Nearly twenty years after X-Men was released, it now appears the franchise is coming to an end with its twelfth installment, Dark Phoenix. This film, being the directorial debut of Simon Kinberg, the previous screenwriter for earlier X-Men movies including X-Men: The Last Stand, certainly falters in many places, but never too often that it is entirely unenjoyable. Given that this is the franchise’s second attempt at the storyline of the Dark Phoenix, as well as the second attempt for the screenwriter, one might hold much higher expectations for this film. However, the story fails to make use of its iconic source material and instead pushes a bland and predictable plot forward, resulting in flat arcs and underwhelming movie.
After a brief flashback of a young Jean Grey, the film picks up a few years after X-Men: Apocalypse. It’s 1992 and the world seems to now widely accept mutants. With no sign of “cures” or oppression occurring, apart from the fact that Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and some other fellow mutants live on a secluded island given to them by the government, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is set on keeping the peace. This “acceptance” is further solidified when the X-Men are sent on a risky and last minute mission by Charles to save astronauts who are in danger in space. When Jean, played by Sophie Turner, is forced into a dangerous situation to save her friends, a powerful force attacks her and she almost appears to be dead. However, she returns to the ship and all seems well until she begins to lose control…
One of the main problems with the story is that the source of Jean’s sudden loss of control and new power is not clearly explained. Did the power come from the space storm or from the power that is within her? Fans of the comic and ones who have seen X-Men: The Last Stand may be confused about Jean’s abilities and where they came from. To add to this confusion, after Jean begins to lose control and begins to be seen as the villain, which the promotion of the film has hinted at, a second villain is introduced in the form of Vuk, played by Jessica Chastain. Despite having an incredibly talented actress play the role, the villain is entirely forgettable and has almost no impact on the plot.
The main reason for this confusion and the messy plot is due to the fast-paced storytelling. Many of the iconic characters such as Storm and Scott Summers, even Magneto, get very little to do in this film because everything feels so rushed. Jean’s fall into uncontrolled madness seems to happen overnight and does not feel organic nor realistic. Emotional beats are too quickly edited and forgotten to have any impact. Many of the characters are reduced to one-dimensional side characters. At times, even Jean seems to be just another crazy person with power. There is little depth given to these beloved characters, especially to the new ones who were introduced only one film ago.
Sophie Turner and Jessica Chastain in ‘Dark Phoenix’ © 20th Century Fox
Something that needs to be mentioned is the recent pandering that superhero movies have been doing this past year. There is a moment in this film that feels very much like a moment in Avengers: Endgame that caused controversy amongst female fans. Mystique makes a comment about how Charles should change the name of “X-Men” to “X-Women.” Out of context, this does sound extremely cringy. In the scene of the film, it did not bother me as much as I thought it would, yet it still felt out of place. But later on, there are other “empowering” female moments that just do not feel earned. It especially feels false when the line is almost the exact same from Captain Marvel, but at least in that film it had more impact behind it instead of an empty line said with no context to support it.
Growing up as a huge fan of the X-Men and the movies, there were still many moments that I enjoyed in the movie. Sophie Turner as Jean Grey was perfect casting, and Jean does get some interesting and emotional arcs to deal with, however buried they may be underneath the plot. Storm has some pretty bad-ass moments as well as Beast and Nightcrawler. Being set in the 90s gives almost a nostalgic feel for the first X-Men. It is too bad that so many of the other characters are wasted, especially Mystique.
If this is meant to be the last film in the franchise, then I am utterly depressed. Despite the odd choices in plot and character building (or lack thereof), the film still made me excited about the X-Men, and made me want to continue with the characters. The cast is wonderful with what little they are given and deserves more. The very end of the film almost demands a sequel. Sure, some parts are wrapped up nicely as if the filmmakers knew about the Disney-Fox deal, but there are so many things left unanswered. I do not want to say goodbye to my childhood franchise yet, but I guess this moderate movie will have to suffice.