It feels like it’s gone under the radar that Dark Phoenix is the final instalment of the X-Men canon. In fact, there’s been a negative aura surrounding this film throughout most of its development. This partly due to the very underwhelming response to the last offering, X-Men: Apocalypse, but mainly it’s due to the Disney-Fox merger which had been brewing for over a year and was finalised in March. There was a sense of inevitability that the X-Men, who are owned by 20th Century Fox, would transfer across to the Disney-owned Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and get a full reboot, with this film being just a bump in the road before that reboot. It doesn’t help that after two release date pushbacks, it comes out just a month after the cinematic event that was Avengers: Endgame. If that was the bang, this was the whimper. But I still had hope.
X-Men: Dark Phoenix takes place in 1992—nine years after Apocalypse (And no, the cast does not age)—with the X-Men having more public goodwill than ever. The team are tasked by the President to rescue the space shuttle Endeavor, whose astronauts being endangered by an apparent solar flare. While the rescue is successful, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is exposed to, and overcome by, a cosmic force; thus, the Dark Phoenix is awakened.
This is not the first time the Dark Phoenix saga has been adapted on film. 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand contained elements of the story, but was rightly criticised for having that story as a B plot. As one of the most prominent stories in the comics, it deserves its own film, and writer-director Simon Kinberg vowed to rectify the mistakes of The Last Stand (as he was a co-writer on that film) and do the story justice in this film.
After being a long-time producer and writer for this series, Kinberg makes his directorial debut, after the cast said they’d only come back if he directed. I was concerned about someone as inexperienced as Kinberg behind the camera, especially coming after the disappointment of X-Men: Apocalypse. It turns out Kinberg’s directing was the least of this film’s worries because it’s his script which unfortunately lets the film down at nearly every turn. The way he stages action is coherent and he effectively used a grittier handheld style during the action scenes, fitting nicely with the tone. He also wasn’t afraid of getting intimate close-ups of the characters, especially to convey Jean’s emotional trauma. Whilst Apocalypse is let down by its uninteresting narrative, filled with too many character threads and the lack of a clear main character, this film actually has an interesting and emotional character-driven story at its core. The premise of this film and what Kinberg wants to do with its narrative and characters sounds compelling, but it’s the execution of said story which completely inhibits the film from delivering on any of its potential.
The emotional core of this story is obviously Jean Grey. The opening scene excellently sets up her character, and the inner trauma which will resurface later. However, it is Charles Xavier who is endowed with the most compelling characterisation. Mystique is angered by Xavier’s recklessness in risking the team and calls him out on his increasing messiah complex. The revelations regarding his character—and what he did to protect young Jean—are incredibly interesting, and result in some emotionally charged encounters amongst the mutants, fuelling the central conflict going forward.
Unfortunately, Kinberg just doesn’t have the conviction to truly deliver on depicting Xavier as a villain. His arc is resolved so simply; it’s frustrating Kinberg didn’t take the risk of pushing Xavier’s character flaws and ideologies to the extreme. Instead, the primary antagonist of the film is Vuk (Jessica Chastain), the leader of a shape-shifting alien race known as the D’Bari, who is after Jean’s power. Vuk is such a one-dimensional and uncompelling character who added nothing to Jean’s character or the emotional conflict of the story. Vuk and the D’Bari are there purely for the sake of being superpowered antagonists for the X-Men to fight—it’s just lazy writing.
We see that Jean has grown closer to Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan) over the period between Apocalypse and this film—which is one of my main problems. It feels like we’ve skipped from Season 1 to 4 of a TV series. Apocalypse was somewhat of an origin story for the new, younger iterations of Jean Grey, Scott Summers and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), whereas Dark Phoenix feels like—as is—a finale. It needed films in-between to build the relationships between these characters and the team itself to be wholly investing. As for the other members of X-Men, series favourite Quicksilver is painfully underutilised. It almost feels like Kinberg limited his screen time because he was afraid the generally jovial character wouldn’t fit with the film’s dark tone. This film is very light on humour, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing—the biggest laugh came unintentionally from the delivery of the film’s one PG-13 f-bomb.
20th Century Fox have been known to meddle creatively with some of their films—most notably 2015’s Fantastic Four, where the third act and many other story elements were altered to director Josh Trank’s frustration. While the meddling definitely isn’t as drastic in this film, it definitely feels cut down for length. Clocking in at just 114 minutes, the film’s second half feels extremely truncated. It transitions from a large set piece to the final act with frustratingly little connective tissue and character development. The third act was reshot, but it feels like elements have been cut in-between. There are so many elements of the story that aren’t explained enough, and characters change allegiance on a dime without proper explanation. A story this substantial doesn’t get the depth it deserves with a runtime so brisk. Kinberg’s communication of themes and character beats lack the subtly they yearn for.
On a positive note, Hans Zimmer’s pulsating score was breathtaking as always— combining his trademark mix of epic orchestra, synths and hauntingly atmospheric rhythms. It feels a lot like his work from his Christopher Nolan collaborations; the main leitmotif which he uses throughout is particularly noteworthy.
As far as performances go, James McAvoy’s portrayal of Charles Xavier is commendable despite his underwhelming characterisation, and Sophie Turner is really giving it her all as Jean Grey. And while she had to work with Kinberg’s often hackneyed dialogue, the emotional heavy lifting she does throughout the film is impressive. Jennifer Lawrence sadly feels like she’s sleepwalking through another X-Men instalment, and Jessica Chastain, although evidently a hugely talented actress, delivers a one-note performance as Vuk. Michael Fassbender is a standout once again as Magneto, but the character isn’t given a whole lot to do, and his development is very rushed
I really wanted to enjoy X-Men: Dark Phoenix and was hopeful because of the exceptional standards that First Class and Days of Future Past both set. It’s even more frustrating than Apocalypse because the potential for something depth-filled is there, but Kinberg’s poor execution and character development were its downfall. The X-Men franchise may be gone for a while now, but they’ll rise from the ashes to join the MCU down the line. I just wish this series could’ve ended with a bang.
X-Men: Dark Phoenix is in cinemas now.