The “Dark Phoenix Saga” is the most famous X-Men storyline of all time. Hell, it’s one of the most famous comic book stories of all time. Fans have longed for a faithful and proper adaptation of the story on the big screen for years especially after it served as part of the narrative for the third “X-Men” film, “X-Men: The Last Stand” which is often considered an insult to the legacy of the saga. The film franchise was rebooted with a prequel series in the 2010s eventually leading to “X-Men: Apocalypse” hinting that the story would be revisited in a new timeline. Thus, we have “Dark Phoenix”, the end of the Fox-owned “X-Men” series that is directly responsible for the popularity of superhero and comic book movies we know and love today. In a lot of ways this film offered both a chance at redemption and an opportunity for closure as Disney and Marvel move to inevitably insert the X-Men into the MCU. However, with such an epic and deep story as the basis for the narrative, and “The Last Stand” having botched the job already once before, fans were demanding something truly great leaving this film with some very lofty expectations on its shoulders. How well does “Dark Phoenix” stack up? Let’s find out. This is my review of “Dark Phoenix”.
“Dark Phoenix” takes place in 1992, keeping with the prequel series’ trend of visiting a different decade with each new film, and sees Charles Xavier and the X-Men hailed as heroes after defeating Apocalypse. The X-Men team, consisting of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters), are called in to help the space shuttle Endeavour after an anomaly in space puts the crew in danger. The X-Men complete their mission but find their own vessel threatened by the anomaly leading Jean to use her powers to absorb the mysterious force causing the disturbance. Jean soon realizes that this force is changing her, making her powers harder to control and causing her to embrace a more reckless personality. After a personal discovery leads her to clash with her former teammates Jean turns against her friends causing the X-Men to suffer a tragic loss. Jean then turns to Magneto (Michael Fassbender) for help but ends up embracing her new powers even more in the process. The team and Magneto find themselves torn between trying to help Jean or trying to destroy her. Meanwhile, a mysterious new enemy, played by Jessica Chastain, arrives on earth seeking to claim the “Phoenix Force” for herself.
As you can tell from that synopsis there’s a lot going on in this movie, but before I get to how it’s all handled it should be pointed out that many fans and critics are hating on this film, but surprisingly I actually disagree with a lot of them. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ll say right at the start here that “Dark Phoenix” is still a very flawed “X-Men” movie but a lot of people are calling it the WORST movie in the franchise and that’s just flat out false. “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and “X-Men: Apocalypse” for example are much worse. At least “Dark Phoenix” was fun whereas either of the two aforementioned films barely gave us anything worth remembering or praising. To me “Dark Phoenix” is getting slammed for a couple of painfully poor reasons. It tries to handle a popular and cherished comic book story for the second time and, once again, that story is not done justice. Combine that with the already poor taste left from “The Last Stand” and this was bound to be a difficult situation for “Dark Phoenix” to handle no matter how much effort was put into it. Second, it’s being released as likely the final movie from the Fox era of the “X-Men” and people seem to have already given up on the franchise. Sure, we’ve had gems like “Deadpool” and “Logan” but those were standalone character-centric films. “Apocalypse” was a horrid waste of time with lifeless acting and barely any effort to do anything different and fans were starting to feel the familiarity getting stale. Both of these issues left “Dark Phoenix” almost destined to be destroyed unless it did something magnificently unique and brave. But it doesn’t. It does play it safe and feels like it’s bringing a series to a close that’s long been dead, but I refuse to call it anything close to the worst film this franchise has ever given us.
For one I was actually invested in this film. Despite its problems it gives us some fun moments and for the first time since “First Class” I found myself enjoying the cast of characters as a unit rather than only a few characters at a time. While not every X-Man is properly developed and the script does them no favors, I felt some of the acting and the balancing of the cast was much improved when compared to “Apocalypse”. Sophie Turner specifically is so much better in this movie where she was a dry, lifeless shell in the previous film. Turner was one of the worst things about “Apocalypse” to me as her inclusion felt more like gimmick casting thanks to her “Game of Thrones” credentials. In fact, the young cast as a whole was horribly presented in “Apocalypse”, but here I actually cared about them. The relationship between Turner’s Jean and Tye Sheridan’s Cyclops feels so much more believable this time around and their chemistry is much improved while Storm and Nightcrawler are at least given some room to grow even if they still play second fiddle to the rest of the cast. We see small signs of Storm maturing into the leader she is meant to be within the X-Men while Nightcrawler gets probably his most substantial screen time since “X2: X-Men United”. Overall while these performers and their characters still could have used some work and polish the younger cast showed their maturity and growth from the previous film nicely.
The older cast on the other is a different story. A big part of this film’s narrative is Charles Xavier becoming obsessed with the popularity and respect he and his fellow mutants have received as superheroes rather than pariahs in the years since “Apocalypse”. This development felt like a very out-of-character shift that made him very difficult to like and support. It does offer some intriguing ideas later in the film as Xavier has to manage his guilt for “protecting” Jean from her powers and past thus bringing about the danger he tried to prevent in the process, but it’s not nearly developed enough to add any weight to the story and by the end of the film his misdeeds prove to be pretty inconsequential in the larger story. Evan Peters returns as Quicksilver getting his signature slow-motion scene once again, but he’s sidelined for most of the movie in the one notably egregious case of underutilizing a character this movie has to its credit. Nicholas Hoult, Jennifer Lawrence, and Michael Fassbender all turn in performances that clearly show they were done with this franchise before shooting began. They all feel like they’re just not into it anymore and that sadly does an injustice to just how much MORE invested the younger cast seems to be. The new addition to the cast, Jessica Chastain, is sadly wasted as an underwhelming villainess who embraces more clichés than almost any other baddy in the “X-Men” series so far. Although her performance feels more lively than the rest of her more experienced castmates it’s still not enough to help elevate “Dark Phoenix” to the level it needed to reach to gain fan and critical respect.
All that said though I did honestly have a lot of fun watching this film. “Dark Phoenix” feels like a high-end early 2000s superhero flick, a similar compliment I gave to “Venom” in 2018, and with that it brought back memories of why I started enjoying the superhero movies to begin with. While it lacks substance in its handling of one of the most iconic comic stories of all time and very much fails in its attempt to adapt the narrative to the big screen “Dark Phoenix” still had me curious as to how things would play out. I felt genuinely concerned for Jean and how she would handle her newfound powers. The big death scene (which was spoiled in the trailers) still felt impactful and serves as an important moment to challenge the remaining members of the “First Class” cast who we’ve seen grow throughout four films since 2011. Big set pieces and plenty of mutant power action, as well as some neat cameos, add a lot to “Dark Phoenix” that I was begging for from “Apocalypse”. It feels like “Dark Phoenix” at least tries to be something unique and eventful without completely leaning on what worked in the past. It’s a starkly different take on the idea from “The Last Stand” and much more engaging than “Apocalypse” was so if nothing else that’s a huge plus that keeps it from being completely underwhelming. It also offers some challenging ideas even if these ideas aren’t fully fleshed out. There are signs of competence hidden in this film and while it’s still a mess “Dark Phoenix” kept me entertained and engrossed. Still, it did embrace a lot of genre cliches in general and it’s poor pacing and structure as well as it’s schmaltzy finish clearly designed to bid the Fox franchise a fond farewell may prove too much for fans to see through the rust to find the shine.
No matter how fun “Dark Phoenix” was for me it’s still a subpar movie at best. There are a lot of good ideas and character moments but many of them are handled either lazily or in a rushed manner making it hard to fully appreciate the impact of these moments or the full depth of the story being told. The script is messy, and the story structure feels pieced together rather than cohesive. I found that there are a lot of great pieces to this movie that, when taken separately, shine on their own as highlight moments worth watching. But put together they don’t always add up. Walking out of the movie I felt it was “just fine”. I’d seen worse films before, even just this year. “Hellboy” for example was not only lazy and cliché, but it was also boring and uninspired. At least “Dark Phoenix” feels like it’s trying even if it still feels like it doesn’t know how to get from point A to point B properly, but it once again shows how apparently difficult it is to properly manage the “Dark Phoenix Saga” on the big screen.
In an earlier era of superhero movies maybe “Dark Phoenix” would have been received much more warmly. I don’t agree with a lot of the criticism calling it lifeless, uninteresting or lazy because I don’t think that’s completely true. There are elements of this film that I respect and very much enjoyed even if they could have been done better. There’s a certain charm about it I just can’t deny. When compared to some of the completely botched movies in the series that came before it “Dark Phoenix” is perfectly passable. But there’s still a lot to be desired and I can fully understand why it has become such a divisive, even disdained film. I just simply don’t agree that it’s the worst this series has offered us over the years. All things considered this is not the conclusion the Fox “X-Men” series needed nor is it the adaptation that the “Dark Phoenix Saga” deserved, but taken as a standalone product without considering its predecessors or the source material “Dark Phoenix” by itself has a lot more to offer than I think people are giving it credit for. In the end it will be remembered as another failed attempt by Fox to stick the landing and a sore finale to the original cinematic “X-Men” stories, but as a longtime fan of the franchise and a fan of superhero films in general I would certainly rather watch this than some of the other train wrecks that have littered this franchise over the last 19 years.