With X-Men: Dark Phoenix, longtime franchise writer/producer-turned-first-time-director Simon Kinberg promised that he would do a better job of adapting the classic Dark Phoenix comic book saga to screen than X-Men: The Last Stand, the much-maligned threequel he penned, did in 2006. In that regard, Kinberg and co have succeeded. Of course, it has to be pointed out that The Last Stand set the bar so low so as to be positively subterranean, so that’s not saying much.
So how about I say this then: X-Men: Dark Phoenix is actually better than you may expect it to be, especially given the litany of bad critical buzz and production troubles it’s had. Is it a great adaptation of Chris Claremont’s epic comic book story arc? Not even in the slightest. The original Phoenix/Dark Phoenix saga is a sprawling cosmic two-hander about the rise and cataclysmic fall of mutant superhero Jean Grey as she becomes the host to an alien force capable of erasing solar systems. It’s a story that spans stars and empires, life and death, and it deserves an appropriately scoped retelling.
Instead of doing a better adaptation of the Phoenix Saga this time around though, Kinberg essentially just does a reboot of The Last Stand and once again keeps things banally terrestrial for the most part. There is something of a cosmic element at play here though in the Phoenix Force itself and the admittedly thrilling space mission performed by the X-Men in the film’s first big moment of fist-pumping cinema. It’s here, while attempting to rescue the crew of a critically damaged space shuttle, that Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey absorbs a mysterious cosmic power hovering above the Earth. What should have killed her instead supercharges her mutant psychic/telepathic abilities, causing her to lose control.
Not helping her mental fragility are long-kept secrets about her past being uncovered, setting her on a collision course with the X-Men themselves. Alongside that, we also have the introduction of an alien villainess played by Jessica Chastain who has her own agenda with Jean, but both her character’s story and the how’s and why’s of the Phoenix Force and what it does to Jean are so painfully underwritten so as to be laughable. Less than half a dozen lines of expository dialogue are all they get.
In contrast, the beloved 1990s X-Men animated series took nine episodes to adapt Claremont’s comic book epic and still stands as the definitive on-screen retelling of this tale. X-Men: Dark Phoenix doesn’t even bother to try and cram all that story into its 110-minute running time, giving us a do-over of The Last Stand’s Phoenix bits tied together with some additional undercooked plot points. Admittedly, as the crux of much of the drama, Turner does a fairly good job as the embattled Jean, while James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier, Nicholas Hoult’s Beast, and Michael Fassbender’s Magneto all get their own thespian moments to shine. But this is more a case of impressive talent shining through the murk of the material they’re working with, rather than because of it.
The rest of the characters are all either barely-there cutouts or quagmires of puzzling flip-flopping motivations and stilted dialogue. It also doesn’t help that Kinsberg is still insistent on avoiding the colourful comic book pageantry that is supposed to make these characters stand out, resigning everybody to drab, forgetful wardrobes (just like he did with Famke Janssen in The Last Stand, he sticks Turner’s Jean into an insipidly boring red coat ensemble again).
What this particular film really does have going for it though is what happens in between all those uneven dramatic moments as directing newcomer Kinberg proves himself surprisingly capable of staging fantastic action beats. Most notably, the varied powersets of the X-Men and their adversaries are showcased better than most past instalments in this franchise. If you want to see Storm finally rain down destruction like the elemental goddess she is, have Beast tear through enemies in an acrobatic animalistic rage, or see what a master of magnetism can do in a roiling brawl when he’s surrounded by metal, then this is the movie for you.
A lot of this superpowered action plays out as impressively as it does thanks to an unexpectedly large number of physical stunts adding a highly-appreciated tactile physicality to a lot of the ruckus. Bodies leap or get blasted into and around each other with bone-crunching solidity. And it’s all lensed with insightful camera work, clearly showing off the spectactle.
When Kinberg does turn to digital smoke and mirrors though, it’s with some seriously impressive visual effects. The filmmaker infamously delayed Dark Phoenix’s release date (one of several delays) because he reportedly wanted to polish the CGI bits. Well, consider them polished to a blinding sheen, with the effects of Jean’s Phoenix-enhanced powers, in particular, standing out. And supporting and elevating all those pretty visuals is a potently stirring musical score by the legendary Hans Zimmer which is used liberally throughout, much to my aural pleasure.
However, as enervating the film’s eye-popping mutant throwdowns are, it’s all still entirely pointless guff. This is due to the film’s script trying to throw ideas of identity and destiny at you, either via McAvoy’s emotional Xavier or Chastain’s narcoleptic baddie, but actually being frustratingly shallow in execution. And naturally it doesn’t help that fans already care way more about how Marvel Studios will eventually reboot the X-Men now that their rights have reverted back home, than how Fox want to end this historically erratic franchise. Not that this is an end though, at least not of any majorly significant narrative weight.
Fox was well into the final straight on this production and had already laid out future plans when the sale of the studio to Disney went through, meaning that this feels like just another chapter in a story instead of the climactic hurrah of a franchise that stretches back nearly two decades. A couple of codas try to give the narrative some finality, but you can practically still smell the drying paint on the sets as these were clearly hastily tacked on scenes once it became clear this was the end of Fox’s mainline X-Men franchise.
So this is how this world ends, not with a bang but with a film that never reaches the franchise highs of X-Men: First Class or X2, but still offers some solid superhero blockbuster diversionary action. At the very least, it’s much better than X-Men: The Last Stand.
Last Updated: June 10, 2019