Not to belittle anyone’s intelligence, but I am going to include a handy list of characters, their superhero names, and the actors who play them, just because the X-Men Franchise has a lot of heroes and villains to keep track of, especially for people not well versed in the franchise. This will just be here for your convenience. Ignore it if you don’t need it.
- Jean Grey/Phoenix (played by Sophie Turner)
- Charles Xavier/Professor X (played by James McAvoy)
- Raven Darkhölme/Mystique (played by Jennifer Lawrence)
- Scott Summers/Cyclops (played by Tye Sheridan)
- Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (played by Evan Peters)
- Hank McCoy/Beast (played by Nicholas Hoult)
- Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (played by Michael Fassbender)
Dark Phoenix is the conclusion of nearly two decades of storytelling within Fox’s X-Men universe. It is the directorial debut of long-time X-Men film writer, Simon Kinberg. Inspired by the famous comic arc of the same name, Dark Phoenix depicts Jean Grey struggling to contain her newly boosted mutant powers, which eventually put her at odds with her fellow X-Men.
The film starts with an origin story for Jean Grey, which involves the death of her parents as a result of her newfound powers. This scene features a really interestingly framed shot with a car mirror that I enjoyed thoroughly. Groundwork for the ongoing theme of family is also established, as well as a depiction of Jean’s consistent struggle to deal with her powers, which stems from their first appearance. I found this scene to be a strong example of showing, not telling.
My problem was that the rest of the film does not keep up this smart, entertaining storytelling. The following sequences set up the current dynamic of the team, showing Jean’s strength, a purple version of Parallax from Green Lantern, and the internal struggles of the team, which often result from Charles Xavier’s ongoing ego problem. Jean ends up taking a near fatal shot from “Parallax,” but ultimately she survives and the mission is a success. A questionable call from Charles leaves Raven furious at his apparent disregard for the team’s welfare. Post-mission, Charles is hailed by the President and the government, while the team celebrates and relaxes. The power of “Parallax” suddenly causes Jean to lash out, which scares many of the other gifted youngsters present at the mansion. She passes out as a result of the power flowing through her.
While unconscious, Jean has her mind probed by Charles in Cerebro and it is revealed that he has placed mental blocks in her memory, altering her recollection of some of the events of her childhood. Charles insists to an angered Raven that he did the right thing, while she claims Charles went too far. This realization is also what sparks Jean turning heel.
I enjoyed the exploration of Charles’s overstepping, as feeding into his ego drives much of the conflict. His decisions spark two separate divisions within the team, which launch the messy brawl towards the end of the film. While he makes a semi-compelling case for why what he did was the right call, it’s ultimately obvious (at least to me, sitting in the audience) that while he may have had good intentions, he made a bad choice and only delayed the pain for Jean, rather than help her through it.
[This paragraph contains a minor spoiler for the first act of this film, but if you saw the trailer, you already know it.] Jean then heads away from the team, but is tracked down by the X-Men once again. From there, despite Scott’s repeated – and I mean repeated – pleas for her to stand down, a brief battle ensues, which incapacitates Peter for the remainder of the film, and kills Raven, Jean’s closest friend.
My biggest problem with this scene in particular is both the repeated dialogue and illogical choices from characters who are supposed to otherwise be rather intelligent. Having just been called out for his domineering hold of the X-Men, especially Jean, Charles continues to try and boss her around, and he orders her to stand down, which doesn’t make sense to do to someone who just ran away because of his involvement in her head. Scott does something similar. Rather than pleading for her to calm down and come back, he asks her to stand down and let Charles help her, almost treating her like a dog walking in traffic. While they aren’t professional hostage negotiators, they definitely could’ve done better. Even Deadpool 2 was able to make a more believable negotiation scene. It was just silly. Charles even forces the others to stand down with his powers, insisting his plan with Scott will work better, and this, a clear overreach of his authority, also plays into the motif of power and arrogance that has grown within Professor X. I did enjoy that little bit.
[See previous warning.] Jean flies away to the refuge led by Magneto and is cast aside after a violent encounter with the pursuing U.S. Military. Jean, still struggling with herself, is out of options and feels left without family, which only escalates the situation more. After Jean’s exile, Hank McCoy shows up to Magneto’s home asking to team up and kill Jean. While he’s understandably hurt over the death of his love interest Raven, it still seems like a rapid switch of character for Hank to go rogue – no pun intended – from the team and have a desire to assassinate a former teammate of his, who is clearly not in her right mind. Regardless, after learning that Raven was killed by Jean, Eric is ready to kill her and agrees to aid Hank.
This is the point where the second act concludes and the whole tone begins to shift. Much, if not all, of the film has been quickly paced, repetitive dialogue scenes moving from one location to another with seemingly little sense of connectivity. While moments of amazing cinematography are sprinkled throughout, such as the car mirror and a silhouette shot in Cerebro, the scenes with dialogue are boringly framed, going back and forth between characters with little variation between shots. It is monotonous to watch, and the poor writing didn’t make the situation any easier. The little bits of action placed throughout the first two acts were not nearly enough to keep me entertained during my theater experience, and I found myself wondering why I was sitting through a six hour movie . . . wait, I’m only an hour and some change in?
A well-framed, powerful shot of Eric putting on the classic Magneto helmet kicks us into the third act, where a Captain America: Civil War-esque battle between Team Professor X, or Team Save Jean, and Team Magnetto, or Team Kill Jean, takes place seemingly out of nowhere. This was odd, especially when Cyclops tried to dome Beast with a laser shot, which obviously missed, but still – what was the plan if he hit the target? Murder his friend and teammate? This scene also gives birth to the most overblown dialogue clash between Magneto and Professor X, only made worse by the surprise delivery of the single worst PG-13 F-bomb of my entire career. Thanks, Tye. I also want to take a moment to acknowledge the mutant on Team Magneto whose sole superpower is being Willow Smith. That’s not important at all. I just wanted to make the joke.
The fight continues and eventually everyone finds their way to Jean before the military/police intervene and apprehend all the mutants after their amnesty was revoked by the nameless President. They are tazed, depowered, and placed on a train for prisoner transport.
If I’m being completely honest with you all, I absolutely loved the third act from the F-bomb forward. Not that it was “good” per se, but it was fun, which is a steep improvement over the hypnosis of the previous hour and a half. Though, this is nothing more than the stereotypical “big, dumb battle” that one would expect at the end of a superhero film. There is almost no substance present. Surprisingly, there was no blue beam shooting into the sky.
Taking place on the prisoner train, this battle sequence shows the power and skill set of each X-Men present, especially Magneto, who really gets to shine. Full of interesting shots and entertaining uses of powers, this fight was epic to watch, aside from some awfully unpolished CGI, which is honestly inexcusable coming from a film that was delayed several times. I can’t get too in-depth about the events of the finale, just to avoid ruining what little positive moments this film possesses, but I can say, despite how much I enjoyed it, the third act alone is NOT worth the price of admission.
The conclusion to the family theme is not very satisfying at all, nor is the payoff of Charles changing his overstepping and egotistical ways. He simply goes “I was wrong” to Hank, and suddenly everything is back to normal. Are we not going to discuss that Scott tried to frickin’ dome Hank thirty minutes ago? I do genuinely think this film could have recovered from its more than lackluster beginning and middle acts in the conclusion had it tried more, but instead of developing a satisfying resolution to these arcs, the audience is left with nothing but a lackluster ending to an already boring film.
The writing for these characters was damn near high school screenwriter level of writing, with clear indications that some script writers got far too carried away with punctuation and some scripts (Tye Sheridan’s) had none at all. The phrase “Jean, stop!” had to have been said over thirty times, and it was a challenge to get through. On top of the off-key delivery, some of the choices written for characters were so off-base with how these characters should have acted, both logically and based on their characteristics, that the whole movie was infuriating. WHY DID CYCLOPS TRY TO MURDER BEAST?
There is also another minor, almost Baron Zemo-esque antagonist portrayed by Jessica Chastain, who is given so little of anything that it was impossible to even care about what she was doing. I won’t give anything away about her involvement in the story, though there isn’t much to reveal, but I will say that she mattered so little I genuinely don’t think she was even given a name. I also couldn’t really tell you anything about her plan, aside from the basic “I want this” plot device.
Overall, Dark Phoenix does not rise above the ashes of its awful critical reception and dreaded arrival. It serves as a weak puff of air into the franchise, which is only made more depressing by the fact that this is the conclusion of a twenty-year story. While the third act battle scenes make for a relatively entertaining experience, literally everything else will drain what life you still have within you. Odd choices made in the writers’ room, a mixed bag of performances given by actors that mostly seemed to have checked out for the evening (Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy excluded, they seemed to have given genuine effort, but unfortunately didn’t have a solid script to stand on), awful dialogue, a weak side antagonist plot line, unfulfilling conclusions to arcs, and so much more made this nothing more than an expensive nap and a sad conclusion to an otherwise lovable franchise.