Alright, let’s get this shit over with.
Dark Phoenix, the 12th film (if you include the Deadpool movies) in Fox’s X franchise, could likely be the last the studio produces. That’s if we never see that New Mutants film they’ve been promising, now allegedly set for a 2020 release. The reason being, of course, is that Disney now owns the various film IP previously owned by Fox, which means the mutants will soon be headed towards the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In an effort to go out with a bang, director Simon Kinberg (who wrote the script for 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand) has tasked himself with a second attempt at depicting one of the most famous arcs of the X-Men comics. But twice isn’t really the charm, as this adaptation of the Dark Phoenix arc, while improving some elements of Last Stand, creates it’s own unique issues.
It was always going to be an uphill battle to make this entry work, for two very specific reasons. One being the aforementioned purchase of properties such as X-Men by Disney, prompting any remaining X-Men narratives in the Fox universe to feel mostly pointless. The 2nd being that we as an audience lack a connection to many of the current actors playing these roles, including the title character. While these versions of Professor Xavier, Magneto, Beast, and Mystique have had time to grow, we barely know the new Jean Grey, Cyclops, and Storm (Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, and Alexandra Shipp respectively). In a summer where Avengers: Endgame showed the level of buildup it takes to make an audience feel the weight of an emotionally complex saga, Dark Phoenix exposes how little the current iteration of the X-Men has in common with their MCU counterparts.
Not for a lack of trying, however, as Dark Phoenix attempts to craft a more comic-accurate interpretation of the saga than Last Stand was. In that previous film, the conflict involving Jean Grey also had to share screentime with the introduction of a mutant cure and the reactions of various characters to that development. Here, all the focus is on Jean, after she experiences a traumatic cosmic event while in space.
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, the X-Men can go to space now. Obviously they can in the comics as well, since that is how Jean originally acquires the Phoenix powers, but there is no buildup to this development in the actual films. In one of the most ludicrous movie scenes of the decade, we see Xavier (James McAvoy) and others watching a televised space launch. But when the mission becomes perilous for the crew in orbit, Xavier comes up with the totally sound idea that they’ll just take an X-Jet and… just make it go higher, I guess, so the X-Men can go into space for the rescue mission. No seriously, I’m not even making this up. Even Mystique (a completely checked out Jennifer Lawrence, thus the natural audience surrogate), has a look of confusion on her face when she’s tasked with explaining the mission.
The mission proves successful, although not without aforementioned traumatic cosmic event. The X-Men are treated as heroes when they return, a reaction that is consistent with the more positive reception mutants now enjoy from the rest of the country. This elates Xavier, who’s practically a politician at this point (he has the president’s phone number). Xavier wants to ride this wave of positive mutant publicity for as long as possible, but Mystique worries that they’re putting their own kind at risk in order to sellout to the normies.
There’s a very interesting story that can be told here (the first time in a LONG time that X-Men as metaphor for oppressed minorities has been interesting in these films), one of which appears much more thematically rich than the movie we actually have. At one point is assimilation acceptable, and at what point is it considered pandering? These are some great themes that the films has no interest in exploring.
Meanwhile, Jean is going through an awakening (minus the sexual awakening that accompanied her new powers in the actual comics, even though the subtext is right there for the taking). The Phoenix makes her feel great… until she starts hurting people close to her, and she begins to recall previously erased memories of her past (take a wild guess on who erased them). While the Jean Grey in Last Stand went full heel turn, this version actually has a legitimate reason to be pissed off, especially at the father figures in her life that lied to her. However, her rampage eventually makes her the target of Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who wants to kill her in an act of revenge.
This doesn’t even cover the strange aliens that land on earth, lead by Jessica Chastain’s intentionally emotionless performance. Their goal is to capture the Phoenix power for themselves, but Chastain’s character must first befriend and get close to Jean. There is a LOT that Kinberg is throwing at audiences in terms of plot, yet most of it feels inconsequential. Some of that can’t be helped given the outside forces painting the perception of this movie. But for a film packed with content intended to be emotional, it largely feels hollow and forgettable. Turner’s performance is fine, but Famke Janssen did a far better job of capturing Jean’s empowered alter ego. The best performers here are still McAvoy and Fassbender… and surprisingly, a very committed Nicholous Hoult; that man earned his paycheck.
When it comes to the action, Kinberg does some cool sequences with individual characters, particularly a hand to hand combat scene involving Magneto, and the cinematography is at times quite beautiful. But it’s all fleeting; Dark Phoenix lacks any memorable set pieces, only offering small moments of entertaining action.
In a way, this is very fitting. While this franchise has enjoyed remarkable high points with Logan and Deadpool, the series’ actual batting average is closer to Dark Phoenix. Emotional moments that feel forced, poorly utilized characters (poor Cyclops), an aversion to anything involving color/camp/fun, and action set pieces that feel behind the times of whatever era they’re set in. Yep, that’s the X-Men movie I grew up with. So it’s time to finally move on and give another studio a shot. What feels like the end is really the beginning.