Starring Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Nicholas Hoult, Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The worst film of the original X-Men trilogy (Last Stand) also centred on the Phoenix storyline, but infamously mangled it but having it be the B-Plot to a boring ‘mutant cure’ storyline. Last Stand was pretty much a failure in most ways, as I said when I reviewed it a few years ago: it falls flat constantly, and while the ambition is there for the set pieces, the execution is not. Brett Ratner (the director) takes most of the blame for that travesty.
Dark Phoenix is an attempt to write Last Stand’s wrongs and finish off the new X-men series before Marvel comes in and takes over from Fox. Like Last Stand it has had pretty terrible reviews. But how justified are they?
Dark Phoenix was always going to have a problem being the first superhero film released after Avengers: Endgame – the two aren’t comparable in scale, budget or importance. Avengers was cresting the high point of a wave, whereas the X-Men series has been steadily diminishing (aside from 2017’s wonderful Logan) since Days of Future Past. Apocalypse was fun but overblown and thinly written, Deadpool 2 was an excessive mess with a few stand out scenes. Dark Phoenix isn’t as badly written as either of them, but its back to basics approach means it is less memorable.
Had this film come out 15, 10 or even 5 years ago, I doubt it would have been savaged as badly by critics. The superhero market is so saturated at the moment, that any film that fails to spark is probably going to get savaged by comparisons with better ones. It has plenty of plus points – its darker tone and smaller scale make it a much tighter, more accessible film than Apocalypse. The score by Hans Zimmer is predictably good. The direction and CGI look superb, with the mutants’ various powers all stunning depicted (Nightcrawler, Storm and Cyclops get their share of really cool action scenes this time, though Quicksilver is side-lined for much of the film).
But there are also plenty of downsides that prevent this from being a great or even ‘good’ superhero film. The fact that its a rehash of Last Stand means the plot is overly familiar and thus not that exciting (it may be a lot more faithful to the comics, but that will only please a small fraction of the audience). The trailers also gave too much away (again) and there aren’t really any unrevealed surprises to shock you. The cast all do their best with what they are given, but in most cases it doesn’t match up to the material that Xavier, Magneto, Beast or Raven got in previous films. There’s some scenes and character beats that shine through, but not enough. The dialogue is often to blame for this – its workable, but there’s a few real clangers in here that should not have got past the editing stage. Jessica Chastain’s villain is also one of the blandest in X-men history (not the actress’ fault – its such a thin role there’s nothing she could do with it – its down there with Malekith from Thor: The Dark World).
What still makes this film worth watching, however, is the action scenes. The set pieces are great: well directed, minimal quips or cuts, good CGI, small scale but engaging, they are the definite highlights. Sophie Turner also does a good job throughout as Jean Grey. It is unfortunate that they didn’t build Jean up more in Apocalypse, as for this film to work you really need to care about her character, but Turner does her best to portray both the Jean and Phoenix sides and just about pulls it off. The Phoenix side is probably where she’s stronger, but again I’d blame the script for any shortfalls.
Overall, Dark Phoenix is engaging, refreshingly straightforward and packs a few excellent action scenes (which can get quite violent – no way should this have been a 12A). But it ultimately wastes its great cast on a distinctly middling script, and between the trailers and the fact we’ve seen a lot of this arc before, there’s nothing to cover up the fact that its villains aren’t that impressive.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Better than Last Stand, Origins: Wolverine and Deadpool 2, but that’s about it. It’s just not on the level of First Class, Logan or Days of Future Past. It’s worth a watch if your a big X-men fan, but everyone else is probably better off waiting a few months till its on Amazon or Netflix.