REVIEW: Dark Phoenix – The X-Men Saga Just Sort of Ends

Dark Phoenix is the end the X-Men franchise was building to, but not in the way one might expect. Instead of a grand finale, the sins of the past films finally build up to and expose themselves here in a well-intentioned yet misguided film that abruptly stops the franchise in the most mediocre entry in the franchise.

The X-Men franchise is a weird relic of a time gone past. Starting off in 2000 it was considered the beginning of the new age of superhero movies (for some reason people don’t count 1998’s Blade), and its sequel X2: X-Men United was considered not only better than the first film, but one of the best sequels ever. But the subsequent two decades of X-Men films have not lived up to its promise. With the purchase of 20th Century Fox by Disney, Dark Phoenix as the next chapter in the main X-Men franchise was now made awkward, as everyone knew this would be the end and the X-Men will eventually be rebooted into the MCU.

Delays and reshoots were added, hoping to rework the film to be a conclusion to the franchise instead of the new start it was planned to be. This makes Dark Phoenix feel like a show that was canceled and left only a little bit of time to try and wrap everything up. It awkwardly fails to do so. Even without the purchase by Disney one is left to wonder if this film would have gotten a sequel since the hype leading into this one was minimal and the overall film doesn’t leave much to be desired. The whole endeavor has just been sad.

The story begins nine years since X-Men: Apocalypse, now 1992 (yet nothing about the film indicates it is the 90’s) and the X-Men are now world-famous superheroes. The president calls them to perform a rescue mission in space after a shuttle is damaged with an incoming cosmic storm on the horizon. The team saves the day, yet Jean is exposed to the radiation. Instead of dying, she becomes more powerful than ever (the film just ignores the fact that Jean already seemed to have the Phoenix at the end of X-Men: Apocalypse). The power becomes too much for her as she uncovers secrets about her past that Xavier has hidden, and she starts to use her power uncontrollably. It breaks down to a battle to save Jean’s soul, as the X-Men split up on whether or not to kill Jean, or if she can be saved. Oh, and also there is an alien race that has arrived on Earth to take the cosmic force from Jean to conquer the galaxy.

Most of the flaws with the film don’t exist in a vacuum; they are symptoms the franchise has been dealing with since the beginning and now are made to pay for. Ever since First Classevery sequel has jumped forward ten years to a different decade, which originally must have been intended to bring the franchise full loop with the very first X-Men film. But this leaves large chunks of time in the characters’ lives and history that the audience doesn’t know about. It worked in Days of Future Past because it felt like a lot happened in the ten-year time gap; characters were in radically different places. Yet starting in Apocalypse and here it feels like everything stood still, time didn’t move forward for anyone. You could say it took place a year later and really nothing would change. This big emotional storyline needed time to develop. Audiences have barely gotten to know Cyclops, Jean, Storm, or Nightcrawler, since they were basically glorified extras in X-Men: Apocalypse. Now the focus is on them and how the Phoenix affects them as a team, yet we don’t get a real understanding of it because there should have been another adventure solely focused on them before this film.

The film can’t make up its mind on what it wants to be, which leads to clashing ideas, tones, and themes throughout. It appears they have taken the wrong lesson from many of the previous installments. They looked at X-Men: The Last Stand and decided why the Phoenix storyline didn’t work was because they didn’t include aliens. So now the aliens are randomly brought into the film, but it basically repeats similar beats to Last StandX-Men: Apocalypse was criticized for being too much a big pointless messy action film, and the solution was to tone down the comic book elements to make for some small scale mundane action sequences (and honestly the way they film Magneto and Jean Grey having a power-off visually looks more silly than Apocalypse makeup). They decided to take the smaller scale personal story of Logan, without learning the key lesson to that film: that movie hit with audiences because they had grown to love Hugh Jackman as Wolverine over 17 years and multiple films. They tried to cheat here and rush it with characters audiences only have known in one film prior, or as older versions in previous films where they were barely developed.

Long-standing characters like Xavier, Magneto, Beast, and Mystique, who should be the emotional backbone here since the audience does know them, are relegated to varying degrees of “I’m here, but what am I doing” and “why am I still doing this?” McAvoy has always delivered as Xavier, but this film chickens out in the actual bold direction they want to take with the character. At first it seems the movie will dig into the idea that Charles has a bit of an ego, and might not be the paragon of virtue the Patrick Stewart version was. It begins as a very sympathetic story to Jean Grey, as a story of patriarchal figures suppressing women out of fear (similar to Captain Marvel). It makes you think it’ll go in the direction of Xavier “lying to protect her” and him being called out on that toxic tendency.

But then the film chickens out, making Jean’s powers cosmic in nature and letting Xavier off the hook. While the Phoenix Force was cosmic in the comics, that element holds this film back because it thematically weakens the interesting storyline that naturally appears to fit this medium. Fassbender’s Magneto shows up an hour into this film and feels like he is there to be part of a checklist of things that must be in an X-Men movie. Nicholas Hoult as Beast seems restrained in a movie that is supposed to be where he turns on his teammates, because we don’t truly have an understanding of his relationship to Jean Grey or the other students. We know his relationship to Mystique, but that also feels oddly restrained here. You would only know they are a couple if you’ve seen prior films, and it doesn’t explore what their life has been like together. The movie keeps finding excuses to keep him out of the makeup, which is frustrating because it robs the film of an interesting character and visual look. Mystique is taken out of the film quickly (as the trailers showed) because Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t want to be here anymore, yet to her and the film’s credit she does give a pretty good performance with the time she has. You believe her as the X-Men caregiver/protector, but her death (which the trailers have shown) fits an unfortunate “women in the fridge” trope.

The other cast members are practically non-existent outside of Sophie Turner. Turner does as good of a job as she can with the part she is given. Honestly, if she’d had more X-Men films she could have been a very good Jean Grey. This is a better version of Jean than we saw in X-Men: Apocalypse or the Phoenix version in Last Stand. She plays it with a sense of anxiety and sadness, a lot of anger built up that is bursting to come out. If the movie has a standout, it is easily her. Tye Sheridan is trying with Cyclops and this may be the most Cyclops has ever had to do in an X-Men movie. Alexander Shipp as Storm and Kodi Schmitt McPhee as Nightcrawler pop up here and there as glorified extras. Evan Peters as Quicksilver, well, let’s just say the movie finds a cheap way to sideline him and never resolve the Magneto subplot that they were building over two previous films. It’s frustrating because the idea of hurt family members could have come into play in a story that thematically was about breaking apart the X-Men as a surrogate family.

Jessica Chastain as the main villain, who is a weird combination of Lilandra/Cassandra Nova/Emma Frost is a waste of a great actress, as an alien shapeshifter who was obviously planned as a Skrull till Captain Marvel got to them first. Her presence in the film is odd because it appears at one point during the many reshoots she was more a character inside Jean’s head (possibly the Phoenix Force given a physical film presence) as a Tyler Durden type role to be someone Jean could have a mental battle with, but was reworked to be an actual threat. Yet another thing tacked on because the comic storyline of Dark Phoenix had aliens, so obviously this one needs it no matter how awkward/out of place it is. The presence of aliens is not a deal breaker, but what it clashes with the more interesting personal story they want to tell. They want to have their cake and eat it too. Be cosmic but also small scale. It doesn’t work in this film’s particular take on the Phoenix storyline.

Kinberg is obviously a fan of the X-Men and seems to have an amount of care and respect for the material and characters. This appears to be his attempt to make things right after X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men: Apocalypse. But it also appears he may just not get the Dark Phoenix storyline. He gets structurally how to do it and the film sticks relatively close to the overall structure of the comics storyline, with the aliens replacing the Hellfire Club and Jessica Chastain acting as both Mastermind and Emma Frost. Which on a technical and structural level are all admirable. What he seems to miss is the thematic intent behind it and is missing the connective tissue.

There have been plenty of times where a first-time director can make a strong first film. Jordan Peele did it with Get Out and just recently Olivia Wilde delivered one with Booksmart. Yet those tend to be smaller scale films. Throwing Dark Phoenix to a first time director like Kinberg may have been a bit too much for him to chew. He tries to replace Logan‘s more interesting dramatic dialogue sequences with characters somberly talking, but tends to lack any rhythm or pace in a scene where it comes off as an awkward slog. Dialogue is often missed due to poor sound mixing on the score. There is no joy or humor in the film; everything is flat and on auto-pilot. A movie this expensive shouldn’t look this cheap, yet the way scenes are staged and set up feel a low budget television show. The X-Men-related television series The Gifted and Legion have more personality and direction than this. Yet Kinberg does deserve credit for submitting an entry in the franchise not directed by a creep (seriously: twelve films and five of them have the name Bryan Singer or Brett Ratner as the director…yikes).

For as much as I might be hard on the film, there are a lot of little moments peppered throughout the film that work. Because Hugh Jackman is not coming back as Wolverine and Jennifer Lawerence is just done with Mystique, the focus on the X-Men as a team is a nice change of pace. Little character moments between Storm and Cyclops hint at a friendship we’ve never actually gotten to see. Dazzler has a cameo after all this time and it is as awesome as it should be (I say that entirely unironically). The idea of being a more reflective film, bringing it down a bit after Apocalypse is a good place to start (“we’re the last of the First Class” is a line that really does hit). The action scenes are team focused, displaying a wide array of power sets and showing how they work together as a team, which really hasn’t been seen outside of X-Men: First Class.

While it is afraid to be big, to the film’s credit the action scenes are actually an improvement on X-Men: Apocalypse. It’s the first time since X-Men: First Class where the action scenes are focused on showcasing them as a team, using their powers together. Makes you wish the franchise had maybe spent more time with them. The third act train sequence, which was added in reshoots and mainly done by the 2nd unit director, is rather fun fight sequences that showcases an array of mutant powers being able to unleash hell on a group of aliens. Even for as generic as the fight in the streets of New York sounds on paper, it does play out like the destructive spectacle you see in the pages of Marvel comics, with all hell being unleashed as super titans battle it out.

Dark Phoenix had some good intentions but delivered on them in the cheapest, most poorly planned out way possible. It is just mediocre, which may make it a worse viewing experience than something some comically bad like Origins or even something like The Last Stand, which managed to be exciting at times.

As the film was ending, I thought back on the franchise. I have been following it for almost twenty years, and the first X-Men movies are some of the first films I remember seeing in theaters. It was a defining franchise for me growing up; even when it was bad I found a way to enjoy it (Liev Schriber is great as Sabertooth in X-Men Origins and if you think otherwise you are just wrong). A franchise that broke through and helped make superhero films profitable is now irrelevant. As the final moments came on and I realized this was truly the end of this incarnation, I just ended up feeling sad. Not that it was terrible (this is a franchise that has both X-Men Origins: Wolverine and X-Men: Apocalypse), but just because it ends so unceremoniously. X-Men: Days of Future Past and Logan served as a proper conclusion to the Fox X-Men saga. That’s what I’m left to do here. Focus on the good parts, because even if this film didn’t deliver as an ending and was overall just nothing, the road here has been a wild ride and it was fun while it lasted.