Review by C.J. Bunce
After a few packed years of superhero movies, Dark Phoenix is going to be a target for comparison. No single Marvel movie this year–including Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame–really merits entry on a “best of the best” list, yet all had good, even great, moments, and easily belong in a top 25 superhero movie list. Dark Phoenix now joins that group. Instead of a galaxy-changing upheaval, first-time director and award-winning writer-producer Simon Kinberg marked the end of the X-Men movie saga with a personal story. It’s a story of struggle and tragedy more attuned to the X-Men characters and the cinematic stories 20th Century Fox has told since we first met Patrick Stewart’s professor and Ian McKellen’s metal-manipulating frenemy way back in the year 2000. Although it’s not as compelling and cinematic as James Mangold’s gold standard Logan or the incredible team-up in X-Men: Days of Future Past, actress Sophie Turner leads an emotional journey for her all-powerful Jean Grey that first began in X-Men: Apocalypse, really backing up that tagline from the movie posters: Every hero has a dark side. They really meant it.
Kinberg wrote the original script for the Dark Phoenix in X-Men: The Last Stand, but he gets a lot closer to the spirit of the source material this time. The key conflict mimics Marvel’s Jim Shooter and Chris Claremont’s reported struggle when they developed the character of Dark Phoenix, asking whether Jean Grey is irretrievably bad or bad only because she is possessed by a dark force. At the same time most of the cosmic oddities are stripped from the comics story, but not all, pulling the necessary elements from the original tale in a more accessible way for audiences. Jessica Chastain′s new villain and her compatriots from afar are very much the same as found in the comics, all but in name. The opening act in particular is perfectly executed, beginning with a nicely cinematic launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour, and a return to the stealth fighter that Nicholas Hoult′s Beast had been building in X-Men: Apocalypse. If you’ve seen the trailers or know the story then the subject of the scene is no surprise–a rescue of the astronauts aboard from a giant solar flare, directed by James McAvoy′s Professor X from Earth, but led in space by Jennifer Lawrence′s Mystique, who grew to be the front-line commander of the team in the last film. The most entertaining superhero of all the X-Men movies is back, Evan Peters′ Quicksilver, this time using his speed and time-stopping powers to assemble the astronauts for rescue in the character’s third and final awesome show-stopper. He’s accompanied by the teleport-wielding Kurt Wagner aka Nightcrawler, providing actor Kodi Smit-McPhee the first of several key scenes that showcase his unique superhero, and round out a building arc for the typically background superhero.
The big takeaway from Dark Phoenix may be that it’s clear the material is capable of being recycled and resurrected many times, by different writers, directors, and actors. Famke Janssen’s performance of Jean Grey was excellent in the original X-Men trilogy. Sophie Turner’s performance is equally good. In a few years we’ll see it all over again, which is pretty much what the Phoenix is all about. Dark Phoenix will likely be accused of copying the empowered women theme of Captain Marvel. In actuality Dark Phoenix was completed earlier, in October 2017, and if Dark Phoenix hadn’t been delayed by the Fox-Disney merger, the positions would no doubt be flipped to some extent. The timing and similarities reportedly prompted Fox to go back and make some revisions. But who says audiences can’t embrace two movies released within 90 days about the two most powerful superheroines in the Marvel pantheon? Captain Marvel was able to generate far more buzz, and it’s a more upbeat story, so Dark Phoenix is unlikely to make a dent by comparison to that billion dollar box office hit. But the acting and script for Dark Phoenix is probably a few degrees better, and the wrap-up of so many beloved characters makes Dark Phoenix a more important chapter for its franchise.
Elements that could have been better include following the trend established in previous X-Men movies of highlighting the culture of the decade the film is set. Without a screen title providing the film occurs in 1992, audiences were given nothing else to identify the film as a 1990s homage. The film had time to show more of The Orville actor Halston Sage′s Dazzler (who would have been great to watch carry the character forward if not for the Fox-Disney merger), yet many will have missed her brief cameo. She would have provided a great opportunity to give the audience a taste of the 1990s. And some new mutant characters don’t get much of a window to showcase their powers.
High points include costume designer Daniel Orlandi (Logan, Apollo 13) creating some great new X-Men uniforms, merging the comic book outfits with the earlier incarnations seen in the movies, and Hans Zimmer (Blade Runner 2049, Sherlock Holmes, Gladiator) provides a solid accompanying musical score for the film. As a technical achievement, we’ve all seen real-world space technology and disasters, and the visual effects does not disappoint with a very real feeling space shuttle disaster.
You can’t understate the caliber of performances in the film. Like Michael Fassbender and McAvoy, Chastain always creates surprising depth in her performances. All three made the most of their characters, and McAvoy seemed to give that extra energy that he gave as the supervillain in Split and Glass. Lawrence has a lesser role than in the previous films, but she, too, knows her character well and reflects that on the screen. Compared to performances in the first X-Men trilogy, characters like Tye Sheridan′s Scott Summers and Hoult’s Beast are far more likeable and sympathetic. Even young Summer Fontana provides that rarer than rare, believable, dynamic performance from a kid actor as young Jean. In the final analysis, if fans of The Dark Phoenix Saga of the comics don’t like this adaptation, there’s probably no live-action version that will satisfy. Turner’s Jean Grey is a very Shakespearean tragic hero, and Kinberg reveals this in a more personal, less operatic manner than the typical action-heavy superhero spectacle.
Note: The film has no mid-credits or post-credits scenes, and it will be one of the last with Stan Lee’s participation (The New Mutants and Spider-Man: Far From Home show him at least initially as executive producer, too).
This is a film worthy of repeat viewing. Don’t miss this final entry in the first, two-decade long phase of the Marvel X-Men, and say farewell to these great actors in these roles. Dark Phoenix is in theaters now.