The X-Men Cinematic Universe has been uneven over the years. Films that focus on singular characters, such as Wolverine and Deadpool, see some of the greatest successes in the franchise. On the flip side, the ensemble films such as X-Men: First Class have had mixed reviews. With a focus on Jean Grey rather than the ensemble, and the desire from director Simon Kinberg for a more faithful adaptation of Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s Dark Phoenix storyline, the promise is here to right the wrongs from the previous cinematic interpretation of Dark Phoenix in X-Men: The Last Stand.
Unfortunately, X-Men: Dark Phoenix doesn’t just break that promise of a better story, it shatters it on the floor and then stamps on it to turn that promise to dust.
Please note that this review will contain spoilers.
I’m a person who reacts to movies in the theater. I clap, I cheer, I laugh, sometimes a little too loudly for my better half’s tastes. I love it when I see other fans reacting to movies; it adds to the shared experience of what is on the screen. To be in a theater where there was hardly any reaction to what took place on screen makes a very telling statement about a film.
That’s what I experienced with this final installment in the X-Men Cinematic Universe. To borrow from the musical A Chorus Line, the movie dug right down to the bottom of its soul but it felt . . . nothing. And we the audience felt . . . nothing.
It is a shame, for the Dark Phoenix saga is one of the most celebrated American superhero comic storylines of the 20th century. The source material is complex and rich, exploring feminism, the extremes of human emotion, and humanity versus immortality. It’s one of the gold standards of X-Men stories. And with the current desire for superhero films that embrace and celebrate deep thematic and social commentary, 2019 seems prime for a new, more precise look at Dark Phoenix.
What we get instead is a melodramatic, watered-down version of that source material with some sideplots added to the mix in an effort to close out this current era of X-Men films.
If you’re not familiar with the Dark Phoenix storyline, here’s the tl;dr version that this iteration presents: X-Men go to space, Jean Grey gets exposed to a deadly solar flare, her telepath powers intensify to the point past her control, and then there’s death and destruction. And that’s all the movie touches on – – the basics. No Hellfire Club, no Mastermind and Emma Frost tapping into Jean’s mind, no Cyclops-Mastermind psychic duel. Indeed, there is a lot going on in the comic. With just under two hours to get it all on screen, some aspects do need to hit the cutting room floor. But stripping everything down to just the bare bones story doesn’t live up to that promise of a more faithful adaptation, not in an era where fans know and laud multilayered worldbuilding and storytelling.
In light of these framing elements, the focus of the film shifts to Jean Grey and her inner torment with the effects of her gift. It strips out that social commentary the X-Men are known best for, but the promise is there for a decently executed character-driven story. But Dark Phoenix is only the second on-screen appearance of Sophie Turner’s teenage Jean. As a result, the emotional beats that we should feel as she works through this conflict – – fear to frustration to anger to love to her final sacrifice – – just don’t land. The steps in that journey are disjointed, without a glue to hold it all together. The heroism that comes first in the Dark Phoenix saga is nowhere to be found, leaving the tragedy of her downfall bereft of relevant context. The rest of the X-Ensemble doesn’t help matters much either, providing weak backup either in cameo appearances for a cool light show with their powers or a Greek chorus stating the obvious.
All this, coupled with lackluster cinematography and special effects, lead to performances that have the air of “let’s just get this done and over with.” (It leaves me wondering just how much everyone knew about the Disney-Fox merger at the time of filming, and what effect those developments had on morale.) The output is a product that leaves audiences confused as to direction and tone for the movie, and bored with its execution. This is not a way to end a franchise.Continued below
Not all of the film is a mess. Sophie Turner does what she can with what she is given, which itself keeps her too wholesome for this very adult-oriented story. With this film coming so close to the end of Game of Thrones there will be the inevitable and unfair comparisons to the calculating but compassionate Sansa Stark that made her a household name. There’s sparks of Sansa in Jean, most prevalent in Jean’s darker moments and the final act when Jean realizes her true calling. The film does probe a mysterious side of Charles Xavier, one more egotistical, reckless, and power-hungry. His manipulation of Ms. Grey’s life, from lying to her about her father’s death to tapping into her mind to control her Phoenix power, lays the foundation for compelling, strikingly relevant commentary on power and the sexes. As such, and like with Ms. Grey, one wishes for more time to get to explore this characterization of the leader of the mutants. That is time we will never have, at least in the short term.
Continuity remains problematic. Remember that the X-Men timeline was reset with X-Men: Days of Future Past, which should put characters like Nicholas Hoult’s Beast somewhere in their 50s. Instead, he looks blissfully millennial. The D’Bari (the alien race whose planet was destroyed by the Phoenix Force that Jean now possesses) come to Ms. Grey not with the goal of avenging the death of their race at her hands (what took place in the comics), but to teach her how to use and control that power. They are benevolent teachers instead of bloodthirsty aliens in search of vengeance. This change strips Jean of her involvement in this genocide and leaves the motivations for the D’Bari’s presence on Earth and search for the Phoenix force very unclear. Even X-Men stalwarts like Jennifer Lawrence and Michael Fassbender flop around the film, unsure of what to do, uncomfortable within their own skin and the retcon presented to them.
The biggest continuity issue of all lies with Turner’s Jean herself. Whereas it was hinted she already had the Phoenix Force in her during X-Men: Apocalypse, this film presents Jean as never having it in the first place. If we strip away the Phoenix Force origin story elements here, therein lies more space and time to explore just what Claremont’s comic run devoted most of its time to: what Jean does with the Phoenix Force when she has it.
Naturally, one cannot ignore the parallels between this film and Captain Marvel; in fact, this film’s ending was reshot to avoid imitating the Brie Larson film too closely. It’s putting a band-aid on a bullet hole. Too much still remains the same: the theme of talented women seeking answers for what to do with their lives and emotions, writers and directors working to create character-driven stories with central characters little known in their current iterations, unexpected stars in supporting cast members. The main difference is that Captain Marvel is Carol Danvers’s beginning on the silver screen. X-Men: Dark Phoenix is turning out to be Jean Grey’s ending, at least for the short term.
Unlike the mythical phoenix that rises triumphant from the ashes, Dark Phoenix wobbles out and away from a bumpy and irregular history to provide a tepid legacy. We can only hope that with Xavier’s mutants back home now with Marvel Studios, they can receive the love and care on screen that they so deserve.