Dark Phoenix is the X-Men film fans have been waiting for—because, mercifully, it’s the final installment in the franchise’s current incarnation before it, along with parent company 21st Century Fox, is consumed by Disney, and all future mutant-related adventures become the purview of Marvel Studios.
The fourth entry in the current kiddie-X-Men cycle, which features younger versions of the heroes first introduced way back in 2000, Dark Phoenix is both a conclusion and a return to the past, given that its story is a rehash of a famous comics storyline that was previously adapted as 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand. Kudos to writer/director Simon Kinberg for improving upon that dreadful predecessor (which he also wrote!), yet that’s damning with faint praise, since in every regard this mutant saga is like the majority of those that have come before: perfunctory, preachy and painfully short on thrills.
Fundamental to Dark Phoenix’s problems is its roster. Simply put, there’s no point making an X-Men film without Wolverine, the adamantium-clawed “Ol’ Canucklehead” who remains, 45 years after his comics debut, far and away the team’s most charismatic and popular member—not to mention the one embodied on the big screen by the series’ most charismatic and popular star, Hugh Jackman. Nonetheless, Dark Phoenix does just that, opting to pivot its action around Jean Grey (Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner), a petulant twentysomething telepath with abandonment issues and a habit of angrily whining about her real and surrogate parents.
Try to contain your X-citement.
Despite bald, wheelchair-bound Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) functioning as the leader of the X-Men, it’s the berserker rage-driven Wolverine who’s their real center. Without him, what’s left is a collection of good and bad guys—played by Turner, McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Nicholas Hoult, Tye Sheridan and Evan Peters—that can’t possibly shoulder a franchise’s load. Which is why, even after Fox chose the prequel route for this X-Men run, it kept convincing Jackman to rejoin the fold, all while making superior spin-offs about his character, peaking with 2017’s elegiac Logan.
Wolverine is nowhere to be found in Dark Phoenix, and his presence is sorely missed. As with its direct antecedents X-Men: First Class, X-Men: Days of Future Past and X-Men: Apocalypse—the last two bolstered by the participation of, you guessed it, Jackman!—this latest extravaganza is a middling affair that exhibits a preternatural gift for making everyone bland, nonsensical or downright absurd. Why Kinberg and company continue to think it’s a good idea to stick blue-skinned chameleon Mystique (Lawrence), blue-skinned teleportation demon Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and furry blue Cookie-Monster-genius Beast (Hoult) in ill-fitting X costumes is beyond me. But it speaks to the general misguided nature of the entire enterprise, whose only great idea is to ignore the convoluted timeline created by its earlier chapters.
In Dark Phoenix, Grey absorbs some dangerous intergalactic cosmic force during a 1992 mission to save the space shuttle, and finds herself unable to control its power, which preys upon her rage and manifests itself as fiery veins on her face. It also clues her in to a secret: Xavier used his own telepathic abilities to make her ignorant of her childhood role in the accidental death of her mother. This makes Grey even angrier, leading to a few confrontations with the X-Men that result in moderate property damage and one key figure’s demise. No need to prepare yourself for an emotional reaction, however; even if it weren’t for the fact that it’s been orchestrated to let a certain star out of their contract, it’s hard to feel anything about this death, considering that these characters have been designed as either dull ideological mouthpieces or lame action figures.
A shapeshifting alien (Jessica Chastain) soon appears on the scene, making a few people’s chests cave in and then cooing sinister things to Grey in the hope of using her for devious ends. Chastain boasts white hair and smiles with cool malice but she’s simply a tacked-on plot device (she’s not even given a name!), there to goad Grey into fighting McAvoy’s ego-crazy Xavier and Fassbender’s reformed-killer Magneto. To say all three of these actors deserve better is a gross understatement, and the ensuing superhero chaos is dreadfully underwhelming, with a NYC street skirmish and a speeding train-set finale marked by choppy editing and ho-hum computer-generated effects that pale in comparison to those found in virtually every other recent summer tentpole.
As someone who grew up reading X-Men comics, it pains me to say that Dark Phoenix further cements the series as an also-ran to the Marvel Cinematic Universe—and, in fact, to their own Twentieth Century Fox mate Deadpool, whose profane assassin naturally mocked the mutant tykes and fawned over Jackman’s Wolverine. Kinberg, the longtime franchise mastermind (with accused serial predator Bryan Singer), grasps his material’s group dynamics and allegory-for-oppressed-minorities subtext. Too bad he has little skill at translating those elements into engaging spectacle. In the aftermath of Avengers: Endgame, Dark Phoenix feels humorless, small, and second-rate.
Still, that doesn’t have to be the X-Men’s ultimate fate. Though Disney’s acquisition of Fox is hardly something to blindly cheer, putting the mutants back in Marvel’s care should be a creative positive, and not only because they’ll now theoretically be incorporated into a preexisting world inhabited by Spider-Man, the Guardians of the Galaxy and Black Panther. Disney has an opportunity to reinvent the X-Men from scratch, and doing so should be relatively easy, provided they follow a few simple rules.
First, avoid the woe-is-me tone of Dark Phoenix and its ancestors, and intensify the bickering-family wittiness and melodrama, as the X-Men have always been best when balancing world-altering threats and at-home relationship dilemmas. Next, craft titanic set pieces that truly exploit the interplay of the heroes’ diverse skills. And lastly, skip familiar origin stories, make the characters adults, expand the squad (hi, Deadpool!), and place the focus back on the most notable X-Men such as Cyclops, Storm and Colossus, rather than third-stringers like Mystique, a villain awkwardly shoehorned into a prominent mommy-mentor role in Dark Phoenix because of Lawrence’s obligatory participation.
Oh, and whether it’s Tom Hardy, Luke Evans or someone completely out of left field—my vote goes to Garrett Hedlund—don’t forget to cast a ferociously feral Wolverine.