After 19 years, 12 movies, and one very confusing timeline, the X-Men saga that began on the big screen in 2000 comes to a close with Dark Phoenix, the second adaptation of the famed comic book storyline following the lacklaster X-Men: The Last Stand. The cast that was first assembled for the stellar X-Men: First Class ends their contractual obligations in the adaptation from longtime X-Men scribe Simon Kinberg who makes his directorial debut in the oft-delayed superhero epic that will close the book on 20th Century Fox’s control over the X-Men brand after the studio’s recent sale to Disney. Is Dark Phoenix the satisfying conclusion for a series that has tried and failed (Logan being the lone exception) to give fans a fitting conclusion? In a way, yes, as Dark Phoenix is one last let down from X-Men saga, finishing the trend of the series that was always taking one step forward and two steps backs.
Dark Phoenix is set in 1992 and, much like 1992 in our own timeline, the world is enamored with the X-Men. Gone are the days of persecution that has haunted mutants in each of the previous films. The X-Men are celebrities beloved by the public to the point that Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) even has a direct line to the President of the United States with a phone branded with its own X. Over the course of the 30 (!) years that this series has taken place, this sudden transformation from societal rejects to heroes feels unearned as it happens entirely offscreen, and the fact that these actors are supposed to have aged 30 years since First Class is laughably insane.
The X-Men are called into action when a space shuttle encounters an emergency, so the mutant heroes blast off into space with Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) leading a team of Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) to rescue the stranded astronauts. But a mysterious energy force comes hurtling towards them and Jean Grey takes the brunt of the fiery space powers. Miraculously, Jean Grey doesn’t die and the encounter has awoken something lurking deep inside her psyche, a trauma from childhood that makes the hero incredibly unstable. Upon her return to Earth, Jean Grey has an encounter with a mysterious albino (Jessica Chastain) who wants to manipulate the young woman in order to unleash her immense powers in a plot of global domination that doesn’t make a lick of sense.
It’s widely known that Dark Phoenix underwent a series of extensive reshoots which might explain why it’s so thematically muddled. Even extending that little bit of goodwill only goes so far because Kinberg’s film is so heavily invested in characters that just haven’t been thoroughly developed on the screen – both Tye Sheridan’s Cyclops and Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey made their first appearance in the underwhelming X-Men: Apocalypse and their romantic bond which is supposedly important isn’t established by a handful of lines in this sequel. Even the rifts that arise between characters we’ve become familiar with over the course of the series – Mystique, Beast, and Professor X – are quickly introduced, dragged out for ineffective dramatic effect, then resolved with a line or two of dialogue as our heroes must prepare for battle.
There’s an air of defeat that runs through every frame of Dark Phoenix. The impressive cast that has once again been assembled seems to have completely given up on their characters, with even the biggest names on the cast phoning it in. It certainly doesn’t help matters that seemingly important members of the X-Men team just disappear for lengthy stretches. Heroes and villains alike are given flimsy motivations for entering the cosmic fray, and the film operates under the assumption that you’re going to care what happens without giving you a single reason to care. A clear example of this comes in a scene intended to be a crowd-pleasing moment of female empowerment where Mystique posits that the team should be called the X-Women because “the women are always saving the men around here.” It’s well-intentioned but hollow because we’ve seen nothing on the screen to back up this assertion. Kinberg’s script is flat, the plotting and character development are entirely unengaging and as the film progresses you become more and more checked out of the lethargic evolution underway. It’s a tedious slog of incoherent superhero nonsense.
At the screening of Dark Phoenix that I attended, a fire alarm sounded during the film’s climactic battle on a speeding train. Funnily enough, it took me a few minutes to realize that the blaring sound pulsating through the theater wasn’t a part of the movie, and I wasn’t the only one who thought that. It’s not a good sign when the most entertaining part of a movie is when a fire alarm is accidentally tripped, but that’s just what happened with Dark Phoenix as the action on the screen wasn’t nearly as captivating as the bewildered theater employees scrambling to stop the screeching alarm and flashing lights; meanwhile, the entire audience of critics remained glued to their seats not because the film was so enthralling but because nobody wanted to sit through another minute of this dreck for a second time.
Now as the X-Men retreat into hiding as Marvel and Disney prepare to rehabilitate the brand, we can eulogize a series that was at the forefront of the modern superhero craze. The original trilogy of X-Men films started out well and ended with a thud in a conclusion (co-written by Simon Kinberg) that utilized aspects of the Dark Phoenix storyline. Now another set of X-Men movies concludes with an enormous thud in another failed attempt to bring the Dark Phoenix to the big screen. For me, this recent set of X-Men films represent a major missed opportunity, a rebooted series that started with a breath of fresh air in Matthew Vaughn’s electric First Class and slowly devolved into adequacy then mediocrity with Bryan Singer’s return for Days of Future Past and Apocalypse, respectively, before finally crumbling into complete obsolescence with Dark Phoenix. It’ll be at least five years before we see the X-Men in action again, and even with its production woes there’s no excuse for Dark Phoenix to end this franchise with such an incompetent whimper. The phenomenal cast assembled, the crew who worked tirelessly, and the fans who bought tickets all deserved better than whatever this movie is.
A fittingly frustrating conclusion to the X-Men saga, Dark Phoenix is a tedious slog of superhero nonsense that takes the once-promising crew of X-Men: First Class and squanders them one last time in an incoherent mess that stands as one of the worst X-Men films to date.