Dark Phoenix ends, as all superhero movies do, with the hint of more to come. But it’s a mirage this time, as far as we know: This truly is the end of Fox’s core X-Men series for the foreseeable future, at least until it gets rebooted under the Disney umbrella.
And it comes not a moment too soon. Dark Phoenix feels less like a triumphant sendoff than a reminder of the series’ most self-sabotaging tendencies.
This one does, at least, suffer from less narrative sloppiness than its predecessors, X-Men: Apocalypse and X-Men: Days of Future Past. There’s only one central storyline here, and it’s easy enough to follow — it involves the fallout from an incident that left superhero Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) with dangerously amplified powers.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because Dark Phoenix is based on the same comic-book arc as 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, from writer Simon Kinberg, who wrote and directed Dark Phoenix. And yet, even on a second go, the best this plot seems able to do is lumber gracelessly from one plot point to the next, trying and failing to find any reason for being. (Besides, you know, “Well, it sounded like a lucrative idea at the time.”)
Turner puts a mighty effort into her performance as Jean, but can only do so much to elevate the stilted dialogue and muddled character motivations she’s given. McAvoy does a capable job of delivering slightly better material, but is shortchanged by the film’s divided attention. The other characters, including Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), are just there to serve as set dressing, and accordingly, most of them give performances as wooden as the mahogany furniture lining Xavier’s mansion.
Dark Phoenix‘s lack of imagination is all the more disappointing because it glimmers of promise early on. Its first act promises two interlocking character journeys with rich thematic potential: one of a woman realizing her rage at what has been done to her, and one of a man facing up to the mistakes he made with the best of intentions.
And if the framing seems a bit on-the-nose (“You should think about changing the team name to X-Women,” one female character huffs) — well, at least Dark Phoenix seems to be striving for emotional and cultural resonance. At a time when superhero blockbusters are still struggling to figure out how to package girl power for the masses, there’s certainly room for a tale that grapples honestly with the unruly passions stirred up by such awakening and empowerment.
Somewhere along the way, though, Dark Phoenix loses sight of what it was trying to say about female anger, or male arrogance, or love or rejection or oppression or forgiveness. It forgets to explain who these people are or why they’re worth our time. Do you remember which characters hooked up with which in First Class, or how certain arcs resolved in Apocalypse? You’re SOL in Dark Phoenix if you don’t, and maybe even if you do — there are at least a few details that I’m fairly sure make no sense no matter how well you’ve memorized the timeline.
Somewhere along the way, Dark Phoenix loses sight of what it was trying to say about female anger or male arrogance.
Nor does it think to serve up any style. There’s no memorable soundtrack, no thrilling action sequences, not even a detectable sense of humor. Dark Phoenix isn’t especially ugly or upsetting, but it’s no pleasure to sit through, either. It’s just there, robotically going through the motions of recounting a story, without stopping to consider why it’s bothering in the first place.
So we’re left to find our own fun. A scene of two characters waging telekinetic battle over a helicopter is good for some laughs, because a certain A-list actor looks simply ridiculous contorting his face to ever-more-ridiculous extremes; another of a character dropping the world’s least convincing F-bomb got loud guffaws from my theater. You might smirk at scenes of the former Sansa Stark smiting unworthy men, or snort at the increasingly leaden dialogue spouted by Professor X.
By the time the fire alarm went off in my theater, deep into the final battle, it was too late for them to ruin much of anything. They carried on for 20 minutes, all the way through the sloppy action sequence and into the quieter emotional beats. I tell you this in the spirit of fairness; it’s possible, I suppose, that I would have liked the movie more if I’d seen it under more pristine conditions. But I doubt it.
When the alarm finally shut off, just before the denouement, my audience breathed a collective sigh of relief. When the film finally ended, I heaved an even bigger one. The phoenix that is the X-Men saga had completed its latest rebirth cycle to be reduced to ashes yet again — and this time, mercifully, it looked like it would stay that way.