I think we all hoped Dark Phoenix would surprise us, yet there’s something about this “final installment” of the X-Men movie universe — which has produced nearly a dozen movies over the past 20 years — that ultimately falls flat.
This movie is the franchise’s second attempt at adapting the Dark Phoenix storyline, which is generally considered to be the most beloved X-Men comic book arc ever written. While many things did improve from 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand — which utilized Jean Grey’s transformation into the Dark Phoenix as a subplot of sorts and takes place in a completely separate timeline — Dark Phoenix still doesn’t stick the landing.
Dark Phoenix follows the same group of mutants (and the same actors) featured in X-Men Apocalypse as they face a species of shape-shifting aliens (hello, Captain Marvel?) and the increasingly destructive power of one of their own teammates, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), after she is hit by a major energy blast during a space mission.
It’s clear that the directors tried to cater to long-term fans of the X-Men with callouts and throwbacks to previous movies throughout Dark Phoenix. While this creates a few nice moments, a majority of these efforts feel repetitive or gratuitous. The villain, played by Jessica Chastain, also feels a bit “meh,” for lack of a better term. Unlike many of the best Marvel villains, we don’t get much insight into her motivations or even a scrap of humanity we could relate to. To their credit, though, the entire cast gives a solid performance of the material they were given.
The timing of this movie also inspires immediate comparisons to Avengers: Endgame, the recent, generally well-received closing chapter to a completely different group of on-screen Marvel heroes. These comparisons may also be what gives Dark Phoenix its overall sense of being not quite enough. Despite running more than an hour shorter than Endgame, Dark Phoenix drags — even in its action scenes — where Endgame never stops moving. And while losing two Avengers on screen left audiences literally sobbing, the death of a core X-Man feels devoid of nearly any emotional punch (perhaps in part because the death was hinted in the trailer and confirmed by the director before the movie’s release …). Dark Phoenix also explores many emotional themes that have popped up in the MCU, including how much control a team leader should have, whether you should judge someone by who they are or what they’ve done, and if emotions make you stronger or weaker. Yet none of these themes get enough screen time to really develop.
Despite the X-Men’s longevity as a movie series, the multiple timelines, different actors, and general lack of continuity over the years have left many fans without strong emotional connections to the on-screen character iterations that we see in Dark Phoenix.
Speaking of continuity, fans will definitely have some questions by the end of Dark Phoenix. Most notably, why the ending certainly doesn’t match with the future we saw in Days of Future Past. Plus, there are some important plot lines from previous movies that just never get addressed, such as the reveal of Quicksilver’s father’s identity at the end of Apocalypse. And, most importantly, why does no one age in these movies, even though they happen decades apart??
Overall, Dark Phoenix is far from the worst movie you’ll see this year. The visuals are generally impressive, and it has some redeeming moments. However, we live in an era with a very high bar for good superhero movies. Maybe in a different timeline, the X-Men movies would have found the same success and mass following as the MCU, and Dark Phoenix would have been met with Endgame-level budgets, enthusiasm, and box office results. But in this timeline, watching this movie feels more like a task that long-time X-Men fans are obligated to check off of their to-do lists.
Photos: Marvel and 20th Century Fox Film Corporation