Dark Phoenix is not good on almost every level. Characters are under-developed, the plot is haphazard, and the action set pieces are mostly unexciting. If I hadn’t watched the movie at an AMC theater with Dolby technology – the kind that shakes your seat in time with the action on-screen – I’d probably be less engaged than I was. In short, flaws in almost every aspect of the movie make it uninteresting.
In 1975, eight-year-old Jean Grey can’t control her bourgeoning mutant powers and accidentally kills her mother. She’s taken in by Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and eventually becomes part of the X-Men. Fast-forward to 1992, and mutants have been accepted in human society due in large part to the good work performed by the X-Men. They even have a direct line to the President of the United States.
When a space mission goes awry, the X-Men are sent up to rescue the distressed astronauts whose space shuttle is in the path of a “solar flare”. During the mission, Jean absorbs the energy of the solar flare which unlocks levels of her power that she can’t control, making her a danger to everyone she cares for. To make matters worse, an alien race known as the D’Bari and led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain) arrive on Earth to take Jean’s new power and use it to convert the planet into their new home world.
I never read the Dark Phoenix saga when I was a kid, so I can’t say how close the film was to the source material. Given how boring and small the film felt, I have to assume that the movie is nowhere near the comic proportions of the original story. My understand, however, is that the Dark Phoenix storyline is a big deal, and this movie definitely doesn’t feel big.
After Jean absorbs the energy that raises her powers to lethal levels, one would expect to see scenes of catastrophe rivaling that of Man of Steel. Instead, the Dark Phoenix only manages to smash a few police cars, down a helicopter, and wreck a train. Even her battles against former allies feel very contained in a small area and don’t last very long. Avengers: Endgame this is not.
This is to say that the stakes in the film don’t feel very high even though the audience knows they are intellectually because of what the villains say about Jean’s power. But without seeing the destructive force behind the power, all of the dramatic motivation behind Jean’s allies turning on her is lost. So, we’re just watching people do things because the script calls for it.
As such, Dark Phoenix has a perfunctory feel about it. It just goes through the motions of sending characters to locations and making them speak and do things. The movie seems to forget that it’s an action popcorn flick. This is made clear in the scene when the X-Men confront Jean after she’s gone rogue. Knowing that a physical altercation may ensue, the entire team rolls out for the confrontation, but rather than take positions in dramatic fashion using their unique abilities to make cinematic entrances, the X-Men simply debark their plane and shuffle into the scene single file. The movie is full of bland framing like this.
The blandness is at the heart of the matter that makes Dark Phoenix bad entertainment. When done correctly, even mundane situations can have dramatic tension – even when the audience already knows the outcome. The final hand in Casino Royale comes to mind:
All of that is missing here. Granted, what makes Casino Royale work is the development of characters and motivations, which is also missing in Dark Phoenix. For example, Beast (Nicholas Hoult) seems to have a romance with Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) that isn’t disclosed until a pivotal moment. Vuk and the D’Bari are shoehorned into the film as one-dimensional bad guys, and it’s unclear what their powers and weaknesses are. They seem to be impervious to bullets, but they die just fine to high-caliber rounds. They also seem to have similar powers to mutants, but which D’Bari has which powers isn’t explained. So, when things happen during the climax, it’s hard to know what effect certain actions will have. Without that level of predictability, you’re just watching things happen with no expectations of outcomes, which is never satisfying.
Fortunately, there is one bright spot in the entire film, and that’s the climactic fight near the end. It’s a slug fest in close quarters against waves of attackers that is reminiscent of the last stand against the Sentinels in X-Men: Days of Future Past. It was the only few minutes that I actually cared about the heroes and felt the threat of the villains. It’s a shame that the rest of the film didn’t meet this standard.
As much of a slog as Dark Phoenix was to sit through, I think a longer runtime or breaking it up into two parts could have saved it. There’s too much going on here to be satisfying in just two hours. Conversely, the filmmakers could have tightened up the scenes and been more economical with their shots. As it is, the film feels like a lot of things happen just to give characters things to do and say without moving the story along or developing their relationships.
Finally, the casting feels off in the majority of the roles. While James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender hold their own, everyone else feels like they’re out of a YA film. They just don’t have the same kind of comic book feel to them the way that Disney’s comic book portrayals do. Now that Disney owns Fox, perhaps they’ll be able to infuse the X-Men franchise with the magic it deserves.