REVIEW: X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX brings Fox era of X-Men Films to close with strong team ensemble film that frustrates with potential of what could have been.


X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX, writer/director Simon Kinberg’s directorial debut, delivers what fans have asked for years: an actual X-Men team ensemble comic book space opera that feels authentic to the comic book despite Fox’s mishmash of timeline jumping and missing characters. It’s frustrating and unfortunate that Fox’s stewardship of this series only now seems to have found a groove with this film that works at the end of their tenure of their license back to Marvel Studios.

Lest we forget, for the better part of the last 20 years, the X-Men films have largely been focused on either Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine or Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse, the ill-received sequel to X-Men: Days of Future Past and Fox’s last X-Men film, a film which largely recasts the role of Mystique in the mutantverse of Marvel to something akin to that of Che Guevara. Done largely because of Jennifer Lawrence’s popularity outside of the X-Men films, the film, directed by Bryan Singer, largely disappointed fans and critics given the fact that Days of Future Past was a ret-con, a timeline reboot that gave Singer a clean slate to reinvigorate and re-establish the franchise from the ground-up with many of the characters from the original X-Men trilogy that weren’t available due to story choices that couldn’t be worked around. Despite the potential of a fertile field to start anew with, X-Men: Apocalypse seemed more of the same from a bygone era of superhero films, fan favorites used in the film just for fan service, with light characterization and over emphasis on CGI versus compelling plot mechanics. Given the rise of the MCU, the film felt undercooked and overstuffed, which you can see in our review from back in 2016. The question is, how does X-Men: Dark Phoenix fare as the conclusion of Fox’s stay with these characters, not to mention as essentially a remake of 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand with a different cast of characters?

X-Men Dark Phoenix kicks off in 1975 in the car of the Grey Family. An early manifestation of young Jean’s powers leaves her in the care of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) who promises Jean she is special and not broken and he sees potential in her. Cut to 1992, the X-Men have become accepted as superheroes and the President of the United States asks for their help in stopping a runaway space shuttle Endeavour. The field team, led by Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique, consists of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) blast off into space in their new X-Jet. They manage to save the bulk of the team, except the commander, whom Xavier insists they go back for. Nightcrawler and Jean teleport to the shuttle to save the commander, but in doing so, a fiery cosmic flare that had engulfed the shuttle strikes and engulfs Jean. Jean miraculously survives and feels invigorated by the encounter. Meanwhile, across the country, several shape-shifting alien beings called the D’Bari land on Earth led by their commander Vuk (Jessica Chastain), who assumes the form of a local to lead the D’Bari to find this cosmic flare they had been tracking straight to Jean.

It’s very striking that from the get-go, out of 12 Marvel X-Men films, this is the X-Men film to actually feel like a film about the team, using their powers in tandem and working as a team on missions together. First-time director Simon Kinberg (who wrote the last 2 X-Men movies, as well as X-Men III: The Last Stand) gets the rare distinction of being able to direct an essential remake of one of his earlier scripts. The lack of Bryan Singer as director here is a huge positive, Kinberg’s team wears the 1990’s yellow and blue X-Men outfits through the film. Moreover, the film is as close to an adaptation of the original Dark Phoenix Saga as you’re going to get, with the D’Bari acting as something of a combination of the Sh’iar and Hellfire Club antagonists from the original arc.

Much has been made about the trailers spoiling a particular character’s fate as well. I can add this is telegraphed fairly early on, but acts as an important part of gravitas that’s carried through the film in affecting various character’s motivations. Kinberg doesn’t do it for shock factor and its clear he’s trying to make the script work in service to the characters not just to drive the engine to the plot beats. Nicholas Hoult’s Beast and Michael Fassbender are given plenty of storyline to bring their overall arcs in this series to a logical and earned close. Similarly, Sheridan makes the role of Cyclops his in this film, especially with the cipher the character has been portrayed as throughout these films. Similarly, Nightcrawler develops and his character is more than the teleportation plot device its been in other films, especially in the film’s climax. Similarly, Sophie Turner does get the chance to show some range beyond the wooden American accent she did in Apocalypse. The film largely hinges on her and McAvoy’s Xavier and their chemistry together really seems earned. Hans Zimmer replaces John Ottman in score department as well. While not as iconic as his work for Christopher Nolan or the DC films he’s worked on the past few years, his score adds gravitas and percussion to a franchise that’s largely riffed on a string-heavy composition and echoes of the theme from the 90’s X-Men cartoon.

On the flip side, there was a lot made of Marvel Studios making them reshoot much of the 3rd act of this film due to similarities to an unnamed Marvel film that was in development at the same time as this one. It’s not going into spoilers to say that it is obvious upon viewing that that movie was Captain Marvel, as even with the reshoots the similarities are still there. The D’Bari are essentially Skrulls; down to the way they shapeshift, wanting the alien force that empowers Jean to have fiery cosmic powers for themselves much like the Kree through manipulation. To Kinberg’s credit, a lot is made to try to ground the story, but I suspect most will draw the Captain Marvel conclusion early and chastise the film because of it. The similarity is there, it doesn’t hurt the film, in this writer’s opinion.

The bigger issues with Dark Phoenix tend to be with juggling too many characters with not enough plot for them. As usual, Magneto’s henchmen tend to be unnamed mutants with heavy facial tattoos. At this point, there’s nothing to be lost by using a named character fans have a connection to, rather than another random anachronistic tattooed piece of fodder. Moreover, despite setting it up over 2 films, the Quicksilver/Magneto fatherhood issue is never addressed in this film and becomes a dropped subplot with no payoff. There’s some especially cringey forced exposition early in the film, in particular between Mystique and Xavier. It’s kind of obvious Lawrence’s Mystique “makeup” is largely done via CGI in this film. It’s not a stretch for me to say one of the aspects of this series I won’t miss is Lawrence’s phoned in performances as Mystique over the last 3 films and this one is no exception.

Overall, X-Men: Dark Phoenix isn’t the mess of a finale for this series of X-Men films that it should’ve been. Kinberg gets a chance to make over his script for The Last Stand and does so in a way that honors the original storyline. Unfortunately, it does so in the wake of a superior film with similar subject matter and a recent release behind it that will force the comparison between the two. This is the X-Men film we should’ve gotten years ago, it’s a shame we got it at this point in the series history but at the least, the series goes out with a bang, not a whimper.