Dark Phoenix is billed as the “culmination of nearly 20 years of the X-Men franchise,” but what a confusing bumpy roller coaster that story has been.
Never mind the fact that Blade ran circles around the original X-Men movie (which is often credited with moving superhero films into the mainstream) two years before it, Fox just has never known what to do with one of the most popular comic book rosters of all time. While there are highs (X2, Days of Future Past), there are astounding lows (X3, Apocalypse), a few of which are firmly and eternally inked onto the “worst superhero films of all time” parchment. We’ve gone from Bryan Singer, to Brett Ratner, to a bunch of other folks, back to Bryan Singer, and now Simon Kinberg, who has been waiting in the wings since the aforementioned stain that is X3. While I’m not sure what Disney has in store for the X-crew, I’m just glad it’s not with Fox anymore.
It’s possible that Dark Phoenix was doomed from the start. Kinberg has already attempted the whole Phoenix saga angle once, and managed to fail at adapting it once again. There’s zero buildup here, as Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey was just introduced in one total film just three a scant years ago. We’ve seen zero character development from this new Jean, and somehow Dark Phoenix is willing to take on the monumental task of getting people to simultaneously care about her character arc and complete it in under two hours. That’s what I mean about doomed: it’s a near impossible task and no one involved is able to handle it.
It’s a shame given the raw talent involved. James McAvoy returns as Professor X, as does Michael Fassbender, Nicholas Hoult, and somehow they managed to get Jessica Chastain wrapped up in this circus. Although there is a train wreck present, Dark Phoenix isn’t one itself. It’s neither solid nor liquid, it merely exists. It’s not as bad as the Juggernaut-meme-spouting X3 or the Ivan Ooze cosplay YouTube video that was Apocalypse. Everyone gets in, does the job required of them, and gets out. A lot of the superfluous cast that was in Apocalypse was completely cut to make room for a more intimate story.
One of the chief issues beyond the premise is the generic script. Nearly everyone speaks to each other in one-liners and quips, and not even in the fun-but-overused Marvel fashion, but in a “I just read a poetry compendium for the first time” kind of way. Expect a lot of eyeroll-inducing dialogue disappointingly delivered by actors who know that they’re better than what they’re required to say. You really have to wonder what might have been if Fox wasn’t so committed to making the X-Men universe a grimdark shell of itself. Singer’s vision was campy and often full-on cheese, but at least it had a reason to exist.
Then there’s the alien race antagonists, the Putty Patrollers of Dark Phoenix. Like Suicide Squad before it we’re given a big bad to hate rather than a nuanced plotline, because it’s just easier. We’ve seen superheroes squabble before but with the right setup a civil war of sorts could have been a heart-wrenching event. Instead we’re greeted by faceless nothingness. So where did it all go wrong?
In X-Men Apocalypse there’s a (predictably cut) three-minute super fun mall scene where the X-Kids are kicking back and having a fun time. I want an entire movie of that. Instead we got another sad sack film where nearly everyone on-screen both in and outside of the universe, hates being there. Out of all that drama we get roughly one good minute or so between Beast and Charles, and a few seconds of cool Magneto action: so if you’re looking for either of those beats to deliver, you’re out of luck. There’s zero moments of raw emotion and no action cuts made that me go “wow,” or pause to take them in like I often get hit with viewing similar films. Ultimately, I walked out of Dark Phoenix feeling nothing. This is not a grand celebration of Fox’s X-Men franchise, it’s a timid lament that’s scared to be anything special. If Disney hadn’t stepped in it still would have been time to kill the X-Men franchise. It’s dead, Jim.