Fox bids goodbye to their X-Men universe with their second crack at the Dark Phoenix storyline. While this attempt fares better than their first, this time, the franchise comes up empty once again.
Generally speaking, the X-Men movies are criminally underrated. X-Men and X2 are genre classics, Days of Future Past is the best superhero movie not made by Christopher Nolan, and Logan and Deadpool have pushed the boundaries of what a superhero movie can be. They’ve misfired, X-Men: The Last Stand and Wolverine: Origins are abysmal, but most people declared the franchise dead long before its heart actually stopped beating.
With Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox, Dark Phoenix is probably the franchise’s last output in this form. It is their second crack at adapting the Dark Phoenix storyline, the first being X-Men: The Last Stand, and is also the last chapter of this set of X-Men movies, beginning with X-Men: First Class and running through DoFP and X-Men Apocalypse.
The story follows Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), a young mutant who gains access to the Phoenix Force, a cosmic entity with unlimited power. Unable to control it, estranged from Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and the X-Men, and being hunted by Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Jean turns to a race of aliens (led by Jessica Chastain) enthralled by her power. Our heroes must save Jean from the Phoenix Force before it consumes them, their friend, or their whole world.
Dark Phoenix is not terrible. I saw that it got a 23% on Rotten Tomatoes and I thought I would be in for a long two hours at the theater. It’s not that bad. But it’s certainly not good. There’s nothing in here that’s particularly noteworthy or intriguing. None of the characters stand out, the plot is by-the-book, the dialogue is poor, and the action or set pieces are unremarkable. The only potential exception is Magneto. While Michael Fassbender doesn’t have the same domineering power Ian McKellan had, he makes up for it in ruthlessness, and the coolest scene in the movie is when the Master of Magnetism is doing his thing.
But Dark Phoenix is a bad conclusion to a set of movies that were never made. This is what happens when your series is four movies spanned between eight years, thirty years of movie time, and features three different directions, the first of which is a prequel to a different set of films and half of the second takes place in a dystopian future.
The movie begins with humans seeing the X-Men as heroes, even though they’ve been universally loathed the entire series, and mankind will decide mutants are terrible again halfway through the movie anyway. Charles Xavier is not the peaceful teacher and rescuer of mutant children but has become selfish and egotistical, and we find Magneto running a commune for mutants. How both of that happened we don’t know. We are supposed to buy deep relationships between these characters, relationships that are seriously underdeveloped if they have been shown at all. For example, Magneto is supposed to be destroyed by the death of Mystique (not a spoiler it was in the trailer), but he was trying to kill her two movies ago! The movie doesn’t connect to the X-Men universe it has set up, and it doesn’t try in any meaningful way.
Standing on its own, Dark Phoenix still isn’t good. It has a villain problem. The aliens after the Phoenix force who end up the film’s main antagonists are some of the worst comic-book movie villains I’ve ever seen. Their powers are vague, their motivations generic, and are completely disposable. Jessica Chastain’s character, who is the main villain, doesn’t even get a name!
As for the heroes, Jennifer Lawerence’s Mystique was great in First Class and DoFP as the ping-pong ball through which we explored the conflict between Magneto and Professor X, but as a leader of the X-Men, she’s not good. Jennifer Lawerence didn’t like the role, and it shows. Magneto does some cool things, unique among this movie’s characters, but his motivations 180 the minute the plot needs them to. Charles Xavier gets an interesting character arc, but the conflict behind it is so underdeveloped that it feels forced. Sophie Turner does a serviceable job as Jean Gray, and Tye Sheridan is good as Cyclops, but since they first showed up as side characters in the last movie, I’m not attached to their characters in any meaningful way.
I’m not big on comparing superhero movies to one another, but this movie feels similar to Justice League, in that it’s a rushed climax that wants to be epic but ends up forgettable and forced. However, everything bad about Justice League is worse in Dark Phoenix and everything good about Justice League isn’t here. It also reminded me a little of Captain Marvel – both movies are set in the 90s, both feature shape-shifting aliens, and even the movie’s messages and politics are similar. But Captain Marvel did it better. So did Shazam! for that matter.
Unless you’re a diehard X-Men fan, don’t bother seeing this movie. Nothing in it, no character, action, dialogue, or conflict is in any way special or particularly well-done. It isn’t even a good send-off to the franchise, because the links that tie it to the rest of the franchise are so weak to begin with. It’s not painful to watch like X-Men: The Last Stand or Wolverine: Origins, but it’s not much better.
Which is a pitiful way to send off the first great superhero movie universe.
Final Rating: 3/10