Fun fact: The ‘90s were the golden age of mutants. At least, that’s what Dark Phoenix tells us. The latest (and perhaps last) installment in the X-Men series depicts a world sympathetic towards mutant-kind – a first for this 19-year old series.
Dark Phoenix takes place in 1992, and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his team of X-Men are the era’s Kardashians. This generation of X-Men no longer lead secret lives, and people can’t get enough of them. Charles wines and dines at swank parties, conducts TV interviews, and even has a batphone-like direct line to the president. It’s all a far cry from past movies where coming out as a mutant was shameful and put one’s life at risk.
When a NASA space shuttle mission goes off the rails, the X-Men must venture to outer space and bring the astronauts home safe. The team saves the astronauts but fail to bring Jean (Sophie Turner) back before solar flares wash over the NASA shuttle. The flares envelop Jean and destroy the ship, but she somehow survives without a scratch.
Back on earth, all is not right with Jean. Her mutant powers are suddenly off the charts and hard to control. Worst of all, unleashing them fills her with a sinister rush. Sensing her teammates’ growing fear, Jean goes on the run, and she’s joined by Vuk (Jessica Chastain), a mysterious being who holds the secrets to her dark turn. The X-Men and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) put their differences aside to track down Jean and end her carnage before she does irrevocable damage.
So, let’s start with what works. Dark Phoenix captures the X-Men comics’ vibe right out of the gate. The film also checks a lot of sci-fi boxes with space flight, cosmic forces, and alien invaders. With their sprawling casts, all the X-films are ensemble pieces, but they rarely recreate the X-Men’s unique team dynamics. The joy of reading X-Men comics is that they’re equal parts Degrassi and Mission: Impossible. They’re a team of friends, family, and “frenemies” who join together on missions to save the world. Dark Phoenix nails the Mission: Impossible aspect but fails to establish the soap opera-type elements.
The film begins with a mission into outer space to rescue a team of astronauts – how comic book-y is that? It’s in space where we see Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) in command of the team and calling on each member to put their mutant abilities to use. Scott (Tye Sheridan), Kurt (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Ororo (Alexandra Shipp), Peter (Evan Peters), and Jean form a cohesive unit, and for once the movie X-Men feel like a well-honed tactical team. This intense opening sequence does an excellent job setting the tone for the type of bad-ass X-men story we still haven’t seen onscreen. But sadly, the film never recaptures the thrills of this early high-point.
Writer/director Simon Kinberg teams up with his DP Mauro Fiore to infuse Dark Phoenix with a sense of gravitas. There isn’t much levity in this dour film. Aside from the occasional quip from Peter, it’s all deadly serious. The fate of the world once again rests in the X-Men’s hands, and most shots highlight all the doom and gloom. Kinberg is in love with extreme closeup shots. A good portion of the film is spent with the camera right up in the actors’ grills, slowly pushing in. It’s as if the camera is desperate to reveal any trace of human emotion: it doesn’t.
Things don’t fare much better when the action heats up. The combat gets more creative than X-Men Apocalypse – a film with a climactic battle where characters stood around blasting energy beams at each other. In this outing, the X-Men use their powers more creatively, and at times it’s fun watching how resourceful they get.
Great action-choreography plays out like an athletic ballet. There should be ebbs and flows to scenes that tell a story through action. Not here, though. Unfortunately, much of the action tracks more like a Bourne movie. There are so many quick cuts and shaky camera movements that it felt like someone was blasting a strobe light into my retinas.
Most of the film’s cast turns in dismal performances. Turner is a flat-out dud as both Jean and evil Jean aka Dark Phoenix. She doesn’t come close to supporting the film’s emotional weight. Blame Kinberg’s emotionally anemic script. There isn’t much for any of this talented cast to work with here. Dark Phoenix keeps with the X-movies’ tradition of not giving the classic characters enough runway to take off. Kurt and Ororo barely do more than make intense expressions as they use their powers. And Raven is only in these movies because Fox locked Jennifer Lawrence into a contract before she became one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. These film’s don’t give a s#it about most of the X-Men characters.
Michael Fassbender’s Magneto has long been the most compelling character in the First Class series. But there is no reason for him to be in this movie. You could Thanos snap him out of existence, and it wouldn’t change how this story plays out. The film’s worst offence, though, is wasting Jessica Chastain. She spends the film dead-eyed, expressionless, and speaking in a monotone. Again, blame the script, not the actor. The only thing duller than her character is the movie’s villains, a force of alien invaders so bland they make the Chitauri look as charismatic as Deadpool.
Kinberg’s script drops the ball on a few levels. The characters are underwritten, and the end of the world stakes somehow feel small. Most egregious is how he alters the X-Men’s lore. He presents a vision of the world where humans adore the X-Men. People in this film hold welcome home rallies for an X-team with three blue-skinned heroes on it. The X-Men have long been an allegory for the people society refuses to accept, particularly the LGBTQ community. And to have Kinberg flip the script is an egregious mistake that flies in the face of decades worth of mythology. It also tells us America fixed its mutant-relations problem before it addressed its race and sexual identity issues.
Look, if this story were about Charles Xavier’s struggle to maintain a tenuous peace with humanity now that mutants were finally accepted, that would be a compelling story. But Dark Phoenix casts Xavier as a deluded glory hound with his head up his own ass. He spends more time basking in the spotlight than keeping tabs on his own X-family. This is a far cry from the Martin Luther King Jr-inspired figure presented in past films. Besides, this thread gets dropped as soon as the mutant on human violence hits early on in the story.
The X-Men are some of the most beloved comic book characters of all time for a reason. But you wouldn’t know it from watching these movies. The X-films have over half a century’s worth of rich characters and fantastic stories to pull from. Yet time and time again, these movies have failed the X-Men characters. If Guardians of the Galaxy can present a lovable team of fully realized characters in just one film, the X-films can do it to too.
Why does a C-list character like Rocket Raccoon’s emotional arc resonate more than that of Scott, Raven, and Ororo? A supporting role like Black Panther’s Shuri shouldn’t be more memorable than Beast, a major player in several of these movies (and one of my favourite characters growing up). And ask yourself this: would you rather watch a solo film about Dark Phoenix’s Jean Grey or Drax, Gammora, or even Groot?
Avengers: Endgame wrapped up ten years of shared universe storytelling with a love letter to fans. And I can’t think of what an X-universe love letter would even look like. This is a series that made comic book movies mainstream, and then delivered two decades worth of middle-of-the-road films. Regardless of Dark Phoenix’s box office numbers, it looks like the curtain call for this version of the X-Men, and I might miss them if these films had any personality to miss.