X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX
Starring: Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender
Writer: Simon Kinberg
Director: Simon Kinberg
Studio: 20th Century Fox
“You’re always sorry, Charles. And there’s always a speech,” Magneto tells Professor X. “But nobody cares.”
Ain’t that the truth.
For the last time under the Fox banner, the X-Men suit up for adventure (well, at least for a moment) in Dark Phoenix (2019). This installment of the franchise finds our heroes headed to space, where Jean Grey will encounter the Phoenix Force and X-Men history will change forever. Writer/director Simon Kinberg sets out to redeem X-Men: The Last Stand, which he also wrote, by finally doing justice to the fan-favorite Dark Phoenix Saga. But does he succeed?
Let’s start with the good.
Dark Phoenix kicks off with pure X-Men energy. For the first 20 minutes, this movie competes with the best of the franchise. We find ourselves in a new status quo. The world that hated and feared the mutants now loves them. The government even calls the X-Men for help.
And best of all? The X-Men go to space! For a moment. But even that moment brings nostalgic shades of the classic Claremont/Byrne X-Men comic run. The mutants combine their powers in creative ways, and their personalities have the chance to shine.
Another nod to the books: the suits. Comic fans will recognize the Grant Morrison New X-Men uniforms with the big yellow “X” across the chest and shoulders. The suits have nothing to do with the original Dark Phoenix Saga, but they look great. They also show how far we’ve come from the early 2000s, with the X-Men all in leather to avoid comic book silliness (although today, ironically, the leather looks much sillier than the classic blue-and-gold).
Several performances deserve special mention. Sophie Turner kills it as Jean Grey. X-Men: Apocalypse failed to convince me that Turner could carry the energy of this beloved heroine. But she delivers a layered performance that makes you believe in the film even when everything else doesn’t. After Dark Phoenix, she is my definitive film Jean Grey. Make mine a Marvel Girl.
Also worth noting: Nicholas Hoult as Beast and Alexandra Shipp as Storm. Hoult brings a new level of emotion to his character. When he’s on screen, you feel the history of the X-Men films since First Class. And Alexandra Shipp finally gets a chance to be the real Storm. It took the entire Fox X-Men franchise to finally capture Storm’s appearance and personality, but they made it, and better late than never.
But then there’s the bad.
After the fresh and fast-paced opening act, the film drags to a slow halt. The dialogue bounces between melodramatic and expositional and rarely gives real emotional insight. We rehash the obligatory Magneto/Xavier conflict and mutant/human tensions, but by now, they’ve all gone stale, and they bear no real consequences in the story.
The proverbial writing has been on the wall for Dark Phoenix. The film was pushed back and rewritten, and Kinberg began apologizing for it even before the release. According to him, the original ending took place in space but was rewritten to take place on a train. He’s also acknowledged that they simply did not have room to include comic book staples like Lilandra or the Hellfire Club.
In their place, we get a shapeshifting alien race that, while nominally from the comics, plays like something from a bad season of Smallville. The decision to have the aliens spend the film in human form with regular clothes feels more like a budget workaround than a creative choice. The X-Men themselves, after the fantastic opening act, trade their uniforms for everyday attire. And so the film grows less and less visually interesting. It dips its toes in the fantastic but never musters the courage to dive in. It tries to be grounded and cosmic at the same time, and it fails at both.
As the film goes on, the conflict shifts from Jean Grey herself to these alien intruders. By trading the internal conflict of the X-Men for this half-developed cosmic threat, Dark Phoenix saps all the emotion from its source material. Only a melodramatic husk remains.
After the notorious failure of Last Stand, this film aimed to redeem the Dark Phoenix Saga on screen. So it’s only fair to ask—has Dark Phoenix at least succeeded over Last Stand? Did Kinberg at least improve it on take two?
It’s a no from me. For all its failings, Last Stand had real stakes. It even captured echos of the original saga’s emotional core. Dark Phoenix fails in as many ways but accomplishes none of these things. In 2019, the same year we saw Skrulls and Thanos on the big screen, this film acts even more ashamed of its comic book origins than did Last Stand in 2006. It tries so hard to be grounded that it forgets to have fun.
Only at one point does this film appear conscious of its status as the end of Fox’s X-Men franchise. During the rewritten train sequence, the X-Men find themselves taken hostage by the Mutant Containment Unit. And the initials of that unit, emblazoned in bold on their uniforms? The MCU.
That’s right. In Dark Phoenix, the MCU literally takes the X-Men hostage.
You could say it’s a coincidence. But then again, this is the franchise that put the Fox logo over the Nazi swastika in the opening credits of Apocalypse.
If you’re an X-Men fan, you should still catch this one in theaters, if only for the opening act. But looking at the X-Men films as a whole, it’s obvious that Logan was the real climax of the franchise. Dark Phoenix stands as an intriguing but inessential appendix.