Dark Phoenix is the final movie in a 19-year X-Men saga, and a franchise death whimper if I’ve ever seen one. It feels much like a direct-to-VOD story made on the cheap because the resources just weren’t there.
Writer-director Simon Kinberg certainly makes do with what the studio has given him to tell a story he just wasn’t prepared to convey. It’s a wonder returning stars Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult showed up at all. “Character assassination” was what my wife told me the theme of this review could be, but quite honestly there are no characters here to assassinate: The X-Men franchise has been dying a slow death for most of its existence anyway, a victim of entropy and poor filmmaking since 2006. Dark Phoenix is a disappointing finale – a slight uptick from the previous movie, Apocalypse, only by virtue of its considerably shorter runtime.
It’s probably not necessary to explain who the X-Men are at this point, but … from the 1970s through the 1990s, X-Men were pillars of the comic-book industry. Hundreds of characters in the Marvel Universe were classified “mutant,” but the core was a group of a dozen or so characters who served alongside Charles Xavier, an MLK-like figure who advocated peaceful co-existence between mutants and regular humans. Their nemesis was Magneto, a Holocaust survivor and mutant who believed such peace was folly.
In 2000, the first movie was released. X-Men was a hit (it introduced me to comics and certainly influenced the course of my life), and the subsequent sequel, X2: X-Men United, remains one of the best entries in the superhero genre. But this franchise existed in the world before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and serialization from movie to movie wasn’t a priority for Fox, the studio running things. In 2006, X-Men: The Last Stand was a critical failure and the franchise’s first fall from grace. Despite major exceptions (X-Men: Days of Future Past and Logan), it has continually been overshadowed by much better, more tightly wound superhero series.
The Last Stand is such a legendary failure that Dark Phoenix essentially remakes it, for some reason. It’s true they share the same source material: the legendary “Dark Phoenix Saga” by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, which depicts founding team member Jean Grey possessed by a deadly cosmic force. The movies both base their narratives on Jean growing powerful and corrupted, but neither is particularly successful at translating anything about what that change means to the world around her because, honestly, the X-Men film franchise has never built a world or cast of characters about which or whom she should care.
Dark Phoenix advertises itself as a fix for The Last Stand‘s failures but maintains a shocking number of similarities that don’t come from the comics. Jean visiting her childhood home and fighting the X-Men; the tragic death of an old character; Jean visiting Magneto in the backlot woods; a villain standing behind her shoulder, corrupting her in the most obvious way possible. Although some of these elements have analogues in the original story, most of Dark Phoenix simply feels like The Last Stand put through a third or fourth revision. Seeing as the same man wrote both films, that’s pretty much the case.
Dark Phoenix completely fails Jean’s character. The Last Stand infamously turned her into an almost dialogue-free monster of mayhem, and it’s not that bad here. But we’re still only meeting Sophie Turner’s take on the character for what amounts to the first time (her presence in Apocalypse is unmemorable, a casualty of that film’s editing). She’s almost immediately possessed. There are plenty of monologues and voiceovers about her identity crisis, but none of it feels natural. Kinberg tries to graft on a few bits about her being true to herself and finding power in her emotions (a la Captain Marvel), but it feels tacked on, false, tone-deaf. If you want an example of why women clamor for stories about women, written by women, compare how Phoenix and Marvel approach similar subject matter – and how they treat the men who gaslit the women whose stories we’re following.
Jean isn’t the only character wasted here. Charles Xavier, stalwart leader of the X-Men, is, as fellow MFJ writer Mitch Ringenberg whispered to me about halfway through, “a complete asshole.” McAvoy portrays a truly unlikable version of the character whose presence in the story is frustrating and bothersome. Why shouldn’t Jean just kill the X-Men? We’d be better off.
At least Magneto is back to his old intra-movie default of “retired from killing people,” only to be brought back into the murder-fold by events around him. Fassbender’s take on young Magneto is an iconic performance trapped in lousy movies.
I guess Jessica Chastain is also in the movie for some reason, but her character is an absolute nothing. If you thought Oscar Isaac was wasted as Apocalypse, just wait.
Perhaps the movie Dark Phoenix reminds me of the most is Battle for the Planet of the Apes, the fifth and final sequel to the original sci-fi classic Planet of the Apes. Back when those films were being sequalized, it wasn’t common practice to pump in higher budgets. Sequels were throwaway cash-grabs. The Apes series is special because the first three sequels — Beneath, Escape from, and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes — made do with lower budgets by finding creative ways to tell Twilight Zone–like stories similar to the first. Battle, however, was a war movie with the budget of a school play. It had no natural story to tell, no reason to exist. Its seams were noticeable in every shot. Although Battle has a few isolated instances of brilliance it was the end of that series for decades, and rightfully so.
Dark Phoenix will never be remembered as anything but a sad and quiet end to a franchise that once defined superhero cinema. It doesn’t erase any of the wonderful work done in the past two decades (or the smattering of great work done here — or, if not necessarily great work, noteworthy misfired creative energy on a project that didn’t gel), but it makes the message clear: Time to give the X-Men a rest.