The seventh film in the X-Men series (not counting spin-offs), and the final X-Men movie put into production before Disney’s buyout of Fox, X-Men: Dark Phoenix could be seen as the end of an era. But after re-shoots and more than one release date shift, this superhero summer blockbuster feels less hotly anticipated and more frustratingly delayed.
Was it worth the wait? Well, no, not really. Though Dark Phoenix isn’t an unmitigated disaster, as a conclusion to a much loved franchise it’s less a bird from the flames and more a damp squib.
It’s set predominantly in 1992 and sees the X-Men, under the care of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), at the height of their popularity. Charles has a direct line to the President, and decked in matching uniforms the team is branded ‘superheroes’ by the public when they undertake a tough mission to rescue astronauts on a space shuttle who’ve run into trouble with what they believed to be solar flare. Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is at the forefront of the mission, which nearly results in her death but instead leaves her more powerful than ever and harbouring a mysterious energy even she can’t control…
Meanwhile, Charles has grown arrogant and drunk on his own celebrity, causing a rift in the gang – hubris that will lead to a major disaster that divides the group and forces him to call on his old frenemy Magneto (Michael Fassbender) for help.
Simon Kinberg, who’s been involved in the X-Men movies since The Last Stand, makes his directorial debut here from a script he also penned. He clearly loves these characters, and his passion for the band of mutants is all over the screen with Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Storm (Alexandra Shipp) all getting some great hero moments. One big ticket train sequence is particularly impressive, with multiple moving parts and spectacle to spare, and Kinberg handles the action and big FX set pieces with real skill. Sadly though, where the movie falls down is the script – and specifically the dialogue.
Even the excellent Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique can’t pull off lines like “You might want to think about changing the name to X-Women”, and when the conversation isn’t awkward and cheesy it’s functional and heavy with exposition.
Dark Phoenix works best when it’s an ensemble piece, with the team working together using their different skills to confront a powerful new enemy, in the form of Jessica Chastain, that threatens their whole existence. Sadly that powerful enemy is as faceless – and pointless – as any of Marvel’s very worst villain missteps. The usually-excellent Chastain is hamstrung by her (lack of) character and shaky motivation and there’s no real peril at any point.
And as the title suggests, X-Men: Dark Phoenix isn’t wholly an ensemble piece. Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey is front and centre and despite the actress’ best efforts she just doesn’t have the screen presence to carry the movie. While Jean/Phoenix is described as being “all desire, all rage, all pain” none of that comes across in the film. Instead, it’s tough to have any emotional connection with her at all, and without that, the action stumbles and the plot feels inconsequential.
It’s telling that scenes with angry, broken Magento, pompous, misguided Xavier and nurturing but indignant Mystique carry more heft than any moments of Jean sobbing in the rain and talking to herself. In the hands of a different actress, third act scenes of Phoenix finally embracing her powers could have been as thrilling as Captain Marvel’s supercharged awakening (and Dark Phoenix shares several similarities to that film, including putting its female characters at the forefront and a thread about how Jean’s emotions are her weakness) but instead we’re never invested in her enough to care much either way.
As a franchise-closing super-team up, comparisons to Avengers: Endgame are inevitable too, but Dark Phoenix feels very dated and low-impact held up against that behemoth. And okay, not all movies can be Endgame and this has neither the weight nor the budget to compete. However, it does feel like a vaguely disappointing ending to a series that rebooted itself so brilliantly with X-Men: First Class and Days Of Future Past (the less said about Apocalypse the better…).
Treading some of the same ground, Dark Phoenix isn’t exactly worse than X-Men: The Last Stand, but it’s also not necessarily that much better or even that different. Phoenix feels like a retread we didn’t need that brings little new to the universe. When it’s at its best it’s a colourful team-up with some cool action set pieces, but as a character piece, a gripping yarn, or a satisfying conclusion to 19 years of X-Men movies, Dark Phoenix just doesn’t have the X-factor.