REVIEW: “X-Men: Dark Phoenix”

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The X-Men movie franchise under the guidance of 20th Century Fox has been one wild roller-coaster ride. A pretty profitable one but in terms of quality the movies have been all over the map. Twelve films over the span of 18 years (and with one more set for 2020). Their first film, 2000’s “X-Men”, was a groundbreaking movie that could be credited with jump-starting the now lucrative superhero genre. Since then there have been several satisfying hits and just as many terrible misses.

Fox has handed over the reins to Disney but not before dropping one more X-Men focused movie. “Dark Phoenix” isn’t the first time the franchise has told a version of Chris Claremont’s hugely popular comic series “The Dark Phoenix Saga”. It was first put to film in 2006’s horribly frustrating “X-Men: The Last Stand”. This time they do justice to the story, not without a few kinks, but still in a way I found entertaining and satisfying.

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Even before the first trailer dropped, there was no shortage of dismissive opinions about “Dark Phoenix”. So it was no big surprise when it released alongside at least some deeply critical reviews. But the sheer volume of negativity has been surprising and certain to leave people expecting the worst. Thankfully my experience was considerably better than what I had prepped for.

“Dark Phoenix” gets off on the right foot by quickly defining itself as tighter and more intimate than its bombastic predecessor, 2016’s “X-Men: Apocalypse”. Writer-director Simon Kinberg takes the essence of the original Dark Phoenix story and develops a true planetary threat. But his strongest focus is on how it impacts the X-Men. The revelation of past choices, reckoning with the dire consequences, and the fractured relationships that follow is what this final franchise chapter is most interested in.

Set in 1992, the film begins with the X-Men and humanity living in unprecedented harmony. Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has tirelessly worked to solidify the relationship between mankind and mutant. As a result the X-Men have become cultural pop stars but at the cost of continually putting their lives on the line.

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After a space shuttle is disabled by a massive solar flare, the president calls Xavier who sends his ill-equipped X-Men into space to rescue the crew against the judgement of team leader Raven (Jennifer Lawrence). During the rescue attempt Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) absorbs a massive burst of cosmic energy that heightens her powers, stirs her emotions, and rouses painful memories Xavier has long hidden from her. It proves to be more than Jean can control and her uncontrollable actions not only split the X-Men but also the peace between humans and mutants.

Many other characters return from the previous films, none better than Michael Fassbender as Magneto. He remains the franchise’s best character not named Wolverine. Here the ever-compelling battle between Xavier’s idealism versus Erik/Magneto’s realism is less pronounced but the story provides a good reason for it. Still, the charismatic Fassbender has several great stand-out moments. Nicholas Hoult (Beast), Tye Sheridan (Cyclops), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Nightcrawler) also return.

Not only is the scale of the story dialed back but so is the action. There are several action sequences but they are much more grounded, aiming for a semblance of reality (as much as you can in a movie like this). The one big exception is a spectacular train sequence during the final act. It hits several familiar cues but overall I found it to be electric.

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But Kinberg doesn’t get everything right. There are a couple of story angles that desperately needed more buildup and better treatment. Take humanity’s sudden and complete turn against the mutants after a run-in with Jean. There is practically no discussion, no debate, no measured response. All of the good will is gone in a snap and it all happens off camera.

And then you have a group of alien shape-shifters who come to Earth seeking the cosmic power Jean now possesses. Die-hard comic fans while recognize them as the D’Bari, but the movie does a terrible job defining them or making them the slightest bit compelling. Jessica Chastain plays their leader but it’s hard to give much thought to her character or her motivations. They mostly end up fodder for the X-Men throughout the second half.

Here is where I ultimately land. “Dark Phoenix” is not what I would call a great movie. It’s story and some of its characters could use more attention and with a running time under two hours there was space to do so. But it’s far from ‘bad’ and it deserves much better than an ugly 23% on Rotten Tomatoes. Could it be a reflection of a pretty healthy MCU bias? Could it be that some people wrote this film off and formed opinions before it ever hit the big screen? I can’t say that with any certainly, but I’m glad my experience was as entertaining as it was.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

27 thoughts on “REVIEW: “X-Men: Dark Phoenix”

  1. This movie is already moving out of my area so I doubt I’ll get a chance to see it till it streams. But after reading some other reviews on RT, I’m convinced that there is a bias and a clear blind spot concerning non MCU movies from many reviewers. I say that because if you read what they dislike about some movies, in the MCU they never bring it up. I’ve noticed that for years now. Especially with the butchering of the Batman vs Superman. For example many critics took issue with The Hobbit movies and CGI but the last few Marvel outings have been CGI over loads. Now i have zero issue with CGI personally if well done but a lack of consistency annoys me about critics. It’s why i appreciate your reviews. I may not agree all the time but i think you try to be fair to the movie itself without putting forth you own agenda. So now I’ll look forward to checking this out .If its still here on the weekend I’ll check it out.

    • Can’t say how much I appreciate the kind words (which I also find encouraging). I mainly want to be honest when writing this things which I hope shows.

      I think you’re on to something. It truly seems that other movies outside of the MCU are held to stricter standards and many of the criticisms could easily be said about some of the MCU films. I hate to say with any authority that this is what’s happening with “Dark Phoenix” but it sure is curious. Case in point – some have called it worse than “The Last Stand”. I completely believe movies criticism is subjective. But putting Phoenix below Stand just blows my mind. Criticisms of it being “emotionless”, “pointless”, and a “cash grab” are so far from what I saw on screen. It’s really puzzling….or is it?

      • To me, Dark Phoenix is easily the worst X-Men movie to date. A lot of the story elements didn’t work for me and they made Professor X a jack-ass. To me, I don’t think Fox learned from The Last Stand, which oddly enough, I feel is the better movie. The performances here were pretty good, but the whole thing feels rushed. The Dark Phoenix saga is one of the most important stories in the X-Men universe and for a second time, it got screwed up. Not only that, the entire film feels cheaper. Look at Mystique’s…uh…look. The make-up on Jennifer Lawrence is incredibly awful and amateurish. A lot of the CGI is legitimately terrible. I thought Wolverine’s CGI claws in X-Men Origins were bad, but they’re nothing compared to some of the effects in this film. Honestly, they should have waited until after the merger to do the Dark Phoenix story line. It’s a story that requires multiple movies to do properly. Hopefully, Disney will do a much better job with the X-Men than Fox did. I actually liked Apocalypse a lot more than this one. I didn’t hate Dark Phoenix, but I was massively disappointed by it.

      • Interesting thoughts and I really appreciate them. For me this was head-and-shoulders above The Last Stand (which I think is one of the worst superhero movies made to date). Phoenix’s handling of Xavier didn’t bother me nearly as much as Stand’s treatment of Cyclops. I actually liked how they made Xavier more than just a flawless savior. I actually liked the complexity. He did get caught up in certain things that made him lose sight of others, but he never had evil intentions. I didn’t really have a problem with the effects either especially with Lawrence (maybe because I’ve always thought her look was so-so at best). But I especially loved the train scene at the end. Thought it looked incredible.

        All that said, I do agree that it’s a storyline that could use multiple movies to tell. And Phoenix skips over way too many details. Also its treatment of the ‘villains’ as pretty bad.

  2. I’m going to wait for it on TV as I am aware that this might be the last X-Men film of the old regime as I hope whatever Marvel does w/ the X-Men will be awesome and become part of the MCU!!!!! I just hope they find someone who can do justice to Wolverine.

    • I think a lot of people are waiting. I liked this more than I expected. A lot had to do with Fassbender and McAvoy who I think really bring a lot to those characters.

  3. Eh. For me the worst is bland and forgettable which this certainly was. Fassbender was the only one carrying this, Turner tried but she is capable of very little

    • Fassbender is so freaking good. I’m also going to miss McAvoy. Turner was a bit hit-or-miss. Sometimes she was quite good. But other times she seemed a bit overmatched.

  4. This might sound odd and polarizing, but I’ve rarely seen a super hero movie with very bad reviews. So if this one is getting horrible reviews, then it must be pretty bad, right? Although, now that I think about it, only Marvel gets rave reviews, the rest are pretty criticized. Interesting to think about, don’t you think? Anyway, I will see this, purely for Fassbender and Hoult, but probably online. Great review!

    • Yep. That’s definitely the point I’m getting at in the review. I remember reading several dismissive takes before the film ever released for screening. I also think there are some who can’t see judge it as its own thing. They instantly try and draw comparisons to the comic storyline which is okay to a point. But it can just kill a movie if in our minds the standards are to high (if that makes any sense).

  5. Ah, cool! It scored better than I expected. I’m tired of X-Men movies to be honest, but wouldn’t mind watching this on streaming, if only for that cast. 🙂

    • The X-Men movies are a weird collection of ups and downs. This one is good, not great. It’s certainly better than the in fashion negativity from critics that seems to have engulfed it.

  6. I don’t believe MCU bias is a thing, I think people are just frustrated that a property like X-Men is being treated like this. I think had they given this to another director, preferably one that didn’t write the last bad Dark Phoenix attempted would’ve done it more favors. But for me, I’ve lost all interest at this point. I hope when Marvel does write something, we still don’t see it for about 5 or 6 years. I need time away. lol

    • Fair enough. Personally I can’t help but think the MCU has been the measuring stick for many critics. And if any superhero film attempts to do something different it’s held to a much harsher standard. I’m saying that as a fan of the MCU, but it seems they can do no wrong in so many eyes and movies like this one, which I would argue is far from bad, starts getting bad press before the first screenings even hit. Everyone was already set for whatever the MCU was going to do with the property in the future.

  7. This was one of the films I was looking forward to the most this year… and I missed it 😩 I’m glad that you had an overall positive experience, I’ve heard too much negativity about this instalment.
    Another great write up 👍

    • The negativity has been a little crazy. It’s a much better movie than all that would have you believe. I’m glad I caught it in the theater. It didn’t stay around long here either.

    • Thanks Chris. I’ve really been a bit bewildered by the negativity towards the movie. I can’t help but think there is a dismissive MCU bias at least in some instances.

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