X-Men: Dark Phoenix| Simon Kinberg| June 7, 2019
After almost 20 years, the franchise that birthed the superhero film revolution finally comes to an end. Directed by longtime X-Men scriptwriter Simon Kinberg, Dark Phoenix closes out the X-Men universe in a mostly competent, yet ultimately disappointing way.
Set ten years after the events of X-Men: Apocalypse, Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his team of mutant students are now revered by the public. They have become celebrities, with Professor X even having a private office phone line to communicate directly with the President of the United States. In the opening of the film, a NASA space shuttle is damaged after takeoff, which results in the X-Men – now consists of Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and Quicksilver (Evan Peters) – suiting up and heading on a space mission. During the rescue, a strange solar flare hits the NASA shuttle and Jean, who appears to absorb it and is alive yet altered.
Her telepathic powers seem to be magnified, and she suddenly remembers blocked-off bits of her past. The students at Professor Xavier’s school give her the nickname “Phoenix” for seemingly rising from the dead. After an accident occurs at the school because of her uncontrollable powers, Jean decides to leave and search for answers. Meanwhile, Raven and Charles go head to head on whether the newfound fame has hindered Charles’s judgment. As Jean learns more disturbing information about her past and what the solar flare really is, her powers become grow increasingly dangerous. This causes a rift between the X-Men on whether to kill Jean or try to help her control her new abilities. The resulting film is an often entertaining ride, but an overall sloppy narrative entry in the X-Men franchise. It’s a frustrating end to the series that started out with promise in 2000, and was then rebooted with even more excitement in 2011.
Back in 2000, Bryan Singer’s X-Men proved that superhero films could be done well and also be successful. Since then, well, we all know what happened after that. Marvel has reigned supreme over the comic book film landscape for more than a decade now. The timing of ending the X-Men film franchise as we’ve known it could not have come at a worse time. Superhero film fatigue has been setting in for a few years now. Infinity War and Endgame have been immune to this fatigue, given that they have been epic in scope and execution. That makes Dark Phoenix all the more frustrating. It’s been advertised as a finale, yet it has about as much closure as the previous time this story was told in 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand (also written by Kinberg). In fact, it’s almost too similar to The Last Stand. It has almost the exact same problems. It all feels rushed and without an emotionally satisfying conclusion. Is it better than The Last Stand? Yes, but only because of the performances and crowd-pleasing action sequences.
If anything, Dark Phoenix is mostly a victim of context and circumstance. Released at the absolute peak of superhero films, the last X-Men film Apocalypse wasn’t necessarily a critical darling or box office success. It wasn’t a terrible film by any means, but like the DC Extended Universe, cracks began to show in the limitations of these characters and for the X-Men cinematic universe – or at least the limitations of the way these characters and the universe are written. In Dark Phoenix, there really isn’t a character to root for. Jean, although understandably upset and confused by this new power, doesn’t really evoke any sympathy. There’s a plot thread that tries to portray Charles Xavier as the villain, but his motivations make perfect sense. There’s mixed messaging and mixed emotions/tonal shifts that just don’t work here. I believe that the reported reshoots, actors/actresses exiting the franchise, and Kinberg’s rushed script truly hurt the feel of this film.
Although Dark Phoenix is lacking in any real sense of stakes or weight, the action sequences are some of the best of the franchise. A train escape towards the end of the film (glimpsed in the trailers) might be the best X-Men “team up” scene in the franchise history. It’s just sad that the rest of the film couldn’t be as exhilarating. Jennifer Lawrence and Evan Peters are drastically underutilized here. Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy now have a perfect track record portraying Magneto and Charles Xavier (respectively), but their characters are somewhat sidelined as well. This is Jean Grey’s story, for better and for worse. Sophie Turner is a capable actress and she sells a grieving and confused Jean fairly well. The main issue is that the character of Jean Grey has never been a strong point in Days of Future Past and Apocalypse, and that trend continues here. The script just doesn’t have enough moments where the characters truly connect. Everyone seems over it. Even Magneto berates Charles saying “There’s always a speech, Charles, but no one cares anymore.”
There are only a handful of scenes where actual meaningful conversations take place. It was disappointing to see the characters move from one set piece to the next, just going through the motions. I would have preferred a lengthier and more fleshed out script. The philosophy and the moral questions from past X-Men films are almost completely absent in Dark Phoenix. Even X-Men: Apocalypse (which I enjoyed) raised a few questions about the moral grey areas of these characters. There is a question of whether Charles has made mistakes with Jean’s past, but it isn’t able to support the entire dramatic arc of the film. It’s just not that interesting or unique of a story. Jessica Chastain’s “Vuk” is the central villain of Dark Phoenix, but she seems rather tame in comparison to Oscar Isaac’s mutant god in Apocalypse. I don’t want to spoil her role in the film, but her presence is mostly unnecessary here. Her character has no personality, and just never feels like a real threat to the X-Men.
When the credits rolled during Dark Phoenix, I was struck with a bittersweet realization. I’ve seen every X-Men film in a crowded theater (yes, even X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and always enjoyed the experience. To see this series end with a whimper is genuinely depressing, especially since they restarted this timeline in Days of Future Past. Simon Kinberg resorts to once again ending the X-Men series with the Phoenix Saga from the comics. It didn’t work the first time, and it unfortunately doesn’t work a second time. Maybe once Disney and Marvel take over the X-Men, we’ll get a proper ending or introduction to these characters via the MCU. It’s a shame that these actors have to leave the franchise on a down note. Hopefully, the X-Men can one day stick the landing of whatever full story that the writers and directors are trying to tell.