If you’ve read any of the reviews for X-Men: Dark Phoenix then you’ve probably heard that it’s a terrible film.
It really isn’t.
It is not a great piece of cinematic storytelling but it’s okay and not only isn’t it one of the worst superhero flicks to have come out in recent years as people would have you believe, it’s a long way from even being the worst X-Men movie.
The problem is Tony and Steve. Marvel Studios’ output over the last decade has put everyone else to shame and totally raised the bar for films in this genre. The timing of Dark Phoenix is particularly unfortunate in this respect as it follows just six weeks after Avengers: Endgame which is the wonderful pinnacle of everything Marvel has done to reinvent superhero movies. It is inevitable that having just seen that, people are going to be underwhelmed by this, which is a solid but fairly standard film. It is true that blockbuster movie making has moved on and this series hasn’t moved with it but the X-Men series has been doing its thing for nineteen years now, almost twice as long as the MCU, and reinventing this now probably wouldn’t have gone down well either. Also, let’s not forget that the X-Men pushed boundaries and challenged expectations themselves back in the day; it was these guys that invented big screen superhero team ups in the first place.
Taken entirely on its on merits Dark Phoenix is a perfectly entertaining movie with interesting and layered characters and exciting action set pieces. The London Evening Standard, pretty much encapsulating the essence of most of the criticism, said this was “a stupendously dull film without a shred of wit, narrative thrust or genuine emotional force” but this simply isn’t the case. The movie is a little humourless but it isn’t boring and the emotional connection between the characters is what holds it all together.
So, while it isn’t perfect, there is nothing criminally wrong with Dark Phoenix (unlike X-Men: Apocalypse ) and on balance if you’ve broadly enjoyed the other movies in the series then you’ll like this one. As a rule the original cast films have been better than the reboots, it is significant that the best of the ones with the new cast had the old cast in it too, but there have been highs and lows and this one sits comfortably in the middle.
The film is inspired by the same comic book series as 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand; telling the story of what happens when telepathic and telekinetic Jean Grey loses control of her incredible powers. It was Famke Janssen in that film, it’s Sophie Turner in this one. It isn’t this film, or indeed Endgame, that comes to mind watching Dark Phoenix though. The most obvious comparisons with this film are to be made with Captain Marvel. Both films feature a female character imbued with incredible cosmic power and both have our heroes being tracked by a small group of shape shifting aliens. The bad guys here are a bit underdeveloped and act as little more than a plot device but they are clearly based on the Skrulls who Brie Larson fought in her movie. (Don’t forget that both the world of the MCU and that of the X-Men come from the some comic book source and all of these heroes walk amongst one another on the page.) I am guessing that they were actually intended to be that same race of nefarious aliens until Marvel snatched them up for their film. In this respect it is interesting to see these baddies played out on screen in a more typical way than the MCU chose to take them.
It is intriguing to see what they do with their leading lady too. When Carol Danvers was blasted by space magic and made into Captain Marvel, a sinister father figure sought to suppress and control those powers and breaking free from this she became a hero. Jean Grey has spent years having her powers suppressed by a benevolent father figure though and when she is blasted by space magic she breaks free and turns bad. It is an interesting juxtaposition and a curious take on a similar set up. Of course from a feminist point of view she presents less of a role model and maybe even conforms to the trope of the injured woman turned witch but both Jean Grey/Phoenix and Captain Marvel are astronomically strong women standing up to oppressive men in different ways.
Ultimately the biggest problem with X-Men: Dark Phoenix is the timing. It just hasn’t done itself any favours coming out on the tails of Infinity War and Endgame. It even involves people getting dusted which again is something this series did first but every element of comparison just brings this film up short. What you do have here though is a superhero film that is serious but not po-faced, outlandish but not OTT, epic but not overlong and is built on relationships without being too sentimental. There are definitely some wins there.
The Ripley Factor:
Unfortunately in Dark Phoenix Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique, who has been a significant player in the last few films and was the true star of Days of Future Past, gets fridged*. In some effort to balance against this they give her a nice little feminist moment at the start where she shouts at Professor X that ‘the women are always saving the men around here you, might want to think about changing the name to X-Women’ but she comes across like she’s a frustrated nine year old who’s just had her hair pulled by some boy in the school playground. It isn’t the most sophisticated equality rally cry. At least she gets to keep her clothes on the whole time in this one.
*fridged – a sexist trope in which a key female character is attacked, debilitated or in some cases killed, purely with the narrative purpose of motivating the men into decisive action.