Dark Phoenix ★½

If “Dark Phoenix” feels like the nadir of 21st century blockbuster cinema, that’s not because it’s the worst film of its kind — hell, it’s not even the worst installment of its franchise — but rather because it might be the only $200 million tentpole that has no evident reason to exist. The movie industry is sustained by a silent contract between Hollywood and its audience, which stipulates studios and ticket buyers will both spend too much of their money to sit together in a room so dark that no one can see the line that separates art from commerce. The brazen needlessness of the twelfth film in the “X-Men” saga is nothing less (and nothing more) than a direct breach of that contract; it’s like watching a superhero movie with the lights on.

“Dark Phoenix” isn’t the first event-free event movie of the mega-franchise era, but this one is different — it’s a perfect storm of pointlessness. Not only does the movie fumble the baton pass between generations and fail to advance the series’ overarching story in any meaningful way, it also hardly seems to try. Not only does it botch the source material’s signature narrative arc, it also does everything in its power to flatten it out. Not only does it waste an excellent cast on a script that reduces all of its characters to basic constructs, it also puts them at the mercy of a first-time director who doesn’t even know how to make them look cool.

Without question, however, the most damning thing about “Dark Phoenix” is that it feels like it’s exactly the film that 21st Century Fox (RIP) had in mind when they hired franchise screenwriter Simon Kinberg to step behind the camera: safe, insubstantial, and skirting the surface of powerful ideas that even the kid-friendly animated series was unafraid to tackle. Diluted blockbusters are a dime a dozen these days, and this one at least has the decency to clock in at less than two hours, but there’s something especially grim and epochal about watching an undead franchise try to force its way through a story that hinges on the prospect of resurrection.

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