Some spoilers ahead.
With “Dark Phoenix,” X-Men fans must say goodbye to a franchise that has delighted, entertained, and disappointed for 19 years. From highs such as the Academy Award-nominated “Logan” to the catastrophe that was “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” you never know whether to expect a masterpiece or a terrible, unfocused mess. “Dark Phoenix,” the final installment in the beloved franchise, is decidedly the latter. It is almost astonishing how much the final installment in the X-Men franchise gets wrong.
Adapted from one of the most beloved comic sagas of all times, “Dark Phoenix” tells the story of Jean Grey, who gets overwhelmed by a powerful force inside her, and must struggle with increasingly dark impulses.
“Dark Phoenix” writer and director Simon Kinberg co-wrote the widely despised “X-Men: The Last Stand,” so many fans questioned why he was the choice to try once more to adapt the Phoenix Saga for cinema. While he served as a cowriter on one of the best X-Men films (“Days of Future Past”) and two of the more disappointing outings (“The Last Stand,” “Apocalypse”), and produced the exceptional “X-Men First Class,” his work on the previous failure to capture the iconic Phoenix Saga justifiably concerned fans. Those already high fears were understated, as Kinberg took what didn’t work about “The Last Stand” and amplified those problems to a dramatic degree.
The problem with “The Last Stand” was the inclusion of the Phoenix Saga at all. The ideas of the existence of a mutant cure, and the questions of whether mutation was immutable or a problem that needed fixing like a disease, are a fascinating concept that deserved its own film. This quandary contained more nuance than the previous two X-Men films, superior cinematic experiences as they are, as it brings the message beyond the mere “prejudice is bad” to explore some truly complicated questions.
But then the writers just had to include the Phoenix Saga. What could have been a fascinating, fun, action-packed exploration of nuanced and complex themes with some of the best characters to ever don super suits became a rushed, unfocused mess. The Phoenix Saga is one of the most iconic and beloved stories in the X-Men comics, and for good reason. Telling the story of an inherently good woman overcome by an overwhelming dark power, Jean Grey’s transformation explores the struggle between the good and evil within her.
Random, C-level Subplot Could Have Been Dropped
The choice to add a subplot about an alien race to “Dark Phoenix” was odd and unneeded. The film was already crowded and over-complicated, while ignoring much of what made the original story a classic. The D’Bari subplot is a minor aspect of the Phoenix Saga, and not one of the more compelling parts.
By completely divorcing Jean from the Phoenix energy, rather than portraying it as an integrated part of Jean once it overtakes her, the formerly powerful and complex protagonist becomes little more than a pawn in her own story. She spends the entire film at the mercy of the Phoenix force and manipulated by Vuk, a member of the D’Bari attempting to gain control of the Phoenix force.
Like “The Last Stand” before it, “Dark Phoenix” explores a C plot that could easily fill a fascinating movie on its own. Some of the best X-Men stories come from the various attempts at handling humanity’s fear of mutants, from Magneto’s violent genocidal aspirations to Professor X’s attempts at diplomacy. In “Dark Phoenix,” the two leaders’ positions mature in fascinating ways: Magneto, a Holocaust survivor and mutant supremacist, now rules a peaceful mutant homeland called Genosha, an obvious allegory to Israel.
Professor X, however, has turned his former students into a superhero team, the eponymous X-Men, who are sent around the world to save humans and generate goodwill towards mutants. While Raven fears that his pushes towards heroism are in service of his ego, it makes perfect sense that Charles, who desperately wanted a peaceful coexistence between humans and mutants, would strive to maintain the delicate acceptance by any means necessary. This conflict in ideologies deserves far more attention than a few moments early in the film, as it holds the type of dramatic weight and serious questions that draw people towards the X-Men.
Kinberg’s script is incredibly weak, boasting dialogue that is simultaneously awkward and obvious. Early in the film, Mystique delivers a particularly heinous line, “It’s funny, I can’t remember the last time you were the one risking something. And, by the way, the women are always saving the men around here. You might want to think about changing the name to X-Women.”
The line is spoken straight, without a trace of irony or nuance. It’s doubly humorous with Mystique speaking it, as she has been the team’s biggest liability and one of the weakest characters in the franchise. The entire script follows this terribly awkward and obvious line.
All Work and No Play Makes This a Dull Film
The pacing is likewise poorly executed. Kinberg’s status as a first-time director is painfully obvious in every frame. The tone is remarkably self-serious and dour, taking any of the fun out of the franchise. Quicksilver is the only character allowed to make any jokes, and he is benched early in the film. What comes next is a series of scenes in an odd order without any fun.
The action set pieces were incredibly hit or miss. There was one brilliant action scene near the end, set on a train. All of the major characters fought together, using their powers to their full potential in unexpected and exciting ways. While not at the grand level of some of the final battles, watching the way the characters played off each other and used their powers together made a brilliant viewing experience I wish carried over to more of the film. All it was missing was a Quicksilver slow-motion scene set to a Nirvana hit.
The film ends with Charles and Erik sitting down in Paris for a game of chess before Charles joins Erik to lead Genosha together. For fans of the franchise, this moment feels like a fitting end. The original trilogy, while focusing on Wolverine and Rogue, was held together by the enmity, respect, and affection between the rivals and old friends, portrayed by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen respectively. The pseudo-prequel trilogy beginning with “First Class” pushes this through-line to the front, as the relationship between Charles and Erik, now played by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, becomes the central focus of the films.
So it must have seemed odd to fans to have these old friends interact so rarely throughout the film, despite their bond serving as the heart of the series. Further, Fassbender and McAvoy are two of the best actors in the franchise, particularly the rebooted prequels, and their chemistry is the best in the entire series. “Dark Phoenix” proves resoundingly that X-Men films only work when focusing on either Wolverine or the messy love-hate friendship between Professor X and Magneto.
Sophie Turner Simply Can’t Act
“Dark Phoenix” has some of the best and worst acting in the X-Men films. Sophie Turner, best known for her role as Sansa Stark on HBO’s ubiquitous “Game of Thrones,” takes on the role of the protagonist as Jean Grey. As seen on “Game of Thrones,” Turner is excellent at crying, but little else. Jean should be the emotional core of the film, but Turner’s awkward, stilted, and unbelievable performance leaves the character as a dead presence in the center of her own film. Turner cannot act, and her position as the lead surrounded by some truly brilliant actors only serves to highlight this.
Fassbender’s intensity, rage, and passion once again shine through in his role as Magneto. The complicated former villain is sidelined, with an undue focus on his heartbroken reaction to Raven’s death, a woman he was intensely attempting to murder just two films earlier.
McAvoy’s Professor X had some fascinating character development dealing with his guilt for past mistakes and his hubris. McAvoy handles the development masterfully, saying his terrible lines of dialogue with a surprising level of believability.
In her brief scenes as Raven, Jennifer Lawrence reminds viewers how terribly miscast she was as Mystique. The film continues the confused decision to keep the typically villainous Mystique firmly on the side of the heroes, which makes her far less interesting than the suave, cold character fans knew and loved. Lawrence’s performance is so bland and uninspired that her death honestly breathes some life into the film.
Nicholas Hoult returns to form as Beast, providing a strong, at times feral performance of a man who has lost the woman he loves. His chemistry with Lawrence is passable at best, but Hoult’s depth and sympathy makes viewers invest in the relationship solely due to the passion in his performance.
Tye Sheridan does a serviceable job as Scott, Jean’s boyfriend and teammate. Due to Cyclops’s laser eyes, Sheridan must give his entire performance without the use of his eyes, which is naturally challenging. However, he shows genuine care for Jean despite his and Turner’s severe lack of chemistry. It was also an odd decision to give Scott the sole f-word, which felt both out of place and out of character.
Evan Peters brought the same charm and humor to the role of Quicksilver as he did the previous two installments, but his role was cut down dramatically, giving the charismatic actor only a handful of scenes before leaving him critically injured and therefore left behind.
Alexandra Shipp and Kodi Smit-McPhee round out the X-Men team as Storm and Nightcrawler. Both actors do a strong job with their characters, although they receive next to no development and very little to do outside the enjoyable action set pieces.
Jessica Chastain labors in a thankless role as the villain, Vuk, who manipulates Jean. Chastain is given nothing to do, and even her immense talent cannot make this character either interesting or important in the film.
I cannot bring myself to recommend “Dark Phoenix” to anyone other than serious X-Men fans. The train sequence is enjoyable, and McAvoy, Fassbender, and Hoult give strong performances, so watching their last outings in these iconic roles is worth the terrible dialogue and self-serious tone. However, anyone who cares about the film should prepare to leave the cinema remarkably frustrated at the state of the final installment in the incredible franchise.