Directed By: Simon Kinberg
Release Date: June 7, 2019
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Sophie Turner, Jennifer Lawrence
And so an era comes to a close, with Simon Kinberg's Dark Phoenix marking the end of the X-Men films as we've come to know them over the last twenty years now that the characters have come back home to Marvel Studios via Disney's acquisition of Fox. Since the release of Bryan Singer's original X-Men all the way back in 2000, the landscape of comic book movies has grown and evolved, the series itself continually trying to keep up with it. It's impossible to deny that the era of quality we live in now in terms of Marvel films – namely the Marvel Cinematic Universe – owes a lot of its existence to the success of that first film and its 2003 sequel, both of which played huge roles in proving the viability of comic book movies in a post-Batman & Robin era.
Despite its strong start, I don't think any film series has been such a rollercoaster ride in terms of quality as this has been over the last two decades. It gave birth to incredibly well-regarded films, like the Deadpool duology, X-Men: First Class, X2: X-Men United, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Logan, the latter three of which are some of my favorite comic book movies period. And yet it also gave us middle of the road entries like The Wolverine and a few that are considered some of the worst comic book movies ever: X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and X-Men: Apocalypse.
It's unfortunate, then, that Dark Phoenix sends this franchise out on a middling note rather than a high one. It never quite reaches the atrocious lows of, say, X-Men Origins, but it never even comes close to the level of greatness of the franchise's best. In many ways, it feels like a relic, a film pushed out in order to keep the series relevant that instead feels a decade too late, especially when entries like Days of Future Past and Logan felt like better, more poignant conclusions to this franchise than Dark Phoenix could hope to be.
Before I go further, a recap: Nearly a decade after the events of X-Men: Apocalypse, the world has come to tentatively accept the X-Men as heroes and mutantkind as deserving of a place in the world. When the famous Endeavour space shuttle launches in 1992, the X-Men are called in to help when something goes wrong, as the shuttle is damaged by a mysterious energy force. Though they manage to save the shuttle's crew, much to society's appreciation, it's nearly at the cost of the life of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), who absorbs all of the energy, an act that boosts all of her mutant powers and reveals secrets that Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) had attempted to suppress within her mind when she was a child.
Unable to control her new influx of power and struggling with the weight of new revelations about her past, Jean sets out to discover who she really is, leaving bodies and destruction in her wake that threaten to damage the tenuous peace between man and mutantkind. With government forces, the X-Men, and even Magneto (Michael Fassbender) on the hunt to detain, save, and/or kill her, Jean is tempted by an alien named Vuk (Jessica Chastain) to become who she is meant to be, forcing Jean to embrace or reject the path that fate has put before her.
Now, this isn't the first time that this series has attempted to tackle Chris Claremont's iconic "Dark Phoenix Saga" from 1980, one of the most well-known Marvel Comics stories. X-Men: The Last Stand was the franchise's first stab at it and failed miserably, and with that film wiped from continuity thanks to the events of Days of Future Past, the series – and Kinberg, who wrote The Last Stand and Dark Phoenix – had the opportunity to learn from every mistake made thirteen years ago in order to get it right the second time around, which makes it all the more painful that the series has stumbled in pulling it off yet again.
At the very least, one lesson the film did learn was to not saddle itself with excess plot. The Last Stand struggled with trying to shoehorn the Dark Phoenix storyline into a film that also dealt with the arrival of a mutant cure, doing neither story thread justice as its focus bounced back and forth between them before attempting to tie them together in a wholly unsatisfying way. Here, Dark Phoenix at least sticks to Jean's story and never strays off on tangents, but that's still not enough when shades of The Last Stand's mistakes play out all over again.
Once more, for example, Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) is characterized by a single trait: The fact that he's Jean's boyfriend. Arguably no character has been as thoroughly wasted by the X-Men films as Cyclops has been, and that's no different here, even if Sheridan isn't unceremoniously done away with like James Marsden was back in 2006. But it’s emblematic of the fact that the series has so often rested its laurels on expanding upon only a few characters, like Wolverine, Xavier, and Magneto, while leaving the rest out to dry, a point I'll return to in a moment.
Further, nothing about this feels like the epic conclusion it’s supposed to be. Take a recent example in Avengers: Endgame, which – while not the end of the MCU – served as a definitive endpoint for the first decade of that franchise. When the Avengers go up against Thanos and his army at the end of that film, there are real stakes; we've come to care about those characters, and when a major player makes a sacrifice, it's incredibly powerful because we've followed them on a journey for years, seen their failures and successes, and know what makes them tick and what they're willing to sacrifice themselves for. Even though it's a comic book movie that sees a man growing sixty-plus feet tall to punch a flying space alien, it never forgets the human element that has made those films so relatable to many across the world.
For Dark Phoenix, which is branded as the big culmination of the ride we've been on, there's nothing to really latch on to. Many of these characters have been around since 2000, sure, but not in the same incarnation. Days of Future Past sent much of the original cast out on a great note, while Logan served as an incredibly poignant goodbye for Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart, both films incredibly satisfying in their own rights as conclusions even if the future of the primary franchise was left open for the younger generation to really step up and into the spotlight.
At this point, though, McAvoy, Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, and Nicholas Hoult are the only faces still around from when the series had its soft reboot in X-Men: First Class, but these young versions of characters like Cyclops, Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and Jean were all only introduced one movie ago in X-Men: Apocalypse, a film which barely let us get to know any of them.
None of the newcomers in the cast has had time to live and breathe these characters, let alone endear them to us, and rushing into Dark Phoenix so quickly means that there's a lack of personal investment in any of them because we really know nothing about them. Storm has an accent. Nightcrawler can be quirky. Cyclops is a bit clingy. Jean is a blank slate. That's about all we're ever given to chew on, which is nowhere near enough to make for a satisfying experience out of an event that's supposed to be such a powerful, pivotal moment in all their lives. In Jean's case, had we gotten to know her over the course of several films, learning her insecurities, seeing the seeds of her internal struggle slowly take root, and experiencing her quirks, her relationship dynamics, and so forth, this film could've packed a real emotional punch; instead it's like an ineffectual slap on the wrist.
Even the First Class crew still hanging around feels underwhelming in their presence here, though that's not a fault of the actors. McAvoy, Fassbender, and Hoult are still really great as these characters – even if, by now, they've got to be in or near their 60s and haven't aged a day from when we first met them in the 1960s – and it's unfortunate that they feel rather wasted here in the franchise's swan song. They're let down by writing that would’ve been better off embracing the nostalgia around their legacy over the last decade rather than merely flirting with it, reducing them to playing rather thankless roles in the movie despite being the best thing it has going for it here at the end of the line. The only one who comes across as being over their involvement in these movies is Jennifer Lawrence, who – and it's no secret – isn't in the movie very much and has always seemed less and less enthusiastic about being Mystique with each new movie (and maybe she was on to something).
Ultimately, that's a big problem for the film. By its very nature, the X-Men demand an expansive cast, which is fine, but Dark Phoenix struggles to find a purpose for each of them. Storm and Nightcrawler get brief moments of cool action, but cut them out of the movie and nothing would really be lost. As great as he always is – and he is a high point of the movie – Magneto feels here just because someone believes you can't have an X-Men movie without him around. Even Evan Peters' Quicksilver, who managed to stand out even in the great Days of Future Past and was one of Apocalypse's few shining lights, is thoroughly disregarded here, written out of the movie in such a groan-worthy way.
It says a lot, too, that I haven't even touched upon the major newcomer: Jessica Chastain. As I mentioned in setting up the film, she portrays the leader of an alien race of evil shape-shifters and... well, that's all you ever get to know. I imagine Chastain signed on with the promise that she'd get a lot more to work with here, but the end result is that she leaves zero impression. Even though Apocalypse squandered Oscar Isaac in the titular villain's role, at least he had a few moments you could point to about his performance or his role in the plot that makes him memorable, for better or worse. In contrast, Vuk is a complete non-entity, unbelievably uninteresting on screen and existing only to keep Jean from being the real villain rather than a character in her own right.
When everything comes to a head in the final act, when Vuk is inevitably defeated – big surprise! – there's an overwhelming sense of anticlimax, and I imagine many will be asking, "That's it?" when it's all suddenly over. The stakes, we're told, are much, much higher here than in Apocalypse, and yet that film's finale felt far grander despite being an overall mess; we actually got to see what the villainous mutant was capable of on a wide scale of destruction. Here? There's a fight sequence on a train that showcases a few of the various mutants' powers, Jean comes into her own for a few minutes, and then it all just kind of... ends, as though everyone involved lost interest somewhere along the way in swinging for the fences.
Even Hans Zimmer's score feels uninspired and boring, churned out with that very same sense of dispassion. On a personal level, I can't wrap my head around the fact that John Ottman was ditched from scoring duties considering he provided the series with one of the best superhero themes of all time in X2, which he brought back for Days of Future Past and Apocalypse, something that Zimmer does away with completely. Even as a wrap-up for this second decade of the series which started with First Class, it would've been fantastic to hear some of Henry Jackman's work from that film, like its primary theme or Magneto's incredible theme, reprised in order to bring these films full circle and musically close them out. Instead, we get a score that feels utterly phoned in and unmemorable, an exasperating aspect of the film for me that I can't let slip by when there was such a great wealth of material to celebrate and expand upon here at the end of it all.
And that rather fits the whole vibe of the film: Frustrating. Despite all my criticism, there are moments where the film does shine or come close to greatness, such as the film's final moments between Xavier and Magneto, an emotional back and forth between Xavier and Hank McCoy at a kitchen table, and an all-too-brief glimpse into what mutant teenagers do for fun with their powers when simply kicking back to blow off steam. But they're all couched in scenes that ring hollow, strung together by poor creative decision-making.
And perhaps that's what Dark Phoenix will be remembered for being: The perfect summation of the inconsistency of the X-Men franchise as a whole, one where the highs were stellar and the lows were woeful. These films have been a part of my life for 2/3rds of it, so there's a certain nostalgia I have for the franchise that makes Dark Phoenix's failures all the more disappointing, and you need look no further than my review of Logan to see my thoughts on what a real send-off should be. The First Class gang in particular deserved much better, as did the newer cast, who likely could've done far better given the chance to work with something that wasn’t Apocalypse and this, and though Jean's second reemergence as the Phoenix turned out to be a dud, at least now the X-Men can arise in several years with a fresh start, born anew from the ashes now that they're back home at Marvel Studios.
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