It’s hard to believe that Hollywood’s superhero movie obsession is at least two decades old at this point! With seemingly no end in sight, due largely to the continued success of Disney’s and Marvel Studios’ ultra-popular Marvel Cinematic Universe, the superhero movie business thus remains a massive enterprise. First kickstarting Marvel movies to mainstream glory almost twenty years ago as well, in the days long before the birth of the MCU, was 20th Century Fox’s original X-Men movie. X-Men ultimately launched its own shared superhero movie universe of sorts, one that went on to comprise many sequels, prequels and spin-offs, as well as two television shows that expanded it even further. Indeed, Fox’s live-action X-Men franchise started building a shared superhero world before the MCU made it cool to do so, one that’s somehow avoided being fully rebooted so far, even almost two decades into its lifespan.
With the Disney-Fox merger being finalized however, the X-Men movie rights have now returned to their home at Marvel Studios. Disney predictably wasted no time announcing plans to reboot and re-introduce live-action X-Men franchise personalities into their hugely acclaimed Marvel Cinematic Universe as well, where they will co-exist with Marvel Studios’ many established superhero movie characters and franchises. This naturally means that any plans Fox formerly had in place for their standalone live-action X-Men movie universe have now been cancelled, with Disney merely promising to release any of Fox’s upcoming X-Men movies, and their related spin-offs, that have already entered production, of which there are two; Mainline series sequel, Dark Phoenix, and the oft-delayed horror-themed spin-off, The New Mutants.
With production on The New Mutants remaining an unfocused disaster, one that currently has the spin-off poised for a quick and thankless dump into theatres in early 2020, Dark Phoenix is thus being positioned and marketed as the proper finale for Fox’s live-action X-Men franchise, a finale that was never truly meant to be a finale. It seems painfully clear that the Disney-Fox merger papers were being drawn up right as Dark Phoenix began production as well, with the X-Men movies’ main producer and creative shepherd, Simon Kinberg having to step up to perform full directing duties for the first time with Dark Phoenix. This seems to be the biggest indicator that Fox was resigned to being bought out by Disney by this point, and didn’t seem to truly care about the final product of Dark Phoenix. After all, why should they? The X-Men movie rights are now out of Fox executives’ control, and are completely in the hands of Disney and Marvel Studios from here on out.
As you can imagine then, with a forced X-Men movie finale that Fox brass had washed their hands of pretty early on, Dark Phoenix is not just underwhelming, but even feels somewhat unfinished. Dark Phoenix is competent at the very least, and certainly doesn’t dethrone 2009’s awful X-Men Origins: Wolverine as the overall low point of Fox’s X-Men movies, but it’s a considerable step down from even 2016’s highly uneven X-Men: Apocalypse, easily cementing itself as the worst offering in the X-Men movies’ prequel quadrilogy. Even taken as a franchise finale, Dark Phoenix isn’t much of an ending for Fox’s live-action X-Men universe to boot. The movie’s entire third act ended up being thrown out and reshot, and the rest of the storytelling doesn’t truly take the X-Men to any kind of satisfying climactic struggle either. Hell, Dark Phoenix doesn’t even bother to sport actual X-Men branding in the title, at least here in North America (though it is titled ‘X-Men: Dark Phoenix’ in certain international markets), and that more than anything should be an indicator that even Fox themselves have thoroughly checked out from their own catalogue of X-Men movies by this point.
The surviving X-Men prequel movie cast return again for Dark Phoenix, which once again jumps forward in time by about a decade from the previous prequel’s setting, now taking place in 1992. In the wake of defeating the titular villain of the previous X-Men: Apocalypse back during the 1980’s, the X-Men and Professor Xavier have since become hailed as savours and celebrities, which has in turn allowed mutants to be accepted and embraced by society. The demands of fame have led to the X-Men’s missions and scope becoming more global and dangerous however, and after a mission into space to rescue some imperiled astronauts, Jean Grey ends up being hit by a supposed solar flare, which she miraculously survives. In reality however, Jean has come into contact with a powerful cosmic force, one that keeps awakening more of her incredible mutant powers, as it gradually seems to tear apart her mind and inhibitions.
The idea of Xavier achieving his ultimate dream of a world where humans and mutants can happily co-exist, only to have the newly-unstable and all-powerful Jean begin to threaten that with a growing wave of violence and destruction, is actually quite interesting on paper, particularly for Fox’s final standalone X-Men movie. That’s why it’s especially frustrating that so many character conflicts end up underdeveloped in Dark Phoenix, with nothing getting properly fleshed out, or truly letting the audience into the humanity behind these characters. This is despite the valiant effort by several of the actors as well, with James McAvoy’s Professor Xavier, Nicholas Hoult’s Beast, Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey, Michael Fassbender’s Magneto and Tye Sheridan’s Cyclops all being notable standouts among the cast. Even then however, several other regular X-Men actors have clearly checked out by this point, particularly with their highly diminished roles. Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique and Evan Peters’ Quicksilver most notably have disappointingly reduced parts in Dark Phoenix, with Lawrence and Peters sleepwalking through their performances, and clearly just getting through their contract obligations so they can move on to better things.
Likewise, Jessica Chastain’s alien antagonist proves disappointingly dull to behold. Chastain has absolutely nothing to work with, playing a stock alien baddie that speaks in monotone, and never really feels effectively deep, sympathetic or tragic. Chastain’s just there because the movie can’t let Jean be the real antagonist by herself, which feels like a let-down. Yet again, Dark Phoenix feels like it’s making the same mistake that X-Men: The Last Stand did with its own ineffective take on Marvel Comics’ Dark Phoenix Saga, namely by not going all in on Jean being the central and only threat. Despite Dark Phoenix at least trying to be truly dramatic and dangerous, yet strangely pulling its punches from a narrative standpoint, the result is just a boring, thankless climax for Fox’s X-Men characters, one that doesn’t feel all that memorable or exciting to experience.
Despite the grand, sweeping and dramatic scale of the Dark Phoenix Saga in Marvel Comics lore, Dark Phoenix feels frustratingly boilerplate as yet another X-Men movie prequel. The movie does have a decent share of ideas in it, but they just don’t manage to gel into something cohesive, or even that interesting. Things at least start off well enough, with a mission into space resulting in Jean Grey miraculously surviving a force that should have killed her, before her emotions and mutant abilities start becoming more unpredictable and unstable afterward, leading to the X-Men having to face a staggering threat in one of their own members. That’s not a terrible idea for an X-Men movie, even considering that X-Men: The Last Stand already attempted it to some degree back in 2006. The X-Men having to ultimately battle and bring down one of their own members, a tragic victim that isn’t truly in control of what she’s doing, could have nonetheless made for a riveting and highly emotional final story for Fox’s X-Men movie franchise.
Ultimately though, Dark Phoenix quickly squanders its momentum by being unable to decide exactly what to do with the overpowered, unstable Jean Grey. At the very least, this new big screen adaptation of Jean’s Dark Phoenix persona is superior to the previous attempt from X-Men: The Last Stand, since Jean is now the sole focus, and not just one of many threats that are all collapsing into a heap of overwrought, messy plotting. That said however, Dark Phoenix seems to have the opposite problem that X-Men: The Last Stand did. Its battle against Jean just never truly manages to engage the audience very effectively, since it quickly devolves into a bunch of noise and scattered, disconnected character debates. Despite the X-Men facing unspeakable tragedy and constantly threatening to come apart after Jean’s transformation, Dark Phoenix doesn’t ultimately feel like it’s taking these heroes to new and exciting territory. Instead, everything in the movie’s plot feels half-baked and disposable, leaving Fox’s run of X-Men movie storylines to end on a disappointing whimper.
(NOTE: The spoiler section, when clicked, discusses post-credits scenes, the identity of Jessica Chastain’s mystery character, and any hints related to future developments with the big screen X-Men characters.)
Those hoping for an exciting reveal with the identity of Jessica Chastain’s mysterious alien antagonist in Dark Phoenix will also likely be disappointed. It turns out that Chastain is not playing Lilandra or Deathbird, or any character that has a connection to the Shi’ar Empire, the powerful alien race that Marvel fans often predicted would play a big part in this movie. Instead, the Shi’ar don’t appear, nor are they even mentioned, with the antagonistic alien race in Dark Phoenix instead being the D’Bari, another alien race from Marvel Comics lore, which had their home world destroyed by the Phoenix Force in both the source comics and this movie. Chastain portrays Vuk, a key D’Bari warrior (who is actually male in Marvel Comics lore), who is attempting to capture and command the Phoenix Force in order to rebuild the lost D’Bari planet, leading to Vuk being the metaphorical devil in Jean Grey’s ear, as Jean struggles to understand and control her newfound cosmic powers. In the case of Dark Phoenix, the D’Bari are also shapeshifters, an ability they don’t possess in Marvel Comics lore. Cyclops actor, Tye Sheridan shed some light on this in a podcast appearance though, indicating that the D’Bari in Dark Phoenix were originally written to be famed Marvel shapeshifters, the Skrulls, before the storyline of this past March’s Captain Marvel ended up incorporating the Skrulls into the MCU, resulting in Fox having to hastily rewrite Dark Phoenix’s Skrulls into D’Bari.
Finally, Dark Phoenix also marks the first mainline X-Men movie without any kind of appearance by Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. There is no connection made to the Deadpool movies either. For what it’s worth however, Dark Phoenix does definitively confirm that the original run of X-Men and Wolverine movies outside of this prequel series (except for Logan, presumably), have now been entirely erased from canon in the wake of X-Men: Days of Future Past, not just X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Wolverine, as originally speculated. This is because Mystique is quickly killed off during the first act of Dark Phoenix, confirming that X-Men: Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix unfold within an entirely different timeline from the original run of Fox’s X-Men movies, wherein the Mutant Brotherhood never properly forms, and thus, Mystique never joins them, leading to her demise as a member of the X-Men in the 90’s instead.
To be fair to lead X-Men movie producer, Simon Kinberg, he manages to string together a competent production in Dark Phoenix, despite likely not expecting to make his directorial debut with it. Kinberg both writes and directs Dark Phoenix himself, and the extensive amount of creative control he’s given is also evident, since Kinberg essentially runs wild with his direction much of the time. Sophie Turner and Jessica Chastain both commented after Dark Phoenix’s release that Kinberg re-wrote much of his script on the fly, and would veto the actors’ ideas on impulse during these impromptu script rewrites, and honestly, it really shows. Dark Phoenix seems like it’s constantly struggling to nail a tone, veering between alien invasion movie, monster movie, family drama, fame drama, superhero romp, revenge movie, and romance movie, practically at random. Sure, many good blockbusters can balance more than one tone, but this takes skill on the part of the director to effectively do, and Kinberg’s lack of directing experience makes Dark Phoenix too often feel like a mess of unfocused themes and ideas.
Granted, Dark Phoenix at least presents itself well enough. The action scenes are done fairly well, particularly the revamped climactic action scene in the third act, which is actually one of the best action sequences ever delivered by Fox’s X-Men franchise! The feel and style of Fox’s X-Men movies is certainly captured fine here, since Kinberg was overseeing those in a producing role for many years anyway, so he at least knows how to capture the look of these X-Men prequel movies. After spending so much time stumbling around and not truly having anything to say however, Dark Phoenix never ultimately feels like it truly needs to exist, especially when Fox’s X-Men movies already made something of an attempt to adapt Marvel Comics’ Dark Phoenix Saga, albeit a clumsier and more overcrowded one, in 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand. Even when subtracting all of the other subplots that were fighting for attention in X-Men: The Last Stand however, Dark Phoenix is just too big in scope for Kinberg to effectively direct with any degree of consistency, even when working from his own script. It just too often feels like Kinberg is in over his head as a full-blown director at this point, even if established X-Men movie fans can at least have some fun with some of those decent action scenes.
A surprising high point in Dark Phoenix is its legitimately great musical score, which is put together by Hans Zimmer. Zimmer, surprisingly, actually does manage to deliver a solid blend of musical genres in the score for Dark Phoenix, which effectively ranges between otherworldly beauty and overwhelming power. It’s a score that’s beautifully reflective of the Phoenix Force itself, capturing all sides of the driving character conflict for Jean Grey, while working overtime to create the kind of engagement that the storytelling and direction too often fails to do. It may be something of a consolation prize for such a weak finish to Fox’s X-Men movies, but at least X-Men fans are getting a pretty great movie soundtrack out of the deal, one that’s well worth owning and enjoying at their leisure.
The rest of the sound mixing and audio engineering in Dark Phoenix is also pretty great, if also extremely pronounced. In IMAX theatres especially, there are some sequences in Dark Phoenix that are overwhelmingly loud, which can sometimes fit, such as during the opening space shuttle rescue that was all over the movie’s trailers. The heightened action effects make a valiant effort to unleash the mutants’ powers and their sheer ferocity as much as they can, though perhaps this is also sometimes a deliberate effort to keep the audience awake. At least the action scenes in Dark Phoenix bother to stay alert and show up to work, recognizing the opportunity to at least try to go out with a bang before Fox completely loses control of the X-Men license, but they, along with the rest of the audio engineering, can only do so much to elevate what was clearly a doomed production very early on.
Despite clearly having its original vision of a cosmic-scale X-Men movie compromised to some degree (despite still having a $200 million budget to play with), Dark Phoenix at least looks pretty good, as any mainline X-Men movie from Fox always has. The action scenes feel appropriately flashy and spectacular, and the over-the-top mutant effects still manage to work pretty well when the handful of thrills kick up. Even some of the cosmic imagery that does manage to make it into the production, usually courtesy of Jessica Chastain’s alien antagonist, manages to look pretty solid, flirting with the idea of a movie that really shouldn’t be earthbound, and yet tragically ends up being just that. Both the makeup and visual effects in Dark Phoenix are nonetheless standout though, hinting at a legitimately great X-Men movie that’s screaming to get out from this pile of half-baked story ideas and character arcs.
My screening for Dark Phoenix wasn’t available in 3D, so I can’t comment on the 3D presentation (that said, I’d be surprised if the 3D was worth it, since the movie doesn’t appear to be shot to accommodate it), though I was at least able to see the movie in an IMAX theatre, where the scale of the visuals is amped up to some degree. Mostly though, the IMAX cut of Dark Phoenix works in service to the superb audio design over the visuals, even if said audio can feel occasionally deafening in premium formats like IMAX. Predictably, it’s the action scenes that benefit most from an IMAX upgrade, where the action and effects can flex their technical muscle to a more noticeable degree, but the IMAX upgrade still doesn’t quite manage to feel essential in this case. You’d be fine sticking with a regular digital theatre screening here, assuming you even want to bother seeing Dark Phoenix in theatres as all, due to it ultimately contributing frustratingly little to the final curtain call for Fox’s X-Men movies.
Dark Phoenix manages to eke out at least some decent mutant-powered spectacle, before quickly and thanklessly shoveling dirt onto the coffin of Fox’s X-Men franchise. Overall though, the movie quickly runs out of momentum, and frustratingly ends up being a boring, unsatisfying final chapter for Fox’s cinematic X-Men universe, The New Mutants notwithstanding. If you’ve followed Fox’s X-Men movies since their big theatrical debut in 2000, then you might as well see Dark Phoenix, if for no other reason than completing the saga. If you’re not already extensively invested in Fox’s X-Men movie franchise however, there’s just no reason to bother with Dark Phoenix. In fact, Dark Phoenix practically feels like amateur hour when it’s sharing a Summer blockbuster season with the thoroughly excellent Avengers: Endgame from Marvel Studios, a movie that had to serve as a climax and resolution for a twenty-two movie story arc, and nailed it.
Considering that Fox’s X-Men franchise is one of the movie properties that first launched Hollywood’s massive superhero movie boom two decades ago, these movies really deserved a better finale than what they get with Dark Phoenix, a movie that can’t even muster the enthusiasm to sport actual X-Men branding in domestic markets. If Dark Phoenix succeeds at anything though, it’s making the farewell to Fox’s X-Men movies a lot easier, since they apparently spent the last of their storytelling momentum with 2014’s excellent X-Men: Days of Future Past. Hopefully, Marvel Studios can eventually reboot and revitalize the X-Men movie franchise, with a worthy new home in the MCU. Maybe they’re the ones who can eventually get Jean Grey’s infamous dark turn right.