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The Lighthouse is a magnificent nightmare. Oppressive angles, stark shadows, crashing noise and roaring characters assail the viewer like an ocean maelstrom. The onslaught is never-ending, as lighthouse keepers Thomas Howard (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) trade shifts, plates, bottles, insults and, increasingly, blows both psychological and physical. Meanwhile, the space around them becomes increasingly distorted, whether by mermaids, their own minds or demented seagulls is anybody’s guess. After the taught sparseness of The Witch, director Robert Eggers delivers something equally unsettling but far more overt. Yet the source of the discomfort is rarely clear, beyond the escalating certainty that the two men trapped together in a giant phallus are going stark raving mad. Come the end of the film, you can understand why, and might feel that way yourself.
The superhero genre groundwork was laid by the Superman and Batman franchises, improved by Blade, and received its first fully formed incarnation with 2000’s X-Men. The subsequent 19 years delivered a further eleven films, ranging from the highs of X-2 and Logan to the lows of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. X-Men: Dark Phoenix is, sad to say, another low. There are many familiar features, from visual renderings of telepathy to energy blasts from eyes, but there is little that’s new or interesting. Writer-director Steven Kinberg displays little flair or innovation, making the viewer pine for the stylistics of Bryan Singer (controversy notwithstanding) or Matthew Vaughn. Action set pieces on a space shuttle and aboard a train pale in comparison to earlier entries in the franchise as well as those in Marvel Studios’ output. That said, Kinberg does manage to evoke a sense of atmosphere, fitting for the steady and dangerous increase of power in Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). At their heart, superhero films are always about power and its appropriate use, and Dark Phoenix does continue this conceit in relation to Jean, and also Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), but without any significant depth. Indeed, much of the early part of the film is fairly bland, despite potentially shocking moments, though it does pick up slightly when Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) appears. Despite the best efforts of the cast, and a prominence of female characters, the strongest element of the film is the score, with Hans Zimmer at his most Hans Zimmer. Crashing synths and booming Braaaaaaahms abound, adding to the atmosphere even if the end result is somewhat hollow. As a chapter in the franchise, Dark Phoenix feels conclusive, and it is a damp squib for this long running series to go out on. But then again, you can never keep a good (or bad) mutant down.