The X-Men series has felt like a bit of a misfire from the very start. Even by the convoluted standards of comic book fare, the ensemble pieces never quite managed to thread the needle between world-building and giving each member of the team time to shine. In what’s alleged to be the last of the First Class arm of the franchise, Dark Phoenix is more of a fizzle than a fiery conclusion.
For those who’ve barely paid attention, this is basically the fourth film in a sub-series that branched off from the original trilogy in an ambitious attempt at the type of multigenerational time travel storytelling that Star Trek recently undertook with slightly better results. The effect leaves audience never quite sure who’s still alive or dead between any character’s younger and older versions (e.g. James McAvoy vs. Patrick Stewart), which is distracting when events occur and one can’t quite remember which continuity this follows.
We’ve already mined the Dark Phoenix storyline before in the 2006 X-Men: The Last Stand, with another Jean Grey (then Famke Janssen). In this 2019 version, which follows directly after X-Men: Apocalypse, we see the events transpire through the lives of the new class of characters. Jean is played by Sophie Turner from Game of Thrones this time. Other returning cast members, including Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/Mystique, Michael Fassbender as Eric/Magneto, and Nicholas Hoult as Hank/Beast, inhabit their roles with increasing detachment.
Turner doesn’t waste her turn at the center of the storyline. She does well to present her character’s inner turmoil when wrestling with demons. Jessica Chastain shows up as a body-snatching alien. While her Edgar Winter-like guise and deadpan expression may serve the character on a comic book page, they come across as more boring than sinister on screen.
Once again, every member of the X-Men team has to bring their specific abilities to play, much like a generic video game, each conveniently having the right powers at the right time to solve whatever issues are at hand. By shifting the focus, otherwise grand characters like Magneto are left to sidekick status. Dark Phoenix may not be his film to shine, but given how… well, magnetic… Michael Fassbender can be, it feels like there should be more interesting things for him to do in a better organized storyline.
Jennifer Lawrence is given many of the film’s most memorable zingers. (She questions why, if it’s always the boys being rescued by the girls, the team isn’t renamed “X-Women,” which may generate hoots from general audiences.) Yet despite shape-shifting, she never quite manages to raise the character to its implied importance.
The paternalistic dynamic between Xavier and Jean has already played out several times in Xavier’s relationship with Mystique, so that feels like even more a retread. Save for the flashback and some other family dramas, little here feels like we haven’t seen it before now many times. The questions about responsibility, the dynamic between humans and mutants, and so on simply seem tired in this context.
Stuff blows up, people get whisked from room to room, and catastrophe is narrowly averted for the majority of the team. Already knowing who these people are when they get older adds to the sense of anticlimax. The same can be said for the film as a whole; it’s a culmination more than a climax, a chapter pigeonholed into a greater storyline rather than a necessary standalone work or even as a closer on this section of the narrative. In other words, Dark Phoenix simply burns away with little left but ash. It’s a forgettable chapter in a forgettable series of films that, despite some impressive casting and initial promise, never quite got its wings.