First things first: as the second attempt to adapt one of the X-Men’s most iconic story arcs – the Dark Phoenix Saga, X-Men: Dark Phoenix actually fares much, much better compared to the last try – the 2006 franchise-killing X-Men: The Last Stand.
Director Simon Kinberg actually handles the story with much more reverence than The Last Stand’s Brett Ratner did, and at least gives us a moderately satisfying version of the classic comic book story on screen,
It’s just a shame that it just isn’t as good as it should be.
Dark Phoenix starts off with Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) sending his team of X-Men – comprising Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and Quicksilver (Evan Peters) – on a space mission to save the crew of the space shuttle Endeavour from a solar flare, which is actually the Phoenix Force (though it’s never given a name in the movie).
Although they manage to save the astronauts, Jean winds up absorbing the Force into her body, which not only gives her powers a massive boost, but also makes her somewhat unstable, and potentially turning her into the X-Men’s greatest foe yet.
It used to be easy to make superhero movie. Just follow the usual tropes of the genre – take a well-loved comic book story or character, add a new-ish spin or origin story, throw in dozens of cool action pieces and money shots for certain characters to pull the fans in, and voila! You’ve got a superhero movie.
It’s a formula that had worked so far for 20th Century Fox’s X-Men franchise, from the ‘original’ X-Men trilogy (X-Men in 2000, 2003’s X2, and 2006’s The Last Stand), to the ‘First Class’ franchise (2011’s First Class, 2014’s Days Of Future Past and 2016’s Apocalypse), and even to some extent, the spin-off Wolverine movies (though the R-rated Logan and Deadpool movies are exceptions).
Then, Avengers: Endgame happened, and the bar for all superhero movies was raised unbelievably high.
Before Endgame, it would have been perfectly fine to follow the usual superhero-movie formula. After Endgame, however, all superhero movies that follow will be held to its remarkably high standard. And as the first major superhero movie to be released in the After Endgame era, Dark Phoenix suffers as a result.
It’s not that the movie is any bad. It’s actually a pretty decent, well-made, and fairly entertaining movie, one that helps end the franchise on a better note after the disappointing Apocalypse. But after Endgame, we’ve come to expect more from our beloved superheroes, and just seeing them go through the motions just doesn’t cut it anymore.
Action-wise, Kinberg gives the X-Men lots of cool setpieces to showcase their powers, including an entertaining fight on a moving train. It’s what happens in between that is Dark Phoenix‘s biggest flaw – not only taking far too long to establish Jean’s threat, but also failing to make us care enough about the characters to want to see them win. Michael Fassbender’s Magneto is especially undercooked, which is criminal for a character as iconic as his.
Turner’s, er, turn as Jean Grey is passable but unconvincing, McAvoy, Lawrence and Fassbender seem to be phoning in their performances, and the rest of the X-Men (except for Beast) are not given enough screen time to truly develop their characters. And don’t get me started on Jessica Chastain’s unnamed alien leader, whose sole purpose in the entire movie seems to be to give the X-Men someone else to fight besides themselves.
While it’s still better than Apocalypse and The Last Stand, Dark Phoenix falls way, way short of the superheroic standards we’ve come to expect in the After Endgame era. If anything, it’s glaring proof that this version of the franchise is on its last legs, and that the X-Men are in need of yet another reboot.
Over to you now, Marvel Studios.
X-Men: Dark Phoenix
Director: Simon Kinberg
Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Evan Peters and Jessica Chastain.