I am sad to say that the review that follows is extremely unpleasant. It tells an unhappy tale about a very unlucky group of actors and how Fox Studios handed control of the final X-Men picture to an incompetent screenwriter with delusions of being able to direct. Along the way, he adapted a beloved classic comic book mini-series into a halfheartedly executed spectacle and turned the whole of the X-Men franchise into a more contradictory mess than it already was.
It is my sad duty to write this unpleasant review, but there is nothing stopping you from clicking a link and reading something else. Particularly if you wish to remain unspoiled. You could also go and see Avengers: Endgame again. Just putting that out there.
With all due respect (and all apologies to Lemony Snicket),
Describing the production of Dark Phoenix as troubled would be like describing the Atlantic Ocean as wet – wholly accurate and yet a total understatement. Devout X-Fans knew they were in for trouble when it was announced that the screenplay was being handled by Simon Kinberg – the same screenwriter responsible for the 2015 Fantastic Four reboot and X-3: The Last Stand. Worse yet, the film would mark Kinberg’s directorial debut.
Then the movie’s release was delayed for almost a year due to a series of reshoots that changed the setting of the film’s finale from a climactic battle in outer space to a fight inside a moving train. This was reportedly done because Kinberg thought the movie should be more grounded in reality and less stylish after the critical success of Logan. This explains much regarding the thought process behind Dark Phoenix.
Set in 1992, Dark Phoenix shows us the X-Men as we’ve never seen them before – respected, publicly recognized superheroes, with a direct line to the President of the United States in Professor Xavier’s office. It is through this that the X-Men are summoned to rescue a group of astronauts, whose ship lost power in high Earth orbit. No longer protecting a world that hates and fears them, they return to Earth and a hero’s welcome. Despite this, everyone is worried about Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) who doesn’t seem to be suffering from any ill effects despite being exposed to the vacuum of space and a weird energy cloud.
Enter Vuk of The D’Bari (Jessica Chastain)- leader of a species of alien tree people whose planet was destroyed by the same energy cloud. It is she who approaches Jean, as her powers continue to go wildly out of control along with her emotions, after Jean discovers a dark secret that Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) had hidden from her. It is Vuk who tells Jean of the true power that destroyed the Space Shuttle and why it has now chosen to take refuge in Jean’s body.
The best thing that can be said for Kinberg’s script is that it is truer to the original Dark Phoenix Saga than his script for The Last Stand was, in so far as the Phoenix Force is a tangible thing rather than Jean Grey’s repressed dark side. The roles of both the Shi’ar and the Hellfire Club in the original comic are rolled into the D’Bari, who are tasked with explaining the Phoenix Force and encouraging Jean to give into her dark side. Unfortunately, it is never clear why they are doing this and the script does nothing to correct the problem from The Last Stand where Jean is treated like a supporting character in her own story. More attention is paid to everyone’s reactions to Jean’s actions rather than Jean’s horror at being taken over by an alien intelligence.
Reportedly Kinberg rewrote whole scenes while filming and this is readily apparent given the final film. The dialogue and stage directions seem to have been handed out randomly without any consideration towards what the characters would do based on past actions. For instance, shortly after returning to Earth, Mystique calls Xavier out on the fact that he’s essentially indoctrinating children to become soldiers in his private army. Mystique, who you might recall was devoting her life to wandering the world and training other mutants to protect themselves back in X-Men: Apocalypse, is the last person who should be raising this issue, much less objecting to it.
Another issue is that, as in X-Men: Apocalypse, spectacle takes priority over story. There’s no real reason for Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to be brought into the story other than to to set up an honestly impressive sequence where he has to pit his will against the Phoenix, despite having no real reason to oppose her at that time. The second act of the film is kicked-off by a similarly nonsensical scene, where a group of police officers draw their guns on the X-Men, despite their being internationally recognized superheroes, as they are trying to calm an enraged Jean Grey.
Unsurprisingly, the direction is as lackluster as the writing. The cast features some incredibly talented performers but they have almost nothing to work with and don’t seem to have been given much instruction. Much has been said in the advance reviews about how Jennifer Lawrence phoned in her performance as Mystique, but she is not unique in this. The majority of the cast spend most of their time on-screen standing in the background staring into space, expressing no emotion beyond dull surprise. Even Tye Sheridan’s Cylcops seems restrained when shouting “Jean!”
There is a cruel irony in that many of the last-minute changes to Dark Phoenix were made because Kinberg feared his original ending was derivative of Civil War. Yet many of the other changes that he made, from the aforementioned attempts to emulate the stark realism of Logan to the CGI for Jean’s fight against the D’Bari (where the D’Bari soldiers crumble to dust like in Avengers: Infinity War) only serve to remind the viewer of other, better movies. Still, it seems certain that the X-Men, like the phoenix of legend, will rise from the ashes of Dark Phoenix and be reborn at Marvel Studios someday. Hopefully someday soon and hopefully without Simon Kinberg’s involvement.