Warning: this review contains spoilers for “The Dark Phoenix Saga” and Avengers: Endgame.
“The Dark Phoenix Saga,” the classic Marvel Comics story arc written by Chris Claremont and drawn by John Byrne, is one of the most iconic Marvel tales of all time. It focuses on Jean Grey, one of the original X-Men (and Professor Charles Xavier’s prize pupil), whose exposure to a solar flare amps up her already considerable telepathic and telekinetic powers to an unforeseen degree, driving her to the brink of madness and turning her into one of the most powerful, destructive beings in the universe, while various alien races and enemies of the X-Men either seek to destroy or corrupt her.
The 1980 saga is one of those sweeping, cosmos-spanning events that the major comics publishers seem to try to replicate two or three times a year these days, but it was groundbreaking back then because it broke an unwritten comics law (up to that point) against killing off a major character–by suicide, no less–and had truly tragic reverberations for the Marvel universe and the X-Men franchise in particular. Jean, after all, had been a mainstay in the comics for 17 years at that point, and the loss was profound (until of course it was retconned sometime later so she could be resurrected–ah, comics).
The way that the saga was set up and how it played out in the pages of the comics are key to understanding why 20th Century Fox, keepers of the X-Men film franchise, have now failed twice to bring the story properly to the screen. Dark Phoenix, the 12th X-Men movie released by Fox and the final one in the cycle that began 19 years ago with Bryan Singer’s X-Men, gives the story its own feature-length adaptation after it was used as a half-baked subplot in 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand. But the nature of the story itself and the twisted continuity of the X-Men films have combined this time around to render the story smaller, less meaningful, and more incoherent than it should be.
Writer-director Simon Kinberg, making his official debut behind the camera after years of writing and producing a number of Fox’s X-Men and Marvel-related titles, seems to have his heart in the right place (he has publicly stated that he wanted to make amends for the way the story was handled in The Last Stand). But he’s hampered by the limitations of the franchise as it’s been configured on screen, the indifference of key members of his cast, and the sense that everyone is just trying to get the movie over with before Fox’s new owners, Disney, hands the keys to this particular vehicle back to Marvel Studios.
Oddly The Last Stand, as maligned as it was and still is, presented the Phoenix as it was originally conceived in the comics: a long-repressed manifestation of Jean Grey’s own personality that was unlocked by the unleashing of her full powers. It was only later that the “Phoenix Force,” as it was renamed, was explained to be a cosmic mass of energy with some form of sentience and intelligence to it. Kinberg’s new version of the story finds a middle ground: the Phoenix is an ancient, destructive entity from deep space, but it also brings out the worst in Jean, played here by Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark on Game of Thrones).
Turner’s Jean Grey was a supporting player in 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse, and that’s one of the problems that’s immediately apparent: We barely got to know her in that crowded and muddled film, so why should we necessarily care what happens to her here? X-Men: Apocalypse also introduced a young Cyclops/Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan) and the beginnings of these two characters’ longstanding comic book love affair. But in the current “First Class” movies–in which the characters inexplicably don’t age even though we jump a decade ahead in each one–we’re supposed to just catch up with the fact that Scott and Jean are now passionately in love.
The Scott/Jean romance was a central component of what made the “Dark Phoenix Saga” so tragic on the page; here it barely registers. It doesn’t help that the older versions of these characters from the first three movies (played by James Marsden and Famke Janssen) still linger in our memories. The retconning and recasting over the course of seven films (not including the Deadpool and Logan spinoffs) prevents the relationship between Scott and Jean here from having any kind of gravitas, and sadly neither Sheridan nor Turner are up to the challenge of making it happen through sheer presence or ability. They’re simply too young, and Turner does not have the chops to make Jean’s tragic descent into insanity and rage as emotionally powerful and compelling as it should be.
At least she’s trying, which can’t be said for some of the other members of the cast. Jennifer Lawrence is all but checking her watch during her scenes as Mystique. It’s more than clear that neither she nor Michael Fassbender as Magneto really want to be there, but at least Fassbender has the professionalism to see it through even though his arc is yet another tired retread of the same anti-hero trope that he’s played to much better effect in the earlier films.
Nicholas Hoult’s Beast/Hank McCoy probably comes across the best, and both he and James McAvoy as Professor Xavier give the impression that they’re not just phoning it in. While Jessica Chastain proves that she can be suitably reptilian in a villainous role, her alien leader is horribly underdeveloped, and the rest of her cohorts are a bunch of well-dressed yet indistinguishable baddies who are there merely as fodder for fight scenes–much like the handful of new mutants who are introduced and dispatched in the same fashion. And bringing aliens into a series that has been solely earthbound until now feels as random and disjointed as dropping the Venom symbiote into a park for Peter Parker to find in Spider-Man 3, even if said extra-terrestrials are lifted right from the comics.
Some of the fight scenes, as well as the early space shuttle rescue mission on which Jean encounters the Phoenix, are energizing because we at least get to see the X-Men work as a team in the latter and utilize their powers faithfully in the former. The perpetually underused Storm (Alexandra Shipp) does get to whip up some lightning and wind, and it’s kind of cool to see Beast and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) leap and “bamf” around in a more comics-friendly fashion. Kinberg does bring some flair to those sequences, but his attempt to elevate things to the scale of a Civil War or Infinity War are held back by the relatively small setting (outside a Central Park apartment building in Manhattan) and, again, the lack of weight in what we’re watching.
One hates to bring up the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a point of comparison, but there’s a reason why millions of audience members openly sobbed at Iron Man’s death in Avengers: Endgame or were genuinely dismayed when he and Captain America went for each other’s throats. The MCU has taken the time and had the vision to build these characters and their relationships properly, so when they face personal tragedy it hits the viewer with real force. Like the gimmicky death of Superman at the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the tragedy of Jean Grey here feels unearned–and not even the movie itself feels invested in her ultimate destiny.
Thus the X-Men franchise, for now, goes out not with a grand finale, but a relentlessly mediocre entry that once again whiffs on one of the canon’s great stories. The blame doesn’t lie solely with Kinberg, the studio, or the actors, although they’ve factored into it. Kinberg should get the chance to direct again, and perhaps once he’s free of the burden of trying to untangle the past 19 years of tortured X-Men continuity, his writing will pick up as well. The cast members, for the most part, are all engaging enough that they will move on to other things. But Dark Phoenix can’t shake the feeling of attempting to do too much with too little, all with the knowledge that everything is coming to an end whether they succeed or not. But look at the bright side: even though this doesn’t rate as one of them, a solid half of the 12 X-Men films produced to date have been good or great. Now the legacy of the X-Men will pass into a new set of hands, and hopefully it will rise, like a certain mythological bird, again.
Dark Phoenix is out in theaters this Friday, June 7.