote and directed this installment, kept in the film from the original comic book story. I’m trying not to delve into any spoilers, but I’ll just say that Kinberg has managed to fit as many plot points as he could from the original text into the film, changing them so the fit in with the film’s continuity.
That being said, I wish that Kinberg spent as much time and effort on his writing and directing as he did with that particular bit of fan service, because we would have had a much better film.
I can honestly say this is the worst directing I have ever seen in a film. Granted, I have not seen any of the work of Ed Wood or Uwe Boll, so I might not have that good of a basis for comparison, but Kinberg’s directing is more clumsy and ham-fisted than I have ever seen in my 40+ years of film watching.
Let me give you two examples. First, a long-awaited X-Man makes their screen debut in this film,. It’s an extended cameo but one where they show off their powers. Kinberg circles around this character in action, giving the character perhaps more respect than they deserve. That is, until Kinberg decides to have a couple extras walk into frame, completely eclipsing the X-Man for a good couple of seconds, before walking off stage left. It had to be deliberate, because if it was an accident, they would have re-shot it or removed it in editing. Why spend so much screen time on this X-Man cameo only to take the focus away from the character half way through the showcase?
Here’s another one. Experienced moviegoers know that if a character is in sharp focus to the left or the right of the frame, and the background is out of focus, you should expect a big reveal to come in the blurry area. Be it a killer in a horror movie, the scorned friend in a teen drama, or the romantic lead in a rom-com, something important to the story will be revealed over the main character’s shoulder.
Well, it would if it was in a film not directed by Kinberg. He uses this technique a number of times but with no payoff. I guess he just thought that having his actor off to the side with a blurry background would make them stand out more than, say, positioning them in the center of the frame.
Another flaw in his directing style is the performances he gets from his actors, which range all the way from “Just phoning it in” (If you told me Jennifer Lawrence had a car waiting outside of the studio doors to whisk her away from the set the moment she was done on her last day of filming, I’d believe you) to “Making the best of a bad situation” (Nicolas Hoult has a few good moments where I thought I was watching a much better film).
Now you might say that it is unfair to criticize Kinberg as a director because this is his first film. To that, I say that video store clerks with as less experience than Kinberg have made unmitigated classics with their first films. But, fair enough, let’s move on to an area where he has 15 years experience – screenwriting – which is just as bad as his directing.
It’s hard to know where to start. Should I start with the dialogue, which is flat and overly melodramatic? The plotting, where events happened for no other reason than it sets up another scene? Or the characterization, where Kinberg pins hopes on the audience having seen every film in the series (and read a whole mess of comic books) for these characters and their relationships to make sense.
And with all its faults, it not even bad enough to get much enjoyment out of hating. It falls into that dreaded category, “It Should Have Been Much Better.” If Fox picked a stronger director, put more time into developing the interpersonal relationships and delivered a more nuanced script, we might have had a pretty good film. Instead, the end of Fox’s X-Men era fizzles out with a resounding, disappointing thud.