Simon Kinberg’s Dark Phoenix became one of the most significant of Fox’s X-Men films the moment it became clear it would be the last instalment in the franchise that set the stage for the modern comic book movie boom. Not only was the film going to bring the story of Charles Xavier’s mutant heroes to an end, it was going to do it by revisiting one of the most contentious, intricate parts of the X-Men mythos.
Dark Phoenix is a pale comparison to the iconic Claremont/Byrne era X-Men saga it gets its name from, for the simple reason that most of the core hallmarks of the source material—like Jean Grey’s relationship with the Phoenix Force and the cosmic scale of their shared power—are wholly absent from the film. These are disappointing, but admittedly understandable, changes to the plot that had to be made because Fox’s X-Men cinematic universe has never really been expansive enough to accommodate the Dark Phoenix Saga’s many moving parts.
Dark Phoenix, like X-Men: The Last Stand before it, is a film with its feet firmly and purposefully on the ground, because it’s attempting to zero in on the humanity of its characters. Unlike The Last Stand, however, Dark Phoenix finally introduces an incarnation of the X-Men that feel like the classic superheroes whose adventures we’ve followed for years.
Before Dark Phoenix settles into its plot about Jean (Sophie Turner) turning heel, we catch up with the X-Men in the early ‘90s. The team is at a point in their careers where they’ve become proper celebrities thanks to their high-profile acts of heroism. Whereas other X-Men films have kept the heroes on the periphery of society to emphasise how they’re persecuted and misunderstood by humans, Dark Phoenix makes the bold choice of taking place in a world where Xavier (James McAvoy) has really begun to accomplish his lifelong dream of normalizing mutants’ existence. When NASA informs the President of the United States that a shuttle full of astronauts is on a collision course with a mysterious solar flare, Xavier receives a call on his X-Phone (seriously) from the Commander-in-Chief himself, asking for the X-Men’s much-needed assistance with a rescue mission.
Kitschy as it seems at first, the way Dark Phoenix leans into this small bit of larger-than-life world building works when you see that X-Men missions are no longer covert, they’re proper events that draw media attention and inspire the public. At one point, as the team jets into space in a newly-upgraded Blackbird, the film cuts to a montage of faces from people around the world watching them with rapt attention, and Hans Zimmer’s score swells in the background into something that comes tantalizingly close to beginning to sound like the X-Men animated series theme. For a few brief, shining moments, Dark Phoenix feels like the sort of X-Men movie people have been clamoring to see for years—one that’s about a bunch of oddballs working together to do impossibly cool things like zoom around in space as they save astronauts from certain death.
All of that comes to an abrupt end as the when a freak accident leaves Jean out in the vacuum of space and the X-Men watch in horror as she comes in direct contact with the solar flare. The entire sequence is as awful as it is beautiful, and it’s easy to see how the people down on Earth witnessing the event might liken it to a disaster akin to the Challenger.
Jean’s miraculous survival of the incident sets Dark Phoenix’s gears into motion and gives Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) one of the most compelling motivations she’s had in the X-franchise’s history. For all the goodwill the X-Men have generated with the public, Mystique recognises Xavier’s ego and narcissism blind him to the fact that he’s wilfully endangering the lives of people he supposedly loves. She’s grown weary and mistrustful of the way her adoptive brother uses the X-Men as tools to help promote his personal agenda. From Mystique’s perspective, Jean’s accident embodies all of her fears about him.
Scenes between McAvoy and Lawrence crackle with a surprisingly refreshing intensity that reflects how Mystique’s become the wisest of the mutants to survive the events of X-Men: First Class. She’s not just Xavier’s teammate, she’s his family and she’s been with him since the beginning.
When Mystique points out how he and the other men on the team get all the credit for the difficult work that the X-Women on the team do, it’s hard not to agree with her, but the observation also feels like a critique of the X-franchise as a whole. For years now, female X-Men characters like Emma Frost, Angel, Jubilee, Psylocke, Kitty Pryde, and Moira MacTaggert have been shuffled in and out of these films so quickly that none of them have ever had the chance to really become complex people. By comparison, Wolverine’s had an entire trio of films dedicated to him, and all of the other X-Men movies have revolved around Xavier and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to the point that it’s often felt as if filmmakers don’t understand that there are other X-Men stories to be told.
Unfortunately, all of these critiques apply to Dark Phoenix as well, which spends a considerable amount of time stumbling around aimlessly as we’re presented with middling action sequences and melodramatic exchanges that lack genuine emotional substance.
When you learn who Jessica Chastain’s character is, you get a very pronounced sense of why Dark Phoenix ended up going through significant reshoots to rework its final act. In Jean, Chastain’s mysterious character sees all the potential in the universe and encourages her to give in to the new, destructive desires the young mutant struggles to keep at bay within herself. Chastain and Turner’s scenes together, like most of Dark Phoenix’s performances, are…fine, but emotionally stark as none of them seem to exactly know what Dark Phoenix’s endgame is.
The Phoenix itself would be to Dark Phoenix what the complete Infinity Gauntlet was to Infinity War and Endgame, if the movie had any idea of how it was supposed to motivate the people fighting over it. We’re told that Jean’s become a being of pure id and fire and fury, but the film never shows or sells you on the idea. Jean’s eyes glow and her skin tears apart with cosmic energy, but you can never get a solid read on who she is or what Turner’s trying to bring to her performance other than broad, ill-defined sadness and anger.
Part of this can likely be attributed to the fact that this incarnation of Jean hasn’t had much of a chance to become a three-dimensional character. The same goes for Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smitt-McPhee), and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) who show up to provide useful assistance in battle when needed and not all that much else. Each of these characters has moments throughout the film that feel plucked from a stronger, bolder take on the Dark Phoenix Saga, and the thing that’s holding Dark Phoenix back is the fact that it can’t bring those pieces together.
Bafflingly, the significant bit of Phoenix-centric groundwork that was laid out in X-Men: Apocalypse goes unaddressed, in favour of a subplot that draws New Mutants notwithstanding, this was the last chance the studio had to create something memorable with these characters we’ve spent so much time with.
None of this is to say that Dark Phoenix is a terrible movie, because as X-Men movies go, it truly isn’t. What it is, though, is a by-the-numbers, mildly interesting attempt at telling a classic story that, unfortunately, it just doesn’t have the time, space, or range to do.
Dark Phoenix is in cinemas now.