Dark Phoenix is out this weekend, capping off almost 20 years of X-Men movies.
When Jean Grey absorbs a massive cosmic power, she becomes overwhelmed and scared, unsure how to deal with her emotions. The X-Men seek to help their friend before she goes too far, while another group seeks to harness Jean’s new power for themselves.
The film is written and directed by Simon Kinberg (in his directorial debut), and stars Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, and Tye Sheridan.
Full disclosure: Speaking personally, I expected very little going into this film. The X-Men films have been extremely hit-or-miss, with the previous installment, Apocalypse, feeling like an all-time low for the franchise. And sometimes, when the bar is set that low, there’s nowhere to go but up.
That being said, Dark Phoenix is surprisingly enjoyable. It’s not a movie you’re going to rewatch over and over again, but it doesn’t feel like a complete waste of time either.
The first act of the film is the strongest. Jean getting the Phoenix force and the immediate fallout sets up an interesting premise. It’s dark and intriguing. It makes you care for these younger X-Men in a way that the previous few films haven’t. For a first-time director, Kinberg goes a good job pulling the audience into Jean’s stress and panic and making them share in those emotions.
However, towards the middle of the film, things begin to unravel and then it’s a mad dash to the end. It feels rushed whereas the opening act had an even pace to it.
A lot of this has to do with the film’s antagonists. Jessica Chastain’s character and her cohorts feel forced into this film. They’re weak, shallow antagonists with a paper-thin motivation that’s barely explored. It feels like they’re just there because the film needed a villain, almost like they were a last minute addition. Had Kinberg focused on Jean as the antagonist, and made the film solely about her transition into Phoenix and how the X-Men deal with her, Dark Phoenix could have been one of the best films in the series.
Another high point of the script, though, is its exploration of Professor X. It’s great to see an X-Men movie that actually delves into what an egotistical POS ol’ Chuck can be, like so many comics have done. Again, it’s these more psychological, character-driven elements that pick up the film and make for the most enjoyable moments.
The action is also very fun to watch. Kinberg and his team give all the mutants a chance to shine and show off their powers. We live in an age where we see so many big superhero battles that they can become stale and bland, but in Dark Phoenix it’s fun to watch the X-Men fight together and use their powers, both individually and as a team. The film also does a good job of showing the scale of some of the mutants’ powers, particularly for Jean and Magneto.
Now, this is the end of Fox’s X-Men franchise (except for next year’s New Mutants, which counts more as a spin-off than a main series film). And, as an “ending” of sorts, it’s not the most fulfilling. It doesn’t give the same sense of closure and achievement as Avengers: Endgame did, though it’s unfair to compare the two (especially since Dark Phoenix was shot before the Disney/Fox acquisition happened, so the filmmakers maybe thought there would still be more story left to tell). Still, there is some sense of closure, and as a standalone film, Dark Phoenix works.
Author’s note: Yes, I’m aware that I haven’t mentioned the timeline inconsistencies or the character problems. I’m a comic book superfan; I’ve been reading Marvel comics my whole life. I realize that Mystique isn’t supposed to be a hero and Beast shouldn’t to be able to change his appearance. And I’m aware that these characters don’t look like they’ve aged at all, despite this movie taking place 10 years after the last one, and 30 years after First Class. But we’re all at a point where we know this franchise has these problems, and we just have to accept the cards we’re dealt and judge these films for what they are.
Ultimately, Dark Phoenix is a middle-of-the-road superhero movie. The “Dark Phoenix Saga” was a massive cosmic epic in the comic books, and there was so much that the filmmakers could have done with the story. But it’s not right to judge a film on what it could have been, only on what it is. And “what it is” is an enjoyable, albeit rushed, superhero flick that at least ends the X-Men saga on a fairly good note.