In the wake of Avengers: Endgame comes the next big superhero movie from Marvel: X-Men’s Dark Phoenix. The last of the X-Men films for the time being (since Disney’s acquisition of both Fox and Marvel), the film opens in cinemas worldwide this week, on 7 June.
Check out the movie’s trailer here, if you haven’t already:
What’s Dark Phoenix About?
Dark Phoenix serves to retell a story once told in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), one of the less well-received films in the line of X-Men movies. Both films follow the character arc of Jean Grey, who eventually becomes known as the Phoenix – better known as the “Phoenix Saga”.
Jean Grey’s origin story is pretty much the same in both movies. She gets hit by a cosmic flare in space, which enhances her psychokinetic powers greatly. This overwhelming new power is one that Jean can’t control, causing her to inadvertently hurt the people around her. What differs is how she ultimately chooses to use her powers, as the events of the film unfold.
Dark Phoenix is able to do this re-telling due to the events of Days of Future Past (2014), which involved time travelling and caused the events of The Last Stand to be erased. Of course, that means undoing the death of Jean Grey (this time played by the lovely Sophie Turner, of Game of Thrones fame), whom we see re-introduced in Apocalypse.
On that note, it would probably be good to (re-)watch the most recent trilogy of X-Men films (First Class, Days of Future Past, and Apocalypse) to get you up to speed. No loss if you miss out on the films, though, as long as you’re familiar with who’s who.
It’s definitely a step-up from The Last Stand, that’s for sure. Without the presence of a sub-plot to take the film’s focus away from its main character, it’s a lot less messy than its predecessor.
At the same time, the film doesn’t quite hit the mark. It takes its time to really pick up steam, only after the first hour or so. That, and despite the lack of a convoluted sub-plot, Dark Phoenix still somehow manages to place its film’s focus away from Jean – this time, on other members of the X-Men.
Throughout the film, we’re shown multiple conflicts between supporting characters in the film: first between Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), then between Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Charles Xavier, and of course, the ever-present conflict between the ideologies of Charles Xavier and Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Yes, Xavier has disagreements with just about everyone in this movie. All this takes place while alien race D’Bari are brought into the picture, another party who wants to harness Jean’s newfound power for themselves.
Though Jean’s actions are a direct or indirect contribution in causing these conflicts, they fail to place emphasis on her character. When Jean does face conflicts with others, they’re short-lived or just lacking, because they pretty much consist of her lashing out (both verbally and with her powers) as a result of her emotional instability. If anything, for most of the film, it makes her seem like she’s being thrown around. Imagine Captain America: Civil War with Bucky’s character as the main focus of the film, instead of the rising tensions between Tony Stark and Captain America. That’s pretty much how Dark Phoenix plays out, just with more screen-time and action for Jean Grey.
That’s not to say that the film failed to develop Jean’s character entirely, though. The film’s prologue denounces her powers as automatically being “evil” right off the bat, which is a nice take. Plus, Jean’s transformation from a starry-eyed (figuratively) hero-in-training to a starry-eyed (literally) and confident Phoenix is satisfying to watch. It’s just a shame that at times, her development is placed on a back burner in favour of exploring the depth of other characters – namely, Charles Xavier.
On this end, kudos to the director for attempting to explore the darker side of Charles Xavier’s ideologies – for once, he’s not considered to be in the right! It was nice to see his moralities and motivations being questioned. Once again, though, it’s a shame that these conflicts fail to make any real impact. The conflict between Mystique and Xavier lacks emotional weight, unlike in First Class. The conflict between Magneto and Xavier is the same as we’ve seen played out in every X-Men film in the recent trilogy, and appears once again in Dark Phoenix using the same chess metaphors – though they’re on the same page, they have opposing views; one a foil to the other.
The only conflict that’s remotely impactful is the one that takes place between Beast and Xavier. Finally, Beast gets to step up a little from playing second fiddle, showing some form of character depth after having been Xavier’s assistant and aide for so long. Ideally, I would’ve preferred if a character didn’t have to die for such developments to occur, but beggars can’t be choosers.
Speaking of lacking in impact, the other mutants who take part in this round of conflict are forgettable as well. Quicksilver (Aaron Peters), who shone in past films in the trilogy, is knocked out of commission after a short (and way inferior) slowed-down speed scene early in the film. Cyclops, Jean’s love interest, is under-utilised and is only a key player when Jean is concerned. Storm and Nightcrawler, Xavier’s supporting players, are given time to shine and show off their powers, but even then they don’t really make a mark outside of their 5 minutes of fame. Magneto’s henchmen are completely forgettable, any form of proper introduction glazed over in favour of action scenes. Much like a highlight reel, we get to see these characters in action, but ultimately fail to get emotionally invested in them.
Alien force D’Bari don’t make much of an impact, either, entering the fray without real explanation and seeming more like a cult or a herd of zombies instead of actual threats to the planet. The purpose and appearance of these D’Bari troops is saved by their power-hungry leader (played by Jessica Chastain), whose aura and poise bring life and menace to the under-explained role that she’s granted.
To the film’s credit, though, its action scenes are its saving grace. From a fast-paced brawl on the streets of New York (with major collateral damage that is somehow, but unsurprisingly, never addressed) to a stunning final fight set on a speeding train, the film’s major fights are a visual treat. Plus, it’s always satisfying to see a film’s ensemble cast in action, no matter how minor or forgettable (personality-wise) they might have been as characters.
Despite getting hit with negative reviews from film critics, I personally found that the film was alright, saved by its stunning action sequences and stellar cast. While the plot was by no means memorable, it was a movie that served its purpose: retelling Jean’s character arc, and closing the book on the stories of certain fan-favourite X-Men characters.
- Enjoyable and engaging action scenes
- Well-cast actors
- Fitting conclusion for the X-Men series
- First hour or so of the film is slow (especially if you’ve seen The Last Stand)
- Forgettable supporting characters
- Inter-character conflict lacks emotional depth
- Main character (Jean) lacks impact as a main character
On a whole, as underwhelming as the film might have been, it’s a fitting finale. The very first X-Men movie inspired the wave and popularity of superhero movies worldwide, and has always been different from others on the market. With conflicts revolving around grey moralities and occasional political commentary, the plots of X-Men movies might have hit low notes at certain points, but on a whole, remains as a fresh concept.
Disregard what the critics say – go give Dark Phoenix a watch if you’re invested in the X-Men series, and if you want closure on the members of the X-Men (apart from Logan, of course). Who knows? You might just enjoy it.