Dark Phoenix is the final mainline X-Men film in the groundbreaking franchise which helped to kick-start the superhero movie craze way back in 2000. It was never intended to be the last instalment however, but Disney’s purchase of 21st Century Fox effectively canned future entries as the mouse house moves to reboot the property by integrating the X-Men pantheon into the massively successful Marvel Cinematic Universe.
It’s unfair then to view Dark Phoenix with the expectation that it’s the grand culmination of an almost 20-year-strong storyline.
For my money, 2014’s superlative, time-warping X-Men: Days of Future Past is the true climax of the series. Indeed, Dark Phoenix is actually an ‘inbetweenquel’, filling in the gaps of what happened in the lead up to the alternate future shown in Days of Future Past’s ending.
A compromised product
As a standalone movie, Dark Phoenix is… fine. Good even. Still, it struggles to escape that sense of a season finale that became a series finale partway through production. There’s a shroud of disappointment that inevitably hangs over the picture, and with stories emerging of how the final act was re-shot to avoid similarities to Disney’s Captain Marvel, it can be a challenge to see the forest for the trees.
It’s easy then to write Dark Phoenix off as the last breath of a dying franchise, but if you can look past all the noise and give it a chance you’ll find a perfectly competent superhero movie and an amiable swan song for the series (yes, I’m aware that spin-off New Mutants is still scheduled to come out next year).
The X-Men go to space
In a refreshing change of pace, the movie begins with the X-Men finally being looked up to and viewed as heroes by the public. Called upon by the US president, Xavier (James McAvoy) marshals his mutants to help some astronauts in distress. It’s an exciting opening with echoes of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar – and not just because Hans Zimmer provides the stunning musical score. Shots of a spinning space shuttle immediately brought to mind a similar scene from Nolan’s masterpiece.
It’s no mistake. Writer Simon Kinberg, also credited as a writer on three prior films in the franchise and a producer on many more, steps into the director’s chair for the first time with Dark Phoenix and has gone on record saying he drew inspiration from Nolan’s work such as The Dark Knight Trilogy.
The tone is therefore a little darker, more muted and down to earth, and the characters are much less cartoony with special effects in service to plot rather than the other way around. There’s a refreshing use of practical effects and scenes of characters, you know, actually talking to each other.
Admittedly, the writing and direction aren’t at Nolan’s level. Let’s be serious though – few writers and directors are.
As a big plus, Dark Phoenix at least feels like it came from a director with a vision. I really appreciate that the film has its own identity among the now 12 X-Men movies, as too often these franchise flicks look like they come off a copy and paste production line. Dark Phoenix doesn’t have that problem, and continues Fox’s trend of being prepared to take risks with the comic book property.
Full circle or déjà vu?
The central conflict this time has to do with a cosmic force which houses itself in heroine Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), amplifying her telekinetic powers and causing a dark personality to emerge which threatens to tear the X-Men apart. At the same time, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) condemns Xavier for stroking his own ego and continuing to put the team at risk.
Jean’s story is effectively a re-tread of her story in 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand. This makes sense, as Dark Phoenix is the alternate timeline version of the same story but with events panning out in a ‘similar but different’ manner. Some may see this as a nice full circle moment for the series, while others may bemoan the déjà vu. Full disclosure: I fell into the former category.
Turner is captivating in the title role, and she is supported by a slew of outstanding thespians: McAvoy, Lawrence, Fassbender, Hoult and more. The acting is uniformly excellent, although Jessica Chastain’s extraterrestrial villainess is creepy but criminally underwritten.
The action, when it comes, is a blast. Dark Phoenix boasts some of the best action sequences of the series – they are both visceral and personal, with smart use of mutant powers in ways which don’t feel gratuitous or just for show. The climactic action setpiece is, in particular, a standout.
Their last stand
There’s a lot of ways you could look at Dark Phoenix, but viewed on its own there’s a lot to like. It’s an inbetweenquel that helps fill in the hole left open by Days of Future Past, with great performances and action as well as a unique look and feel when compared to its peers. While the dialogue and direction could be a bit sharper in spots, and one or two more wow moments wouldn’t have gone astray, if you’ve been a fan of Fox’s incarnation of these characters then Dark Phoenix is their last stand (for real this time) – and a fine one at that, if not the one that was originally intended.