My review of X-Men: Dark Phoenix from back in June stands upon second viewing: This is a disappointingly low-rent swan song to a long series of relatively disappointing X-Men episodes released in the past decade-and-a-half. Much as X-Men: The Last Stand before it, Dark Phoenix fails as an adaptation of the legendary comic book storyline, and as an update of that storyline’s elements for a low-budget adaptation it just seems to fail just as badly.
There are plenty of reviewers who disagree with my assessment and see this as a valuable piece of art that conveys the ways in which a character learns to deal with trauma. I can’t deny their personal response to Dark Phoenix and have no interest in doing so. But it seems that most superhero stories — like any other form of drama — have often utilized trauma in one form or another as a way of commencing a story. It is not necessarily the case that all stories are explicitly about dealing with trauma, but stating the ways in which blockbuster films happen to specifically tackle the subject feels like an increasingly common critical refrain to elevate movies that are ostensibly shallow big-budget action movies with characters who exist to service set-piece plotting rather than the other way around.
This also isn’t to say that superhero films are inherently devoid of subtext or drama, but what confounds me is that Dark Phoenix follows the same basic plot beats and features the same tired monologues about defining oneself that every other superhero story seems to feature — without any of the humor, cleverness, spirit or thoughtfulness required to make the characters uniquely insightful in their search for solace. I’m not really sure Dark Phoenix deserves cultural re-codification from “cheap superhero movie” to “movie about dealing with trauma” as a way of rationalizing away its flaws. It pales in comparison to its sister movie from earlier in the year about a super-powered woman battling with the identity foisted upon her, Captain Marvel. There is clearly intention behind the actors’ performances and penmanship of longtime X-Men Cinematic Universe architect Simon Kinberg, but does it say anything new? Is it really all that deep? Does it feel emotionally grounded? Does it feel any different than stories about women written by men? It tries, but in the end it only drives home the reason why comic book fans have spent the last decade clamoring for more stories about women, by women.
Nonetheless it’s difficult to watch the special features included on Dark Phoenix and come out hateful toward Kinberg and company for making a film in which they clearly believed This is Kinberg’s first film as director after writing and producing most of the X-Men films (and many other works), and his presence is what brought back series regulars like Michael Fassbender as Magneto, James McAvoy as Xavier and Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique. The behind-the-scenes features convey a family-like atmosphere that normally doesn’t come across in such things. It’s targeted marketing, sure, but feels genuine enough. A making-of documentary is surprisingly robust for a Blu-ray release of a blockbuster these days. How does the same studio make two subpar adaptations of such a seminal comic book storyline? Tune in to find out. Bloopers and commentary tracks round out this release.
Frankly it’s difficult to say whether Dark Phoenix is worse than its predecessor, X-Men: Apocalypse. At the very least it’s a much more interesting failure, imbued with the very real energies of everyone involved and trying to tell a big story with a small budget. It will probably end up a superhero cult classic for those who fall into its rhythms, and also those who appreciate the fact that it comes at the end of such a storied run of Fox-produced X-Men films. As far as franchise self-immolation goes, Dark Phoenix will forever remain an enduring example, especially after its IP will rise again reborn in another half-decade or so.