What is it with the X-Men film franchise and its aversion to simple titles? We couldn’t just have X-Men 2, we had to have X2. The third film was billed as X-Men: The Last Stand in some places, but the theatrical poster seemed to imply it was X3: The Last Stand. At least the reboot films seemed to rectify this with X-Men: First Class followed by X-Men: Days of Future Past, but now we have just Dark Phoenix. Not X-Men: Dark Phoenix, but Dark Phoenix. Just in case you were confused though, at least the theatrical poster circled the “X” in Phoenix, but why not just keep things nice and simple?
Dark Phoenix is the 2019 film that marks the end of the X-Men film franchise as we know it. It’s been an interesting, confusing, frustrating, and sometimes thrilling ride. The franchise took off in 2000 with X-Men, and arguably peaked with the sequel. The third film was a let down, and then we had some solo Wolverine outings with one being terrible and the other acceptable, plus a sort of prequel, reboot, in 2011. X-Men: First Class turned me off initially, but once I finally gave it a chance I was forced to concede it was at least a fun film. I just didn’t really like how it tried to be both a reboot and a prequel to the original film and felt it would have been better to just commit to one. Apparently, the studio saw this as an issue too so Days of Future Past in 2014 basically served as the sequel to First Class and as the true reboot for the franchise as the time-traveling original heroes changed history and likely inadvertently erased basically everything that happened in the original trilogy. Confused? I suppose you should be, but at the end of the day, it just meant we were truly were dealing with two distinct sets of films that just both happened to be about the X-Men.
The sequels/reboots ended up being a lot of fun, but things took a turn in the third film, X-Men: Apocalypse. That one was a mess and was a textbook example of what not to do when telling an X-Men story. The villain was just an all-powerful being with no subtext. I likened Apocalypse to a natural disaster in my review of that film and I stand by that. He was a foe that just was; there was no getting away from him or around him or reasoning with him, he just had to be endured. The cast basically exploded which meant we had a bunch of new faces and not enough time to get to know any of them. It was almost as if the film depended on people knowing who these characters were and establishing a connection based off of that and not by what was presented onscreen. Given that, the obvious next step was to tell a story entirely dependent upon the audience caring about these new characters – what could go wrong?
Apocalypse made enough money that a fourth film was commissioned: Dark Phoenix. The Dark Phoenix Saga is perhaps the most famous X-Men story ever told. Crafted by writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne, The Dark Phoenix Saga unfolded in the pages of Uncanny X-Men spanning 8 issues in 1980. Some would argue the story began earlier with Uncanny X-Men #101 which began the story of Phoenix way back in 1976. In essence, this was a story that unfolded over parts of 5 years, so is it any wonder that other versions of the X-Men have struggled to match the original story?
Probably the best adaptation of The Phoenix Saga and Dark Phoenix Saga is in the animated series X-Men. That show devoted basically 10 episodes to the event and had given us multiple seasons before that to develop a connection to the characters in the show. When the X-Men originally went to film, we had at least had two films to connect with characters Jean Grey and Cyclops, only Cyclops was basically written out of the sequel and quickly killed off at the beginning of the third. Oops! At least The Last Stand had the Wolverine/Jean dynamic and the Xavier/Jean relationship to fall back on, but it was sloppy with the Phoenix character taking a backseat to Magneto for large stretches of the film.
In the waning moments of Apocalypse, the film started dropping hints that Phoenix was next so I was not surprised to find out that Dark Phoenix was in development, but I immediately expected failure. Once again, a film was jumping over The Phoenix Saga and going straight to Dark Phoenix, only this time, the title character was one no on cared about. The film had a lengthy development cycle due in the part to director/screenwriter Bryan Singer getting fired for being a sexual predator and the studio having enough issues with first-time director Simon Kinberg’s final act that they sent the whole crew back for reshoots. The release date got kicked around as the film would basically become akin to a lame duck president since rumors were flying, and would later come to fruition, that Disney was purchasing 20th Century Fox which would bring an end to the X-Men film franchise. The film was finally released in June 2019 and it bombed. If Wikipedia can be believed, it would eventually make more than its budget, but that probably doesn’t factor in marketing costs so it’s possible the studio lost money, though it’s certainly likely that it did not realize a substantial profit.
The poor reception to the film is why my review has taken more than two years to arrive. I’ve simply been unwilling to spend money to watch it, so I waited for it to finally show up on a streaming platform I was already subscribed to. I will come right out and say it: this movie is not good. I was hoping that maybe for a longtime fan of the X-Men, it would work on a basic level for me and I could have some fun with it despite its flaws. Instead, I found little to enjoy.
For starters, the script and screenplay are poor. Characters are given lines riddled with clichés. One can practically predict every word about to come out of a character’s mouth in a given situation and it just feels like amateur hour. Despite the poor script, some actors are able to rise to the occasion. Sophie Turner, who plays the title character, received poor marks for her performance in Apocalypse, but here she redeems herself. Yes, the movie does her few favors, but she performs as well as could be expected. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender continue to be pleasant as Professor Xavier and Magneto, respectively, though the latter’s appearance felt especially shoe-horned this time around. Just like with Apocalypse, Magneto is basically just to hear to clearly demonstrate that another being is more powerful than him. Nicholas Hoult is fine as Beast/Hank McCoy, but that’s basically it. Jennifer Lawrence continues to underwhelm as Raven/Mystique which is partly due to the character being underserved by the role while Kodi Smit-McPhee (Nightcrawler) and Alexandra Shipp (Storm) are treated more like tools than characters. Jessica Chastain, who reportedly turned down numerous offers to appear in a “superhero” film before, plays the villain Vuk and it’s truly puzzling that this is the role she finally accepted. She must have owed someone a favor or just really likes Kinberg because the role is terrible.
The plot of the film basically tries to adapt portions of both The Phoenix Saga and Dark Phoenix Saga. When the film begins, Xavier is basically a celebrity with direct access to the President of the United States and things are going well for mutants. It’s supposed to be set in the early 90s, but the period is not utilized in the least. When the X-Men are called upon to save a stranded space shuttle in the outer rim of Earth’s orbit, Jean Grey is exposed to a supernatural force and is forever changed. This causes a rift between Raven and Xavier, with Beast caught in the middle, over Xavier’s willingness to place his student’s in harm’s way to further his agenda while Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) is left to worry about his girlfriend, Jean, who is acting different. Things take a turn as Jean essentially becomes the Dark Phoenix character as we know her leading to tragedy and her fleeing the team. In the process, it’s discovered that Charles had used his own powers to hide traumatic memories of Jean’s when he took her in, and now those barriers are failing causing others on the team to question Xavier’s judgement and Jean to basically go out of control.
Complicating things further are the D’Bari, a race of shape-shifting beings made extinct by The Phoenix Force before it ever encountered Jean. Their leader, Vuk, wants to take control of the Phoenix which now rests in Jean, and in order to do so needs to become her ally. Along the way Magneto will be pulled in and Xavier will be forced to reassess what the X-Men stand for. It’s a mess of a plot that both asks us to care about characters we barely know and is also afraid to actually put a lot on the shoulders of these characters. A lot of what happens, particularly with Magneto, feels like the film just padding out its length. Once again, Magneto is presented as being in a state of peace, but then immediately goes back to being a tool of vengeance. It’s ridiculous what the past two films have tried to do with the character and the only silver lining is that Michael Fassbender continues to be terrific in the role. The presence of the D’Bari is essentially taking the place of the Hellfire Club from the comic, and not the Shi’ar, as Vuk tries to coerce Jean into being an ally in order to take control of the Phoenix Force. The film isn’t really interested in explaining this cosmic entity; does it just function like a power amplifier or is it in control? It’s basically just there to give Vuk a motivation and a reason to exist, albeit a flimsy one. The film would have functioned in the same fashion if Vuk just wanted to use Jean like a weapon, as Magneto had done in The Last Stand, and the Phoenix entity was just something that existed inside her character.
Dragging the film further down into the mire are the special effects and action pieces. The effects are not bad, just not interesting. It’s a lot of characters just putting their hands up and CG taking over to add in some flames or lightning. The only interesting moment involves a subway car crashing up through a street, but it’s also a head-scratching moment as the character responsible didn’t really need to do that and it just looks like the film trying to show off. There’s no moment that made me say “Wow” and there’s no signature fight scene either. The final battle is one of the film’s most underwhelming moments. The costumes at least look okay. Beast still looks kind of dumb, but a lot of that has to do with the character’s design and not the makeup effects being utilized. This one, like the previous film, does draw attention to how the franchise loves blue characters as we have the blue Beast, Nightcrawler, and Mystique making up half of the X-Men. The franchise is finally confident to give the team a comic-inspired uniform, but still not willing to give other characters a cool, fun, look. Jean, as Dark Phoenix, just wears street clothes throughout this one and Magneto apparently lost his threads between films.
Dark Phoenix is not a good film and a whimper for the franchise. Technically, the final X-Men adjacent film is last year’s The New Mutants, another film fraught with delays and reshoots that ultimately did not pan out. It’s a shame that a cartoon in the early 90s is still the best depiction of a classic comic story like The Dark Phoenix Saga and I wonder if the repeated failures will cause Disney to bypass it when X-Men finally enters the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a shame, because it’s really not a hard story to adapt, it’s just one that needs time. It’s not a one-movie deal, it has to be cultivated across films and, most importantly, they need to be films that actually respect the characters. Marvel has proven it can create a team and have the audience care about it, and I don’t mean The Avengers. That was obviously a different animal where most of the characters got stand-alone films first, but Guardians of the Galaxy did not go that route and found a way to make us love the characters on that team. I do suspect that when it comes time to onboard the X-Men that we’ll meet someone like Xavier in a different film before being properly introduced to the full team. And it’s possible we’ll meet other characters prior to that as well. It wouldn’t be hard to slip Storm into whatever comes next for the Black Panther and Wolverine can fit in almost anywhere. That’s a whole other subject though. For now, the X-Men film franchise that began in 2000 is over. It had its ups and downs, but it’s also a big reason why we have the superhero genre today. It was immensely important and I’m glad it exists even if it has many flaws. It’s unfortunate it didn’t get a better send-off, but I think of Days of Future Past as the true bookend and that film is great. And if not, well Logan is possibly the best superhero movie ever and also would be a fine end. Dark Phoenix just happened to be the movie that came last.