(Yeah, I get that some people are calling it X-Men: Dark Phoenix, but I’m not calling it that. Dark Phoenix is the release title; it’s the text on the title card of the actual movie, so that’s what I’m calling it.)
Dark Phoenix is the latest (and last) iteration of the Fox era of the X-Men franchise, a franchise that is often credited as having ushered in this golden age of superhero movies for the early 21st century (though that credit really should go more to 2002’s Spider-Man than anything else). In the absence of former series helm Bryan Singer, this film was written and directed by Simon Kinberg, the screenwriter behind Fant4stic and X-Men: Apocalypse, Days of Future Past, and The Last Stand, making this his feature directorial debut. In this final installment, set in 1992, the X-Men are sent on a rescue mission to space after a mission sanctioned by NASA goes wrong and ends up putting astronauts in mortal danger. But when the mission goes awry, Jean Grey encounters a dark force, a power stronger than any she has ever known, and it threatens to consumer her if she can’t contain it. With this great and nefarious power inside, Jean must resist the pull to the dark, learn once again to control her power, and rise again, as a phoenix from ashes.
Reports had been coming out for months that the production of the second go at the Dark Phoenix saga was an absolute disaster, with most of the higher-billed cast just waiting to finally finish their contracts and Disney’s acquisition of Fox indicating that this film really wouldn’t mean anything in the wake of the larger picture of the franchise going forward (a picture that likely includes a full reboot somewhere down the line). However, the studio’s marketing managed to pull out most of the good in the film in order to put together some interesting trailers that featured a darker-sounding score than we were used to, and it looked as if the film would at least be okay; maybe it wouldn’t be one of the true greats in the franchise, but it could at least not be the worst of them. As it happens, the reports should be believed, because as it turns out, the marketing didn’t just use most of the good will the movie has – it used all the good the movie has (apart from one scene).
The X-Men franchise has been around for as long as I can remember, and given the 19-year span of the franchise despite fluctuating quality across its theatrical runs, that could be considered somewhat of an accomplishment. There is no doubt that it is the end of an era, and one that brought about faith that superhero films could be huge blockbusters on the mainstream cinema circuit; for that, I will be thankful for it. It’s a real shame, though, that the franchise that brought all that about had to go out with such a whimper by attempting a second time (with less compelling reason) the same iconic saga that the exact same writer messed up so badly the first time. Yes, that’s right; despite less screen-time in its previous iteration, the Dark Phoenix saga was handled better in X-Men: The Last Stand than it is in the movie which bears its title. Maybe that’s because it had less screen-time (and Last Stand had some other compelling stuff going on), but I digress.
In fact, it’s tough not to call Dark Phoenix the worst film in the whole of the X-Men franchise, because it might well be. Yes, X-Men Origins: Wolverine was also quite bad (and the only other installment that I’d call truly awful), but at least it played around with some interesting ideas, and most of the cast looked like they gave a damn about what was happening on screen. The same can’t be said for this movie; despite solid performances from most of them, much of the cast behaves like they know this writing is beneath them, so they just come across looking bored or annoyed the whole time by what they have to say and do to just get through the scene. It’s really a sheer testament to the actors’ talent that they’re able to pull off dialogue this on-the-nose and bland. Oh, and Jessica Chastain’s character? Ill-defined and uninteresting, just like the rest of the un-developed villains in the worst of these movies.
And that really is the main issue with this movie: it’s entirely, unreservedly bland. It’s just entirely uninteresting. There may be a few moments where something gets introduced, but it’s all small addendum stuff that doesn’t matter at all to the main story. In fact, most of this movie is like that; nothing that occurs as a result of the main plot ends up mattering to the main plot at all. There’s one part in it (no spoilers on context) where Charles and Eric meet once again, and Charles is about to give his big speech about how there’s still hope, and Michael Fassbender all but looks at the camera to tell the audience directly that none of this matters because no one cares anyway. And do you know what’s really sad about that moment? That’s probably the most interesting moment in the whole movie, and it lasts a grand total of about 20 seconds. The movie just flits from scene to scene without anything compelling being given a chance to resonate, and indeed, many of the reshot sequences are painfully obvious, including the climactic train sequence, which reports have noted had to be almost entirely re-shot due to similarities to Captain America: Civil War. (Let me tell you, if your finale is close to Civil War quality, you should keep it in, because that can only be a compliment.)
Even the visual effects (visual effects, by the way, which won the franchise an Oscar nomination for Days of Future Past) pale in comparison to some of the lazier films in the franchise. There’s a moment where Magneto is meant to be flying through the air, but it’s so clear Fassbender is on green-screen wires, you can’t help but laugh at how ridiculously stupid it looks. This happens a few times with Jean too; she just takes off like Superman into the air, and one wonders if the visual development teams on the movie cared about it as little as any of us or the cast did.
It really is a strange thing that this movie exists at all, considering the out Fox had by simply letting the excellent Logan be the final movie in the franchise long and storied history, and leaving it off on a poignant and bittersweet note. What’s even stranger is we’ll never really be able to know why Fox, a studio with literally billions of dollars and a massive built-in franchise universe, chose to give this movie to the same writer who messed it up so bad the first time, has never directed a feature before, and only wrote one of the good X-Men films before this (which has started to show signs of wear in the years after its release). And yet the most frustrating thing about all of this is how the studio pushed its main marketing behind this and delayed the more interesting-looking New Mutants yet again until August 2020, when we were meant to get it this April. And it’s still on the table whether we’ll get to see that movie at all.
I do apologize if I haven’t talked about Dark Phoenix enough in this review for it to seem like an actual critique of the film, but frankly, there’s just not that much there to critique at all. It’s a bland slog of unimaginative, un-compelling writing that doesn’t feature a single interesting image (so we know the direction is shit too), or a single performance aside from Sophie Turner’s that looks like the actor believes in what they’re saying or doing. Even this incredible cast of actors, who have worked on some of the most iconic franchises in history, know that this movie is doomed to disappoint. Dark Phoenix may not be the absolute worst film in the X-Men franchise in terms of pure quality, but it’s by far the least interesting, and between those two downfalls, it can be difficult to tell which is the greater cinematic sin. (I’m so sorry, Sophie Turner. You deserved better endings for both of your iconic stories.)
I’m giving “Dark Phoenix” a 3.2/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.