Dark Phoenix, instead of soaring into theaters with a fiery majesty, landed to roost with an unceremonious whimper. Battered by poor reviews and poorer box office returns on its inaugural weekend, this final (unless The New Mutants ends up finally getting a release) Fox X-Men release is limping its way to the finish line.
But Dark Phoenix is by no means the worst X-Men film of the franchise. In fact, it succeeds in crucial ways at which the previous film, X-Men: Apocalypse, failed. Apocalypse is a villain-of-the-week story with the most ham-fisted villain they could have mustered. Time was not taken to make us care for the characters facing this villain, save for a few glossed over beats. And, more egregious than anything else, it was exceedingly dull.
Dark Phoenix may just barely clear the bar set by its immediate predecessor, but it does clear it.
In adaptation of The Dark Phoenix Saga, the film introduces Jean Grey to the powers of the Phoenix. In the case of the film, the Dark Phoenix comes in the form of a solar flare in space, which Jean absorbs during a rescue mission.
Grey, a telepath who also has the abilities of telekinesis, sees these powers enhance to dangerous and uncontrollable levels. Her foster father and mentor, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), finds himself no longer able to read Grey’s mind or temper her emotions. As concealed facts about her past are revealed to her, Jean’s turbulent emotions cause her to become more dangerous to herself and to her fellow X-Men.
The presentation of a force from space also has the unfortunate side effect in the form of a group of evil space aliens that come to Earth to retrieve Jean’s newfound power. Led by an alien who takes the form of an albino Jessica Chastain, these baddies are cannon fodder with no personalities. Even Chastain is left abandoned by a script that gives her character nothing to work with, ultimately making it a head-scratcher as to why she took the role in the first place.
These automaton villains populate action sequences when just having Jean Grey would have sufficed. Distracting us from her already superficial heel-turn, this population of shape-shifting aliens leave many of the action scenes emotionally hollow.
While some of these sequences are populated with climactic incident—an extended fight on a train is the standout sequence of the film—much of it is captured in a bland or haphazard way. The editing, too, complicates geography in certain scenes or otherwise makes everything appear far too choppy.
There is an intriguing concept or two in the narrative of Dark Phoenix. At a certain point, Professor Xavier is challenged on the philosophies upon which his mutant school is grounded. While this is the near-constant through-line in the conflict between his character and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), Dark Phoenix presents it as more of a personal issue. Xavier is challenged by multiple characters, and he begins to doubt what has been a resolute motivation in his life.
This provides a promising conflict between Xavier and other mutants, and the conflict might have paid off if the writing wasn’t so pointedly platitudinous. Characters say lines of dialogue that not only sound trite but also don’t fit into the plot points of the film in a meaningful way.
In one such instance, a character makes a broadly empowering statement, likely in a cloying attempt to rally the audience through the use of a topical viewpoint, but that statement does not make sense in the context of the events being discussed. In another instance, the mutants rally behind the idea that a character would want them to commit to a certain action, when earlier in the film the referenced character openly contradicts that action.
The result of this scripting is a film that reaches at loftier ambitions for this sendoff of a superhero franchise but does not have the tact to present anything truly lofty. There is a thematic idea to explore in this story, but writer-director Simon Kinberg doesn’t know how to properly approach that idea without diluting it.
Dark Phoenix has one impressive set piece, and it has a hint of intrigue in its character work. But the overall product of this adaptation is a film that performs a thudding and flat conclusion to a 19-year franchise.
Dark Phoenix: C
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)