Bad Writing and Token Feminism Cripples ‘X-Men Dark Phoenix’

“The women are always saving the men around here,” Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) tells Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) after a space mission. This statement is loaded with the simmering Times Up anger, but Lawrence, one of the talented actors of her generation delivers it with a detached commitment.

This lack of conviction is not the only issue that plagues the characters, it also impacts X-Men Dark Phoenix’s spine. Almost every actor in the film preen and prowl as if they’ve moved on in their heads. This is more of a contractual obligation than a passionate call.

All of it, almost all of it, can be pinned down to Simon Kinberg, the man who has written and directed the film with an overpowering imprecision. Yes, the release of the film has been pushed several times, and some of the special effects are of substandard quality. But all of this cannot obfuscate the film’s poor writing, botched timeline and its over-eagerness to get it over with.

The Dark Phoenix saga is one of the most famous narratives of the X-Men universe, and has a lot to say about female agency and power structure in the world of men. The film, streamlined like a suit, is least bothered about nuances, and lays it out like a dutiful daily dinner.

Since the focal point of the story is Jean Grey, we begin with her childhood, in a car ride with her parents. You’ve seen Shazam, right? It can’t go well. Jean grows under the supervision of Professor X, and becomes a member of the superhero team fighting for the greater good. A space mission results into Jean coming in contact with solar flare like energy force, but she survives.

Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark of Game of Thrones) playing Jean straddles with impoverished material, as her Jean becomes an increasingly volatile character who can’t fathom what’s happening to her. Kinberg’s script barely offers Turner the necessary fodder to make her character’s struggle believable.

The power inside her consumes her, but we don’t get a whiff of it. Even when Turner is made to do her little Lady Macbeth scene, it barely registers.

Jessica Chastain and Sophie Turner in Dark Phoenix.

Kinberg actually has a fine cast of actors to lay out the drama, but everything he does with them feels like a lazy remix. Before the Marvel band of boys and girls, it was X-Men who made the idea of teamwork cool on screen. Every time they got together, they displayed a kinetic chemistry in helping each other to reach a common goal or decimate an enemy. This is an ensemble that includes Turner, Lawrence, McAvoy, Michael Fassbender (Magneto), Nicholas Hoult (Beast), Tye Sheridan (Cyclops), Alexandra Shipp (Storm) etc, but together, their chemistry is naught, despite our memory of a vast amount of it in previous instalments.

X-Men Dark Phoenix poses drastic developments like Magneto’s new life on an island, or the romance between Cyclops and Jean, or Beast and Mystique, without any backing of screen material or any tangible moments. Clearly Kinberg wants his audience to be well-versed in the lore of X-Men beforehand, but this over-reliance robs the film off any urgency, anticipation or emotional investment. Fassbender and McAvoy try a little, but the script serves them no momentum to ride on.

Adding a sack of salt to the wound is X-Men Dark Phoenix’s hard sell of a feminist spin. It wastes an actor of Jessica Chastain’s calibre who appears as the chief of a shape-shifting alien race, and the main adversary, but offers little clarity on the motivations of the character.

She exists to lead the film into two action set-pieces: one on a city street, and the other in a moving train, both of which underwhelm thanks to an absence of coherence and choreography.

Despite having two powerful women at opposite ends, the film can’t hide its perfunctory feminism (last seen in Avengers: Endgame) by ignoring a potential landmine of persuasive drama, and ultimately tilting the story towards the men.

Since Fox has been devoured by Disney, this might be the last time we will see this troupe together. Pathetic farewell this is, but in all likelihood, they will be co-opted in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After all, in the juggernaut of studio slapdash, anything can be turned into a phoenix.

(The writer is a journalist, a screenwriter, and a content developer who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise. He tweets @RanjibMazumder)

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