The biggest positive I can give Dark Phoenix‘s plot is that it actually stays true to how Jean Grey obtained the Phoenix Force. This time, it’s an omnipotent, god-like cosmic force rather than X-Men: The Last Stand’s psychic alternate persona. But that’s hardly enough to save Dark Phoenix, which plays out like a series of loosely connected set pieces than an emotionally charged adaptation of one of the most iconic X-Men comic storylines. As what’s presumably the final chapter in this nearly twenty-year long film franchise before the Disney-Fox merger, we should feel engaged, shocked, devastated, or just remotely invested. Instead things just… happen, creating an ending that isn’t so much awful as it is underwhelming.
Jumping forward a decade since X-Men Apocalypse, it’s 1992 and humanity is seemingly warming up to the X-Men. Led Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) Hank McCoy (Nicolas Hoult) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), they help out the government, garner a sizable fanbase, and even share a hotline with the President. However, a mission to rescue some stranded astronauts goes awry when Jean Grey (Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner) gets caught aboard their ship while it’s bombarded with some dark solar flare. Yet she survives and absorbs the energy, soon revealed to be a cosmic power capable of creating and destroying life on a planetary scale. And it’s pushing Jean beyond her normal Omega-level Mutant status.
However, it’s not until the power unlocks parts of Jean’s past that she breaks bad. The film’s prologue revealed, as a child, Jean’s mutant powers caused a car crash that took her parents’ lives. With the Phoenix Force supercharging her psychic abilities, Xavier’s mental barriers come apart, revealing some hidden truths that leave Jean understandably pissed. The fallout of these revelations force Jean on the run, seeking shelter with Eric Lensherr/ Magneto (Michael Fassbender) on his Mutant island not named Genosha before getting intercepted by shapeshifting aliens. Yes, aliens, and not Skrulls. They’re called the D’Bari, led by Jessica Chastain, and seek to control the Phoenix Force for generic reasons, mostly by playing shoulder devil with Jean.
Dark Phoenix’s biggest flaw is asking us to care for Sophie Turner’s Jean after only one film appearance in this timeline. Comic Jean’s transformation into Dark Phoenix worked because it built upon decades of ongoing stories and character relationships, making her corruption and eventual self-sacrifice mean something impactful. Yet the X-Men films, ironically, never invested much into its group dynamics, usually regulating its characters to a supporting status behind Wolverine. This leaves Turner and the younger versions of Cyclops, Storm and Nightcrawler (played by Tye Sheridan, Alexandria Shipp and Kodi Smit-McPhee respectfully), with little time to flesh out their own team relationships. It’s not for a lack of trying; these actors are working with what they got and Turner goes all out to sell Jean’s emotional turmoil and the Phoenix’s destructive instinct. But because we don’t know them as characters, Dark Phoenix’s tragic moments ring hollow, a sharp contrast to the character arcs in Avengers Endgame.
You’d think the elder X-Men would fare better after four movies worth of personal conflict. Unfortunately, one can’t help but notice some fatigue as their actors give these performances one last go. Lawrence especially looks done playing Mystique, a feeling long suspected since Apocalypse and, provided the trailers didn’t spoil things, gets a convenient out. The closest anyone get to new development is Xavier dealing with the fallout of his own arrogance, having manipulated others with his powers under the presumption that he knew best for everyone. It’s an intriguing concept that’s been explored before in the comics, but ultimately takes a backseat to the usual rivalry between him and Magneto. Even though McAvoy and Fassbender retain the pathos that make them feel like young Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen (albeit ones who haven’t aged since the 60’s), their conflict just feels predictable. Magneto practically admits this when Charles pleads with him to not hurt Jean, noting “you’re always sorry, and there’s always a speech.”
The presentation, by comparison, is woefully average, right down to how character interactions are shot. With Fox declining Bryan Singer’s return for obvious reasons, Dark Phoenix marks the directorial debut of producer Simon Kinberg, and it shows. With the exception of some surrealistic visuals for the Phoenix Force, even the depiction of Mutant powers take few risks. Quicksilver lacks a standout running sequence, Storm mainly uses her weather manipulation abilities to shoot lighting, and Magneto’s early use of magnetism amounts to stopping or lifting objects. For a long time, the film plays it safe and, as a result, drags its visual potential to a halt. And say what you will about The Last Stand, but it wasn’t a boring film- just utterly convoluted.
The only time Dark Phoenix feels like it’s gaining steam is during the climax aboard a military train. There, the characters actually get to let loose and use their powers creatively, the kind of vibrant action people thought they’d find in an X-Men film. But it feels too little too late. Spectacle can be fun, but there needs to be something worth investing in for the spectacle to work. And emotional investment in Dark Phoenix doesn’t hit the marks it desires because, when all’s said and done, it didn’t feel much like an ending. It just felt like another generic film, which is not a good sign for characters who once dominated the Marvel landscape and whose franchise laid the groundwork for our golden age of superhero films.
Verdict: 1 out of 5 Stars.
Like most long-time Marvel/X-Men fans, I don’t want to hate Dark Phoenix. If anything about the film works, it’s Sophie Turner and James McAvoy’s performances and some entertaining action near the end. And I don’t think it’s worse than the infamously hated X-Men Origins: Wolverine. But with the success of unorthodox X-Men entries like Logan and Deadpool, let alone Days of Future’s Past’s final moments, this is an unsatisfying final bow for the franchise. My advice: watch X-Men: The Animated Series’ adaptation of the Dark Phoenix storyline instead.