Before there was a Marvel Cinematic Universe, before there was Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, before even Sam Raimi brought Spider-Man to the big screen, there was X-Men. When the first X-Men film was released in 2000, super hero movies weren’t nearly as commonplace as they are now. Sure, Superman and Batman had successful cinematic runs from time to time, but it was when X-Men hit theaters that the genre really started to pick up, with the aforementioned likes of Spider-Man, the Dark Knight Trilogy, and most prominently the MCU coming into existence in its wake. The super hero genre is now the movie genre, with this success being traced back to X-Men. But now, after almost twenty years, the X-Men film series – in its current state – comes to an end.
Disney’s recent acquisition of 20th Century Fox means it’s only a matter of time before the X-Men get rebooted and integrated into the MCU in some capacity. But if recent claims by Marvel and Disney hold true, that won’t be any time soon. That’s probably for the best, however. After almost twenty years of X-Men movies of wildly varying quality, and multiple timelines that have made less sense with every installment, the franchise is a bit exhausted. And its final proper entry, Dark Phoenix – quite ironically given its title – feels burnt out. It has its moments of promise, and it’s certainly not the worst X-Men movie, but Dark Phoenix suffers from simply not being good enough. It fizzles out this decades-long movie franchise instead of giving it a satisfying conclusion, and isn’t strong enough to make you forget about what a bumpy road it’s been to get here.
The creative burnout of the franchise is perhaps most evident by the fact that Dark Phoenix is treading familiar territory. This is a film that adapts the famous Dark Phoenix story arc from the comics, in which psychic mutant Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) gains insurmountable power from a cosmic force, which turns the once-friendly X-Woman into a deadly super being. This storyline was already adapted back in 2006 with X-Men: The Last Stand (the final installment of the original trilogy of films). The only real difference here is that it features the younger cast first established in X-Men: First Class (2011), who have somehow been featured in more films in the series than Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen (who portrayed Charles Xavier and Magneto in the opening trilogy and Days of Future Past, and were perfectly cast in their roles, even if the films themselves were never worthy of those great casting choices). I can’t think of another instance of a movie franchise that adapted the same storyline twice without being properly rebooted first. So I guess that tells you where the X-Men movie franchise is at as it breaths its last.
Jean Grey is at the center of this story. The film begins with her as a young child in 1975, and how her psychic abilities inadvertently caused the car accident that killed her parents (while protecting herself from damage). She was then taken in by Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), so that her abilities could be nurtured and grow into something positive. But Xavier, being a psychic himself, tampered with Jean’s more tragic memories, making her forget that she accidentally caused her parents’ deaths and that her father, fearing mutants, never loved her.
Fast-forward to 1992, Apocalypse has been defeated, the events of Days of Future Past happened…sometime, and human-mutant relations are at an all-time high. Charles Xavier (who looks exactly the same – sans the hair – even though he should look like Patrick Stewart in only eight-years time) now has a direct hotline to the White House, as the X-Men are now trusted with aiding the US government during times of crisis (is it just me, or does answering to the government because you were born with unique abilities actually sound like a bad thing?).
The film wastes no time in finding such a crisis, as a “solar flare” has critically damaged a space shuttle in orbit. As one would do in such a situation, the president calls a professor to send his students into space to fix the problem. Xavier chooses Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Ororo Munroe/Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kofi Smit-McPhee), Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and of course Jean Grey (who doesn’t get a cool nickname), to save the stranded astronauts from the doomed shuttle.
Using their different powers (Nightcrawler’s teleportation seems particularly handy), the X-Men manage to save the astronauts by bringing them aboard the X-Jet. But when rescuing the final astronaut, Jean gets stranded in the shuttle just as the solar flair breaks through. The flare rips apart the rocket, and travels inside of Jean’s body, saving her from certain death in the void of space. Nightcrawler manages to rescue Jean, and the X-Men return to Earth with the astronauts.
As you might expect, having a mysterious cosmic force bury itself in your body comes with a few side effects, and it isn’t long before Jean’s psychic abilities begin to amp up considerably, and she even gains newfound abilities like flight and energy projection. She also starts having severe mood swings, and begins remembering the events of her past that Charles Xavier once made her forget. With these repressed memories coming back to haunt her, in addition to gaining a power she can’t control, Jean is quickly becoming a dangerous force that threatens the X-Men themselves.
As it turns out, this “solar flare” wasn’t a solar flare at all, but the Phoenix Force, a cosmic entity of unimaginable power. Hot on the Phoenix Force’s tail are a race of shapeshifting aliens called the D’Bari, who infiltrate the Earth looking for a way to use Jean’s newfound power to help them turn Earth into their new home world.
The plot may be a bit closer to the original comics than The Last Stand was, but many of its elements still feel overly familiar, and those that are new here aren’t very compelling. The D’Bari are entirely forgettable villains, with their only named character, Vuk (Jessica Chastain), being a lackluster big bad trying to manipulate Jean Grey for her power.
Other elements simply feel rushed, such as how Magneto (Michael Fassbender) gets thrust into the proceedings, and his motivation for the rest of the film feels flimsy. So many scenes zoom on by, and though the action scenes can be fun, they feel strangely crammed together. The final set piece personifies this, as I didn’t even realize it was the finale until it was almost done. It provides some fun action and visuals, but it never feels like the climactic battle it should be.
It all goes back to the film simply being “not good enough.” The majority of the cast is comprised of good actors, but aside from McAvoy and Turner, most of them come across as disinterested. The film even includes a notable character death in the first act (which the trailers infamously spoiled), but instead of feeling like a well-earned emotional moment, it comes across more that the actor in question just wanted out of their contract.
Another problem I’ve had with these X-Men films is how the makeup effects haven’t evolved since the first movie was released nearly two decades ago. The actors may have changed with First Class, but the effects used to bring the more fantastic-looking mutants (read: the blue ones) to life look outdated. The makeup for Beast remains as it was in the 2006 film, while Mystique’s hasn’t been altered since 2000. Some might say the filmmakers are aiming for continuity between the films, but seeing as the X-Men movies have retconned, reset and flat-out ignored so many established character and story elements in the past, clearly continuity isn’t at the forefront for this franchise. Save the continuity for the storytelling, people. If the makeup effects look outdated, change them up a bit.
I’m sounding incredibly negative towards the film, but I admit it’s not a total lost cause. There are moments of fun to be had in Dark Phoenix, but again, nothing that feels like anything more than your run-of-the-mill superhero fare. And considering this conclusion to the X-Men comes relatively shortly after the MCU’s decade-long payoff with the exceptional Avengers: Endgame, Dark Phoenix feels all the more underwhelming.
I don’t think Dark Phoenix is on the same level of franchise ruination as say, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald. But seeing as it was destined to be the final installment in this nearly twenty-year old X-Men movie franchise once Disney started eyeing Fox, Dark Phoenix is a big letdown of a sendoff.