Sometimes when the public gets hold of bad buzz regarding a studio tentpole, they end up pleasantly surprised by the result of the film. Wonder Woman was at one point considered to be “a mess” thereby worrying audiences before release. Aladdin was getting blasted online, and Disney was getting ready to take another Solo-sized bath. However, Wonder Woman went on to become the DCEU’s best reviewed film and a huge box office hit, and Aladdin went on to positive audience reviews, and grossed a healthy $100M in four days, two weekends ago. Nope, negative buzz isn’t always reflective of the final product itself… Unless you’re Dark Phoenix. Then it’s entirely true.
Alas, as an X-Men fan and loyalist, it is my duty to humbly reveal to you that Dark Phoenix isn’t good. Don’t get me wrong, I’m willing to go down with the ship. The X-Men were what got me into comics, so when the first movie came out July 2000, it was all I could have hoped for. It was a time when comic book movies weren’t the norm, and it stuck the landing. So without this franchise we wouldn’t have an MCU. So frankly, no matter what, I’d go see any film in this 19 year old franchise, regardless of how bad. And Dark Phoenix is pretty bad. However, hot take: if I were to try and inject a bit of optimism into this review, I will at least say this — I didn’t get as upset watching this as I did with X-Men: The Last Stand (also written by Simon Kinberg), or X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
No, Dark Phoenix is nowhere near as infuriating as a film where Deadpool gets his mouth sewn shut for some reason. However, it’s also just a nothing film. It’s a film that essentially puts the “numbing” in “mind-numbing.” You go in, you sit down, you watch what’s happening, and despite a good 3-8 year history with some of these characters (counting solely movie interpretations — not comic or cartoon interpretations), you couldn’t give a damn what is happening on screen to any of them.
The story is arguably the most simplistic it’s been in this franchise in a while: The X-Men go into space to rescue a bunch of rando-astronauts from strange cosmic force. Something happens during the mission that causes Jean Grey to become possessed by the cosmic entity. Random aliens (the D’Bari race from the comics), led by Jessica Chastain’s Vuk, come down to Earth looking to use Jean to re-create their planet (which was also consumed by the Phoenix Force). The X-Men have to stop this and stop other characters from trying to kill Jean.
Dark Phoenix has several problems. One of the most disappointing to me is how wasted its amazing cast is. An actress like Chastain should be utilized to her full potential, but is instead stuck in a role that basically just required her to slog around and say monotone cliches next to Sophie Turner. You know you’ve seen this cast do better things in one form or another, from Game of Thrones to actual legitimate Best Picture winners, to earlier X-Men entries. They’re all trying their best to save or salvage something — even Jennifer Lawrence who checked out of this franchise two movies ago. But honestly, none of that matters when they have to recite the lines of Kinberg’s bland, forgettable screenplay. These lines are laughable at times, the villains are non-entities, the story is “been-there, done-that.” It’s essentially a somewhat better version of X-Men 3, but only in the sense that you forget it instantly rather than letting it stew and manifest into rage after. And it at least tries to keep things condensed to one story rather than fifty.
With Dark Phoenix, Kinberg really unnecessarily converts so many of our previously well-liked characters into the most volatile unwelcome versions of themselves. For instance, Professor X has been known to do a lot of wrong in the comics, but we maintain our respect for the character overall. Here he’s just an irredeemable arrogant douche. McAvoy’s Xavier has been completely likable since we first met him in First Class, and making him a lying, manipulative, unapologetic bastard defeats the purpose of fully utilizing the actor’s true charms. True Xavier owns up to his actions by the end, but you spent 2/3 of the film turning him into a jerk, so you can’t buy any of his character development by the final act as organic or earned given how spontaneous his change of heart is.
And that sort of sloppy, random flip-flopping of several characters happens all across the movie. Kinberg also decides to do similar things with Beast (from complacent and loyal to Xavier, to hating and filled with murderous rage, to complacent and loyal again), Magneto (not looking for trouble, then filled with murderous rage, then caring for some reason?), and even a character as minor as Nightcrawler (jokey and simple one minute, then filled with murderous rage the next — sorry but when did Nightcrawler, the religious monk become a killer who snaps necks and stabs people with his tail?). None of it tracks, none of it is in line with who these characters are in the franchise or comics, and none of it really even makes sense in the events of this movie, or if it does, it’s surely too random and forced to feel earned. I can get behind these changes happening in Phoenix-Force-possessed Jean, but not the entire ensemble.
However, speaking about the Phoenix-Force possessed Jean, she’s just flat-out annoying. We get her deal. Despite the movie over-explaining it, it’s not hard to understand that she’s all id — the embodiment of suppressed rage, fear, guilt, etc. But it’s also kind of hard to sympathize with her, because, despite Sophie Turner giving it all she’s got, the character is just boring and kind of whiny. And it’s probably because we weren’t fully invested in her or her relationships with anyone after only one other film. And for the title character of your movie to be that uninteresting? Yikes. Furthermore, I don’t understand why she’s only getting the Phoenix Force now when at the end of Apocalypse she already had it? Not that it matters, because you’ll never get an explanation.
All things considered, if that’s what Kinberg is doing to the characters we actually know, good luck to the characters we don’t, because what we end up getting with the new characters is absolutely nothing. Chastain’s Vuk (and I only know her name because of the one-time in the whole movie they referenced it) and her posse of no-name, faceless, shapeshifting, fast-healing D’Bari aliens walk around like zombies, and liquefy human guts, but at the end of the movie you’re still asking yourself who the hell are these guys? We barely get an explanation or justification for them at all as characters. They barely speak. Only one of them gets a name, which you all but forget by the end of the movie. All you really know about them is that they came from a planet destroyed by the Phoenix Force, and now they wanna rebuild their race on Earth. It’s “Cartoon Bad Guy 101” for your villains’ sole motivations to be the desire to take over the world, and Dark Phoenix gives you a whole team of these random useless cartoon bad guys. The D’Bari are so stupid and pointless, that they make Thor: The Dark World’s Dark Elves seem like three-dimensional beings. If you’re going to do X-Men deep cuts here, at least make them interesting.
Oh, and let’s not forget the amount of screen time of Magneto’s Genoshian (I’m assuming that’s what this is, but they never say) team — Selene, a bastardized version of The Black Queen, and… guy with braids. I can’t tell you what this guy’s name is or why they’d pick such a stupid Rapunzel clone to be in this movie, but it doesn’t matter. He’s just in this to fight Storm then die. That’s the kind of movie this is.
Similar to Godzilla, I would give more of a passing grade for this movie if the brainless action sequences were actually noteworthy. And while there are some fun moments I liked (Cyclops bouncing concussive blasts off car doors, Magneto crushing a train car, a Storm and Beast combo with lightning) you don’t get enough of those moments, or anything innovative about the action at all — at least not enough of it to care. And that’s because the movie itself is devoid of any fun; it’s self-serious, dull, and forgettable. You get maybe 3-4 bland action scenes, and the rest of it comprises of long, boring scenes of dialogue that go nowhere with garbage characters that used to be better characters. But unfortunately, gone are the days when conversations between Fassbender’s Magneto and McAvoy’s Xavier actually represented something compelling. To quote Magneto in this movie, “nobody cares anymore.”
So is there anything at all good about it? Well I’d say things preventing this from being X-Men Origins or The Last Stand would be a more streamlined story and better performances. Perhaps some of the action and use of powers for characters like Cyclops and Storm are mildly amusing (few and far between, but will take what I can get). Cyclops is probably the best we’ve ever seen him in this film, which is sad considering his criminally underused role in this entire franchise. (You even see elements of his co-leadership with Storm blossoming in this film, which is neat). Fassbender, McAvoy, and Turner are consistently good, despite the material (overall no one’s acting is bad). In fact, Fassbender’s been the best thing in every movie in the First Class portion of this franchise. But overall that’s about it. The movie itself wasn’t the trainwreck that my initial expectations based on the bad buzz led me to believe. But if that’s the best thing I can say about it, that’s not good.
This is said to be the final X-Men film, given the Disney acquisition of 20th Century Fox. And let’s face facts, it wasn’t intended to be until they decided to market it as such following the Disney acquisition and the success of Endgame. But, regardless, it’s sad to see myself, a lifelong fan of the franchise, pretty much just rooting for its conclusion and eager to countdown to the inevitable MCU reset by the great and powerful Feige. But that’s because we really need a studio who understands what X-Men is about and who these characters are to handle and adapt it properly, and give us a coherent story with stakes and real characters. Kinberg has proven time and time again that he’s not that resource. So as far as I’m concerned, let’s hope that this phoenix burns up, and something better rises from the ashes of how tired, lazy, and apathetic this franchise has become.
Overall Score: C-
Dark Phoenix is in theaters today, June 7, 2019.