19 years of X-Men films have led to one very awkward moment. A patchwork of sagas ranging from transcendent to bottom-dweller couldn’t have a picked a flatter vehicle for punctuating a complex legacy now in the hands of Disney upon the Disney-Fox merger. And to make matters more confused, we still have another one of these ancillary films, New Mutants, delayed to next spring for an unrelated and likely inconsequential misadventure. For now, Dark Phoenix effectively closes the book on a story that already has two, maybe three endings as it is.
For the sake of simplification, we can refer to Dark Phoenix as the fourth film in the “First Class” franchise, which began in 2011 as a way to reset the narrative by telling the early stories of Charles Xavier, Mystique, Beast, and Magneto in X-Men: First Class. Then Days of Future Past went a step further in 2014 by resetting the timeline, as well as bookending the initial trilogy and passing the torch to whatever new team might step up.
The conceit was a smart one. The X-Men films would no longer serve as prequels to the established events of the 2000–2006 trilogy, but rather tell new stories set in iconographic decades, continuing in 2016 with X-Men: Apocalypse, an 80s X-Men film that set up an actual working team with younger versions of characters we already know, plus some newcomers.
This puts Dark Phoenix in the unique spot of spawning a new story with these established characters, untangled from previous encounters and those Wolverine spinoffs. Yet the film constantly brings these other films back into the foray, including The Last Stand, the 2006 X-Men film that first brought the Phoenix storyline to the big screen.
It should be noted that this thread in the X-Men storyline is operatic by nature, which means its plot deserves at least two films of set up before going all out with a premise about Jean Grey alienating herself and her powers from her friends and allies. Instead, Dark Phoenix rushes to the finish line in more ways than one: cutting short the dramatic weight of Jean Grey’s story, but also the story of a team we’ve had almost no quality time with to enjoy.
Watching Dark Phoenix feels like an obligation in some ways. Why not give these movies and characters a proper goodbye, even if its shortcomings are impossible to ignore? Nostalgia will no doubt play a factor in audiences showing up for one last ride in the Blackbird, but they won’t have the opportunity to see these films finish on a high note, which was always a gamble considering the mix of quality these films are known for.
Simon Kinberg directed and wrote the film, which sort of makes sense. Who better to finish the fight than someone who has written and produced so many of these films to date, including a few of the better ones. In fact, Kinberg wrote The Last Stand. In some ways, Dark Phoenix was his chance for a do-over, an opportunity to learn from the mistakes made with that film in an effort to do the storyline justice. Instead, Dark Phoenix is worse than Last Stand in almost every respect, despite replicating much of what worked or didn’t work the first time around. Specifically, Dark Phoenix has no inherent themes or subtext flavoring its standard conflicts in the way Last Stand wrapped up that trilogy’s commentary on human-mutant relationships.
Gone also are the tight storytelling flourishes of Days of Future Past, as well as the vibrant character work in Apocalypse. Dark Phoenix does much less with less, framing a far less interesting version of Jean Grey, though not to the fault of Sophie Turner, who already proved her casting to be a brilliant choice three years ago. Much of the problem lies in how familiar this trope has become, when a woman is given too much power and goes “mad,” to the point where it’s hard not to wonder if the men writing these stories are subconsciously trying to tell us how scared they are of women in general having even a modicum of power for themselves and no one else.
The film begins with the one and only mission where we see the X-Men functioning as a real team. And it’s a fairly unremarkable outing; a simple rescue mission that reintroduces the audience to each member’s power set in bland, singular ways. In fact, they barely work as a team at all, simply following one-note orders from Mystique (who doesn’t use the real extent of her own powers once in an entire X-Men film, a decision that absolutely astounds) and culminating with Jean coming in contact with a solar flare that awakens her trauma and the hidden powers within.
That’s right, Jean doesn’t just have these powers. They’ve been permitted to appear by a nondescript influence, carried further by an alien group of shapeshifters led by Jessica Chastain. Every subversion of superhero films laid out earlier this year in Captain Marvel shows up in Dark Phoenix like a friend arriving at a dinner party dressed in a toga. These are perhaps the most cinematically uninteresting superhero movie villains to appear in a film of this size since Thor: The Dark World, and perhaps even further back to The Losers.
Thankfully, the film at least takes stride in making something of a villain out of Charles Xavier for once, again played by James McAvoy. Rather than set up the familiar conflict between him and Michael Fassbender as Magneto, Dark Phoenix plays with the egomania of a man who has inexplicably named a school and superhero team after himself. Beast (played by Nicholas Hoult) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) serve as sounding boards to what has admittedly been years/decades of troubling behavior from the psychic mentor, but their history is hard to swallow when we’re watching actors in their 30s playing characters in their 50s without any sort of explanation as to why no one appears to have aged more than a year or two.
Dark Phoenix is a low point for the entire superhero genre, mimicking its 2006 forerunner. It makes light nothing out of Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). It “fridges” one of the most iconic characters in X-Men lore. It presents set pieces with no visual acuity to speak of. And worst of all, it has no vision or soul. In other words, it’s a film that appears to exist out of a machine, not human beings with stories they’re passionate to tell.
The matching costumes of the X-Men in this movie might as well be prison uniforms, meant to signify the profoundly permeating sense that these actors feel trapped in a doomed production, destined to fail under the weight of circumstances well beyond their control. But unlike the titular phoenix, there’s no resurrecting this one.