Review: Dark Phoenix

I never listen to critics. I almost never agree with them. Nonetheless the buzz around Dark Phoenix was so uniformly negative that it did eventually dampen even my hype. It doesn’t help that the last X-Men movie, Apocalypse, was a bit underwhelming.

Promotional art for X-Men: Dark PhoenixSo even though I’m a huge fan of the X-Men movies, I went into Dark Phoenix with very low expectations.

I was a fool. The critics are wrong — Dark Phoenix is fantastic.

The film begins with the X-Men ascendant. They’ve achieved the acceptance Professor Xavier has worked so hard for, and they’re now a household name, beloved by mutants and humans alike. But the success has started to go to Xavier’s head, and after Jean Grey is nearly killed on a dangerous mission undertaken despite strident objections from Raven, events start to spiral out of control, threatening to destroy the X-Men and all that they worked to achieve.

It isn’t perfect. There’s a few minor things that made me do a bit of a double-take, and not in a good way. The writers definitely don’t understand how physics work in space, and I’m not sure I’m onboard the X-Men suddenly having Dragonball Z style power level meters.

There are times when Dark Phoenix does feel like it’s repeating the same story beats as the last take on this arc, X-Men: The Last Stand, but on the plus side this is a better movie than that was.

It also feels a bit rushed at times, and the ending feels a little too inclusive for my taste, but at the same time, “it left me wanting more” is kind of a good problem for a movie to have.

Dark Phoenix is not the best X-Men movie, but it does capture a lot of what is best about this franchise and its characters.

Sophie Turner as Jean Grey in Dark PhoenixWhat strikes me most about this movie is how human all of the main characters feel. Dark Phoenix shows Xavier at his worst — he screws up badly in more than one way — but his reasoning for all of his choices feels very understandable. It doesn’t feel like it runs counter to how virtuous he’s been in the past. Indeed, it’s his very optimism and desire to always do the “right” thing that trips him up.

Dark Phoenix is about Xavier making terrible mistakes, but at no point does he feel unsympathetic. He just feels human.

The same is true of Jean Grey. This movie also takes her to a very dark place — no pun intended — but again her emotions feel valid throughout. You still feel sympathy for her.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: This is what makes the X-Men special. No matter what powers they may have, they still feel like three-dimensional people, with flaws and vulnerabilities. They feel real in a way that most superheroes don’t.

Dark Phoenix is a movie that easily could have slid into the ridiculous with its godlike cosmic forces and sinister alien threats, but by focusing on nuanced characters and believable emotion, it manages to still feel grounded and relatable.

Another strength of the X-Men films that Dark Phoenix carries on is that it nails the tone very well. It’s ultimately a very optimistic movie; it’s about the power of love and compassion to conquer all. But it’s also not afraid to go to dark places when story calls for it. The victories feel earned because they come at a high price.

Professor Xavier and the X-Men in Dark PhoenixDark Phoenix also does an admirable if slightly imperfect job of maintaining another strength of the X-Men: its ensemble cast. The heart of the story is Jean Grey, but lots of other characters get their spot in the sun, too. There are a few I’d like to have seen more of — especially Storm and Quicksilver — but the film does do a pretty good job of giving every cast member at least one moment where they get to be awesome, whether it’s a powerful character scene or kicking ass in battle.

Beast, in particular, gets a lot of attention, and the movie is better for it. All credit to Nicholas Hoult for a very strong performance.

This is why I don’t listen to critics. I loved this movie.

Overall rating: 8.5/10

Review: Logan

I went into Logan with very high expectations. I’ve enjoyed every X-Men movie to date, Wolverine is one of my favourite characters from the franchise, and the buzz around this film has been very good.

Hugh Jackman as Wolverine in LoganSo perhaps my sky-high expectations are causing me to judge Logan with an unfairly critical eye, but for the first time, I’m leaving an X-Men movie feeling more disappointment than anything.

Logan depicts a grim future where mutants are dying off. An aging, sickly Logan is working as a limo driver while caring for the decrepit Professor Xavier. Well, “caring for” is probably the wrong term. Xavier is more of a prisoner. His mind is failing, and he needs to be kept under lock and key for the safety of all, lest his telepathic powers run out of control with deadly consequences.

Into this wretched purgatory of a life comes Laura, a mutant child with powers eerily reminiscent of Logan’s own. Laura is the product of horrific corporate experiments to create mutant super-soldiers, and the nurse who raised her is desperate to see her to safety. She believes Logan is the only one who can save young Laura.

Unsurprisingly, Logan isn’t eager to take responsibility for the girl, but in the end he doesn’t have much choice, and he, Laura, and Xavier find themselves in a desperate flight from the ruthless forces pursuing her.

I knew going in this was going to be a very dark movie. That much was clear from the trailers. If you’ve ever read any of my fiction, you know I’m down with grim stories.

But in the case of Logan, it just doesn’t quite work.

Laura and Wolverine in LoganYou see, there is a difference between trying to be something and actually being something. You’ve probably heard it said that the harder you try to be cool, the less cool you actually are, and the same is true of most of anything.

Logan is trying very, very hard to be a powerful movie, but that’s exactly why it isn’t. It’s such an unrelentingly bleak and brutal story that it just ends up feeling bland and tasteless. You need some light to contrast the darkness, or else you’re just fumbling blind.

It works so hard to be tragic that it misses opportunities to be genuinely impactful. Xavier has degenerated so much that I no longer see anything of Professor X in him. If there had been more flashes of his old self, if I could have seen something of the character I know in him, his issues would have been heart-wrenching, but instead he’s just this incoherent, foul-mouthed old man who isn’t a shell of his old self so much as he’s a different character entirely.

I very much like the idea of superhero movies being a little more serious, a little more about character and less about spectacle. Part of the reason I’m such a fan of the X-Men movies is that they’re already doing a pretty good job of that.

But Logan has gone to the opposite extreme. It wants so desperately to prove its emotional weight and artistic prowess that loses sight of the forest for the trees and fails to actually tell an interesting story.

Hugh Jackman as Wolverine in LoganThat’s not to say that there aren’t positives to the movie. Indeed, there are a lot of individual parts of Logan that I enjoyed quite a lot, even if they don’t fit together very well as a whole.

By far and away the best part of the film is Dafne Keen’s performance as Laura.

This kid is going places.

Despite the fact that she doesn’t speak any coherent words for roughly the first three quarters of the movie, she manages to communicate an incredible amount of personality and emotion. You can see a clear resemblance between her and Wolverine, yet she’s also clearly her own person.

And the sheer intensity of her performance is staggering. When danger comes, she morphs into this shrieking avatar of bestial fury, and yet her quieter moments are no less powerful. She’s as convincing as a vulnerable, innocent child as she is as a cold-blooded killer.

The villains of the story also put on excellent performances. They’re skin-crawling, blood-boilingly, disgustingly and utterly vile, and I mean that in the best way possible. Villains should make you hate them with every fiber of your being, and these guys accomplished that with flying colours.

But still, Logan is a movie that ends up feeling like less than the sum of its parts.

Dafne Keen as Laura in LoganThere’s one other thing that bothers me, but it’s a spoiler, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet and want to go in fresh, I’d advise leaving now. For the record, I’m giving this 6.9. You can leave now and not miss anything non-spoilery.

Everyone ready for the spoiler? Good.

I don’t like that Logan died. Now, I want to be clear that I’m not being sentimental here (see my Dark Knight Rises review for proof I’m willing to kill my darlings). This was always going to be Hugh Jackman’s last movie as Wolverine anyway, and Logan has got to be pushing his second century at this point. We all have to go sometime. I’m not upset by the death of the character.

What bothers me is it sabotages the whole theme of the movie. The core thread running through the movie is Logan’s struggle to cope with the pain and horror of his long and violent life. He’s outlived everyone he ever cared about, and he just doesn’t have the strength to go on anymore.

What a powerful moment it would have been if Logan could overcome that in the end. How meaningful it would have been for him to find the strength to continue on, to escape with Laura and finally have the peace he long ago gave up hope of ever finding.

But instead he’s just killed off. It’s not even his choice; it’s just something bad that happened. Again, they were so desperate to make this movie a tearjerker that they ignored their best chance to tell a truly powerful story and just went for the most blunt, contrived, obvious solution possible.

Dafne Keen as Laura in LoganIt’s a death with no thematic meaning. It doesn’t make any point about the character. It doesn’t have any real emotional payoff. It’s lazy.

Again, if Logan hadn’t been so hyped by both myself and the media as a whole, I might view it less harshly. It’s not that it’s a bad movie, but it could have been so much more than it is. Honestly I liked the previous Wolverine movie much, much better.

To make it official:

Overall rating: 6.9/10