‘Dark Phoenix’ Review – Fox’s ‘X-Men’ Movies Come to an End; Not Quite With a Bang, Nor a Whimper
Fox’s final X-Men movie has arrived with Dark Phoenix, and while the ads (since Disney’s purchase of Fox) have tried to sell the movie as a “big finish” to the series, the movie itself is ultimately a mixed bag that left me feeling like this version of the franchise needed a better ending than what it got. At the same time… It certainly could have been worse.
Before I get into this review, I think it’s important to share a bit of background information about Dark Phoenix and the weird situations it was placed in. (I’ve got a lot to say, but bear with me here – I’ll put the same amount of effort into my review.) In the mid-to-late-1990s, Marvel sold the film rights to a substantial amount of their library of intellectual properties to various companies as a way to stave off a bankruptcy, and Fox got some of the biggest brands in the deal. While Fox’s efforts with Fantastic Four, Daredevil, and Elektra left much to be desired, they mostly had a good track record with the X-Men film series; the majority of the projects that they made with the license have been varying degrees of good (X-Men 1, X2: X-Men United, X-Men: First Class, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Wolverine, Logan, Deadpool, and Deadpool 2) rather than the bad (X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and X-Men: Apocalypse).
Of these movies, The Last Stand is the most infamous with fans for wasting Chris Claremont’s iconic “Phoenix Saga” storyline by reducing it to a B-plot. Among that movie’s sins was its utter failure of the character of Cyclops – the second-most important person in that story after the Phoenix herself – with an offscreen demise, the omission of most of the cosmic elements that made the story so visually-appealing to fans, and leaving her downfall not to the X-Men team as a whole, but to Wolverine, who is able to talk her down and then kill her. Said movie was writer Simon Kinberg’s first X-Men movie project, and for whatever reason, he’s felt compelled to fix things with a do-over: Dark Phoenix, the movie that would serve as his directorial debut. Kinberg also promised that the movie would learn from the mistakes of Apocalypse, which was another X-Men movie that he wrote.
Things got a little more complicated once it was announced that Disney would be purchasing Fox back in November and December of 2017 – and with that, the rights that were owned by Fox for two decades would revert to Marvel Studios, who have been all but confirmed to have plans to reboot the entire franchise (save Deadpool, which will continue in some fashion) into their Marvel Cinematic Universe. During development of the film, Kinberg and Fox were trying to sell this film as “the first movie in a new trilogy” that would likely bring an end to the period-piece movies and place the franchise back into the modern day, even as it became increasingly clear that Disney’s buyout of Fox would go through. It’s only been recently that the marketing machine has shifted gears, selling the movie as “the culmination to the franchise” and the absolute end to this continuity. However, between disappointment in Apocalypse and the knowledge that this movie would be the end of the road to a series with diminishing returns, this ultimately positioned Dark Phoenix as a lame-duck X-Men movie.
But, aside from that, I wanted to go into the movie with an open mind. I have been with this series since the beginning, and both it and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy left a massive impact on my appreciation for the superhero movie genre, so I felt an obligation to see this iteration of the series to its end. I may have actually skipped the movie if it had been just another installment, but this was it for these iterations of characters that I had spent 19 years of my life with. My expectations overall were pretty low, but I left the theater whelmed; not overwhelmed or underwhelmed, but simply… Whelmed.
Dark Phoenix begins with the X-Men, now a world-famous superhero team that has boosted the public relationship image of the Mutant race significantly with the world, going into space to rescue some astronauts from an inexplicable nebula that sent their shuttle off-course. Things go well until the nebula (which is the Phoenix Force) collides with Jean Grey, nearly killing her, but instead granting her new abilities and heightening the ones that she already had. (Even though, confusingly, the climactic battle of Apocalypse already showed her with some of those abilities.) While Jean, now dubbed the Phoenix for rising from a state of death, initially appears to be fine at first, her powers begin to surge. While unconscious, but still making use of her psychic abilities, she learns a dark truth: that Professor X has been hiding something from her past.
Over the course of Dark Phoenix, Professor X’s morality and nobility, which have previously been seen as the rock on which the entire story has been built upon, are put into question as the movie presents him as being more self-centered than we realized. We discover that he’s been psychically suppressing her abilities to help cover up the fact that only one of Jean’s parents died in a car accident, and that the other willingly gave her up. When Jean learns that her father didn’t want anything to do with her, she starts losing control… And that sets her against the X-Men, the military, and even Magneto, as her powers rise and she gains the attention of invading extraterrestrials that want to use her abilities for their own devices.
And that’s where I feel the movie’s problems start to seep in. While we at least had two X-Men movies prior to The Last Stand to get to know the team, many of these iterations of the characters were just reintroduced to us in X-Men: Apocalypse. We haven’t had as much time to connect to the newer characters, and because of that, the movie’s story (which is built upon their connection with Jean as she struggles with her darker impulses) suffers as a result. One of the personal highlights of the film to me were the brief moments where we saw Cyclops and Jean have some romantic moments, as both Tye Sheridan and Sophie Turner have genuinely good chemistry. Given that Jean and Scott’s doomed romantic relationship is considered the heart of the story, I really wanted to see more of it than the movie actually offered.
Meanwhile, I feel like there was too much emphasis placed upon the likes of Mystique, Beast, and Magneto at the expense of the younger X-Men (namely, Storm, Nightcrawler, and Quicksilver). While I was relieved that the conflict didn’t boil down to “Charles and Erik continue the same bloody argument that they’ve been making since the first movie” like the trailers suggested that it might, I felt like the emphasis on them instead of the new blood is a flaw from X-Men: Apocalypse that continued to carry over into this new installment. The problem I’ve come to realize that I’ve had with the Fox-made X-Men movies is that so few of them focus on the team itself so much as Wolverine, Professor X, Magneto, and Mystique, and it’s unfortunate that they didn’t correct this issue with this movie. I also would have liked it if the movie spent more time focused on developing Jessica Chastain’s villain character, Vuk; I almost always like her as an actress, but I wasn’t a fan of her in this, as her performance just felt weird (and not in a good way).
I also had concerns with writer-director Simon Kinberg taking the charge on Dark Phoenix, since he’s rumored to have previously dipped his toes into directing with the absolutely abysmal Fant4stic reshoots and ghost-directing portions of the disappointing X-Men: Apocalypse on days when Bryan Singer was a no-show. Given how neither of those projects worked out all that well, I personally felt that having no experience at all before tackling the movie would have been more reassuring. However, I will say that, while I wasn’t a fan of some of Kinberg’s dialogue choices (like an “you might want to change the name to X-Women” line that simply feels unearned for a franchise that has had twenty years to make a female-led movie, but never did), the scenes he directed were done with a competence. Nothing spectacular, and nothing horrible… Just acceptable.
One thing I absolutely will praise, without apology, are the action sequences of Dark Phoenix, which are genuinely fun to watch and make good use of the powers of these characters. To my understanding, Kinberg handled everything with the exception of the standout train sequence at the end of the film, and the action is easily the highlight of the film (aside from one awkward scene where it’s clear that Sophie Turner and James McAvoy are being told to imagine pushing and/or pulling a nonexistent object on the set that the CGI companies would add in later). Furthermore, Hans Zimmer continues to show that he’s got what it takes when delivering quality film scores, even though John Ottman’s now-iconic X-Men Theme is sorely missed. And while there are occasional points in the movie where it feels like the cast were ready for the movie to stop filming so they could move on, there were plenty of scenes where they absolutely gave it their all as actors. As I said earlier, this movie could have been a lot worse, and there is some good mixed in with an installment that didn’t feel like it stuck the landing as a grand finale.
Technically, Dark Phoenix is the penultimate X-Men movie from Fox, as The New Mutants will release next year (not that it matters too much, since it will be a standalone film with no connection to this, with no plans for a follow-up), rather than the absolute last one that they’re selling it as. I’m pretty apathetic to that release as of right now, but that might change once we get another trailer to the long-delayed film. Quite frankly, I am way more interested in seeing the metaphorical Phoenix rise with the inevitable Marvel Studios reboot, which I am highly looking forward to whenever that happens. I love these characters, and I’ve been dying to see Mutants interact onscreen with the likes of the Avengers and Spider-Man, with them as a part of a larger Marvel Universe instead of an isolated island. But for now, I’m a bit bummed out that the way that this version of the X-Men world ends isn’t with a bang, or a whimper… Just a “meh” with a few bright spots interspersed.
Dark Phoenix is now playing in theaters.
Grant Davis is a freelance writer who has covered entertainment news for more than four years. His articles have frequently appeared in Star Wars News Net as well as as other entertainment-related websites. As someone who grew up on Star Wars and comic book movies, he’s completely thrilled with the current era of genre entertainment.