Dark Phoenix (2019)
Genre: Action, Adventure, Science Fiction
Director: Simon Kinberg (Debut feature film)
Writers: Simon Kinberg/ Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum, John Byrne (Story) X-Men created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Starring: James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Nicolas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Evan Peters, Kodi-Smit Mcphee, Jessica Chastain
It may surprise you to know, but I’m not here to destroy the Dark Phoenix movie like so many others desire. This movie wound up caught in off-screen issues beyond its control. The terrible things that Bryan Singer has been doing for two decades were uncovered fully (actually only partially, the true extent of his crimes are unknown). It is sickening that he was protected for so long. No matter how good some of his movies are, it does not make his cruel (validated repeatedly) and sometimes illegal (allegedly some proven) activities acceptable. Singer was a quality director and definitely had a vision for Dark Phoenix, but having him anywhere near this film would be impossible and rightly so. Then we have the Disney-Fox Merger. Fox decided to be sold to whoever wanted it and Disney was the one to come in and collect. This meant that all and any X-men related films were at risk. With Dark Phoenix so deep into production, Disney let them finish, but it became clear anything related to this universe would end and all will be recast (except for Ryan Reynolds). The merger process has to be a huge weight on the cast and crew especially the younger lesser known people. Add in the final fact that they had Simon Kinberg, a rookie director at the helm of this movie. Making a good film is hard enough, but then you put a rookie in charge of a very popular franchise like the X-Men. Fact is that any movie with multiple last-minute script changes, multiple reshoots, a major director scandal, and a complete company merger is going to face an uphill battle. There is bound to be a lot of issues and not all of them aren’t going to be resolved. Now, all this being said, I don’t forgive anything in this film because it has production struggles. Many films have troublesome production but wind out good to great. After seeing this movie, I see moments of charm and greatness, but it is surrounded in the mess I thought would be there. I think it will be best for Marvel Studios to take on the X-Men in full and craft some new hopefully more refreshing stories.
The biggest issue I have with this film is how it assaults the X-Men timeline, This timeline is already notorious for many confusing elements, but this is next level disaster type stuff. I titled this review as Origins, but the reality is we see a lot of things developing within X-Men: Apacalypse (2016) including one big thing (Spoiler warning for X-Men: Apocalypse is that Jean Grey kills Apocalypse with her immense Dark Phoenix powers being unleashed.) So if this is the case, how can these powers still be dormant in the following film that takes place some years later? How does Jean Grey acquire the power she already has?
So they screw up the timeline for past, present, and future (pulverized it). I have to take off points from this movie because of it. However, if we forget about the dang timelines and focus only on the movie, there is some enjoyment to be had. Yes, it should have at least attempted to keep the timeline steady, but it doesn’t. We need to move on from this fact. Let’s instead look at the film as a single piece of work. Something that features the characters we know already, but is large if not completely disassociated with the other films. We wind up with a Jean Grey/Dark Phoenix story alone.
A spoiler in this next paragraph I’m afraid. Your warning!
I don’t like how they used Kurt Wagner aka Nightcrawler in this film. Nightcrawler is not his father (Azazel). Nightcrawler is good-humored and deeply Catholic. He has repeatedly distanced himself from the X-Men (while remaining an ally) due to the violent nature of their work. He isn’t against defending himself or fighting people when it comes a time, but he’s never been one to murder let alone murder many people as it is a cardinal sin. (Unlike his father who would kill all and any who dare get in his way.) So to turn Nightcrawler into a ravenous monster on a killing spree (although justified) is very much out of character and one of my least favorite aspects of this film.
While I dislike how they use Charles Xavier in this film, unfortunately, he does have a history of doing things of that nature in the comics, movies, and television shows. The more I see of McAvoy’s Xavier, the more I long for Patrick Stewart’s version. To me, that is the Xavier I am going to remember, and this version falls well short of the one we see in other movies and mediums. I believe the Xavier character has many difficult decisions to make, sometimes he gets things very wrong. Still, by the time we get to this Xavier, it would nice to see the development of the character beyond his brash decisions of the past. I don’t see the character developing and that is frustrating.
After a strong start (again forgetting the timeline aspect), the film really slows down. The pace crawls along for much too long. Sitting there waiting for something to happen. The film failed to draw me in and left me consistently bored in the middle. Every time you think the film is going to go in a new direction, it curves back into something familiar and it gets tiring.
I always liked the idea of Jean Grey/Dark Phoenix because I saw it as someone who is incredibly strong, but also fragile. That when the Dark Phoenix is unleashed, it makes Jean Grey battle all her life-long personal demons and traumas of her past. It was something deeply personal and a long-held battle within her. Suppressed so that she may be able to live a better life. This movie, however, makes it feel much less personal. It is less something fought over decades and something new.
Thankfully the whole Xavier vs Magneto story takes a backseat, but it wouldn’t be an X-Men movie without them conflicting at least a little. For whatever reason, it needs to happen yet again!
There are moments where the scenes and actors within feel uninspired. They are reading their lines, but the delivery is wooden and uninteresting. Sometimes it feels that all the outside noise involved with this film really affected the performances at times. Especially towards the end when people wondered if it would even be a finished project.
Jessica Chastain plays the main villain, Vuk. I think the idea of the character is great, but I feel her story is rushed and therefore arrives underdeveloped and unsatisfying. I think if we had more time with this character, maybe have had her part of an earlier film, it would have resulted in a more impactful moment. Some of the best stories and villains take time to see their true nature. They feel rather shoehorned into this film and I find them unnecessary.
While the CGI is often fine, there are a few moments it isn’t looking its freshest.
It feels like a lot of the writing is very average and sometimes weak.
Yes, I took issue with certain aspects of this film and I am not nearly as forgiving as some. Still, I’d be lying if I said I found no joy in this film because there were aspects I could appreciate.
Sophie Turner as Jean Grey is a more accurate portrayal of Jean Grey/Dark Phoenix. I think she represents both the frail and yet powerful nature of the character very well. There are moments in this film that I feel she captures the character’s internal conflict perfectly.
I like that this movie gives full attention to the Dark Phoenix saga whereas in X-Men: The Last Stand it was more of a side-story. The Dark Phoenix storyline deserved its own movie and while not perfect, I’m pleased it received that.
The quality of the acting in the film may be uneven, but there are very important scenes scattered throughout this movie that is done very well. I think a more experienced director may have been able to even out the movie, but still, there are some quality moments in the film.
I like Tye Sheridan’s version of Cyclops more in this film. He delivers a stronger performance compared to X-Men Apocalypse and almost like he was channeling James Marsden’s Cyclops which isn’t a bad decision to go with. Also, while I have issues with how they use Nightcrawler, I do like Kodi Smit McPhee overall portrayal as the character.
The third act does finish rather nicely. This is also where the CGI is fresher. We definitely get some fan service at this time which is fine given how this is the end of this version of The X-Men.
I love the last couple of scenes within this film. They portray a satisfying conclusion to the storyline and to the events that occurred in this movie. It feels like this film sets up for a very different future and in this, it is absolutely right. We don’t know what Marvel will do with these characters, but it is very likely to be far different than what we’ve seen before.
In the end, Dark Phoenix has a fair amount of problems to it. However, it is not quite the trainwreck it could have been. There are times where it is beautiful and exciting. There are some well-acted moments as well and I appreciate this version of the Dark Phoenix story more than its use in X-Men: The Last Stand. Add in the special effects being pretty good (with few exceptions) and the difficult world this film found itself in. Dark Phoenix as mediocre as it is, could have been so much worse.
Marvel Studios, I hope you can find ways to bring new life to these characters and these stories. There is plenty to work with and your track record suggests you will do well.
The X-Men ladder
X-Men: Days f Future’s Past (2014)
X-Men United (2003)
X-Men: First Class (2011)
X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
Dark Phoenix (2019)
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
X-men Origins: Wolverine (2009)