If all previous films in the X-Men franchise were to magically vanish with the snap of a finger — the actors, characters, multiple timelines, etc. — Dark Phoenix might play better. Series screenwriter Simon Kinberg’s feature directorial debut has almost all the makings of a summer blockbuster (complete with trappings like a flimsy plot and heavy reliance on CGI), but, of course, the other films do exist, making the final X-Men entry seem less-than-mediocre by comparison. As such, Dark Phoenix not only fails to live up to many of its predecessors, but it’s also a disappointing send-off for the much-loved franchise.
The saga of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner, “Game of Thrones”) and her transformation into the titular ultrapowerful entity has all the makings of a phenomenal action film filled with plenty of emotion and heart. The original comic book story is considered such a treasured work that much of the heavy lifting has already been done. All it should have taken for the film version to be an instant classic is an adept screenwriter and competent director to make the page-to-screen transition. Why this hasn’t happened is beyond me.
Instead of a dramatic and emotional morality play set on an intergalactic stage (which we get with the source material), we’re left with not much more than a bunch of emo teenagers muddling through a badly paced wannabe psychodrama. The big midway “surprise” — intended to serve as the turning point for character motivation — comes with almost no feeling or sense of sentiment. We’re meant to care, but Dark Phoenix makes it difficult to do so. The life has been sucked right out of a compelling story filled with iconic characters and immeasurable potential. Add to that the vague and out-of-the-blue villains, and things go from bad to worse.
Setting aside source material knowledge or franchise expectations, Dark Phoenix might satisfy the average action movie fan with exactly one of its sequences (emphasis “exactly one” and “might”). The boring and uninteresting fight scene outside Central Park is somewhat made up for by the extended train battle that takes place shortly after, which in turn is then abruptly derailed by an entirely unexciting climax. The train scene has the best moments of the film, but these barrages of violence and property damage are undercut by hokey dialogue and poorly explained teen space-angst. It’s frustrating.
Most of the cast performs as well as can be expected under the circumstances. Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy are their usual selves as Magneto and Professor X, respectively, and Turner turns in a decent enough Jean Grey, but it’s no surprise to me that Jennifer Lawrence is once again the weak link. As Raven/Mystique, her faux-righteousness is supposed to be defiant and heroic, but instead, it comes off as whiny and petty. But, for almost every character, the writing doesn’t do much to encourage our loyalty or sympathy.
What’s worse than any of the film’s decidedly lame qualities is the complete lack of respect Dark Phoenix gives to a pretty damn good series of films. Why it was chosen as the final chapter instead of leaving it with the vastly superior Logan (2017) is something I will never understand. With the fate of future X-Men movies currently up in the air following 20th Century Fox’s sale to Disney, a much better swan song is deserved. Dark Phoenix may have been fine for a midfranchise doldrum picture, but it’s a terrible way to end a nearly 20-year run.