Edwin Arnaudin: The last time a Bryan Singer X-Men movie wasn’t followed by a Bryan Singer X-Men movie, we got Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand, an installment I find sufficiently entertaining but acknowledge is not on the level of X-Men and X2: X-Men United. After being pulled back into the Marvel series, Michael Corleone style, in the wake of Matthew Vaughn’s successful 2011 reboot X-Men: First Class, Singer and his personal problems resulted in the director not being invited back for Dark Phoenix. Did you miss his filmmaking or does first-time helmer Simon Kinberg (screenwriter of the series’ previous two films and The Last Stand) have you going, “Bryan who?"
Bruce Steele: Let me put it this way: When Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) came out of a screening of Revenge of the Jedi in a scene in 1980s-set Apocalypse and said, "I think we can all agree the third one is always the worst," I nodded in agreement. Apocalypse was an overwrought Mummy remake, and Singer couldn't disguise that lack of originality. Dark Phoenix takes the franchise down several more notches under Kinberg's supervision. It may be based on a beloved story line from the X-Men comics, but it plays like a 1950s sci-fi B-movie with 21st century special effects. It made me wonder whether I'd judged the most recent Fantastic Four too harshly.
Edwin: Ouch! Well, Kinberg was on the screenwriting team for that failure, and there are moments early in Dark Phoenix where I worried it was heading for a similar fate. The director’s idea of amplifying the emotions with which Jean wrestles upon returning from an astronaut rescue mission, wielding mysterious alien powers is to employ extreme close-ups with a shaky, handheld camera, accompanied by Hans Zimmer’s laughably manipulative score. Still, there’s plenty of joy to be had at seeing the X-Men’s individual powers as they work together in that space mission and outside Jean’s childhood home in hopes of rescuing their troubled friend. But as with the other films in this rebooted saga, once Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) enters the story, it really takes off.
Bruce: The early action sequences are quite good, I'll give you that. But the nasty aliens (led by a seemingly lobotomized Jessica Chastain) who want to — yawn — take over the Earth with the assistance of Jean's supersized powers are a tiresome, under-imagined lot, and the later action sequences are like deleted scenes from some Terminator movie. Then there's the obligatory face-off between the "good" mutants, led by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and the angry mutants led by Fassbender’s Magneto (who just seems exhausted by it all), and the inevitable speech by Charles to convince Eric/Magneto he's a good guy on the inside. The lead characters are all thin imitations of themselves. Fortunately, some of the supporting X-Men fair better, such as Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McFee) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult), who somehow grow appreciably amid the chaos.
Edwin: None of those perceived flaws bother me. Fassbender’s performances in First Class and Days of Future Past helped me realize that Eric/Magneto is my favorite X-Men character, and he only strengthens that status in Dark Phoenix. His personal history, impressive abilities, and, yes, his tightrope walk between good and evil make him a consistently fascinating figure. Those traits all comes together nicely in the film’s two big battle scenes, the latter of which gave me goosebumps. The beats of the X-Men movies may be somewhat formulaic, but the imaginative permutations of the familiar pieces keep the overall effects fresh.
Bruce: I missed the freshness. Both Singer's original pair of movies and the first two reboot installments (First Class and Days of Future Past) were creative metaphors for difference and considered explorations of that moral tightrope walk you refer to. Dark Phoenix, like Apocalypse, is just a parody of those efforts, going through the motions, with all human complexities stripped down to plot beats that serve over-the-top battles with inexplicably superpowered villains from out of nowhere. It's eye-rollingly rote. I share your love for Magneto and would have loved a whole movie about that isolated shipping-container Eden he's building offshore, maybe battling a Moral Majority empowered Col. Stryker — who is among the characters MIA in Phoenix.
Edwin: I kept thinking Stryker would show up, but was also fine not having him around for once. In his place, I like a reptilian/robotic Chastain — rather, an alien in a Jessica Chastain skin suit — as the chief villain. Like Thor: Ragnarok, it’s refreshing to have a woman as the antagonist in a comic book extravaganza. But yes, there’s a certain ho-humness to the clockwork of the X-Men having to save the planet every 10 years, though I’ll take pretty much any excuse to spend a couple of hours with them. I’m also plenty satisfied with the level of interpersonal and internal drama on display here. In addition to Jean, Charles, and Eric’s turmoils, the supporting fellows you mentioned and fellow blue person Raven/Mystique (my arch nemesis Jennifer Lawrence) are significantly more interesting in this adventure as they navigate their frustrations with Charles’ leadership and, in certain exciting cases, embrace their violent sides.
Bruce: Right. Raven does have a nice arc. Unfortunately, it involves repeatedly telling Charles he’s an egomaniacal jerk, which in this movie he basically is, thus undermining everything we’ve learned about Charles since the first X-Men. I just kept imagining Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen sitting in a movie pub somewhere, watching this and shaking their heads in disappointment at the destruction of their legacy, drinking some of that top-shelf booze Charles keeps tossing back in Dark Phoenix. For the sake of the nice start and supporting characters, I’ll give this wreck of a movie a C-minus.
Edwin: Where you see the Shakespearean legends drowning their sorrows, I see them toasting how the reboot has enhanced their hard work in the original trilogy. Charles may be a bit of a jerk this go-round, but as he so succinctly puts it, he’d rather be putting on a happy PR face for the world instead of having its citizens hunt down his kind — and he’s also right that mutants are one bad move from having the public turn on them once more. That underlying tension is the engine that keeps Dark Phoenix churning but also sadly what will probably go overlooked by the film's detractors. I give it a low B-plus.
Grade: B-minus. Rated PG-13. Showing at AMC River Hills, Carolina Cinemark and Regal Biltmore Grande.
(Photos: Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)