We have been watching X-Men films for twenty years, which feels like a weighty and auspicious number. Our hope, as viewers, is that these films will do their best to get better and better as they continue, or at the very least, that they continue to surprise us with new stories and more of characters that we enjoy spending time with. The state of the X-verse is changing as we speak; with no more Hugh Jackman as Wolverine and the purchase of 20th Century Fox by Disney, whatever the future holds for mutantkind is anyone’s best guess.
Which makes Dark Phoenix such a depressing note to end these film on.
The film already had a rough act to follow, as the plot of the Dark Phoenix comic arc had mostly been wasted on 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand. But given the promise left by X-Men: Days of Future Past—a new timeline in which to set right any previous flubs—it was only a matter of time before the Dark Phoenix plot reemerged. In this case, the story was meant to more closely follow the comics version of events, set in 1992 following a space rescue mission gone wrong. Jean Grey (Sophie Turner, wasted on a character that no one can be bothered to write dynamic dialogue for) gets caught in an accident while attempting a rescue of the Endeavor crew with her X-Men cohort, and comes out the other end with miraculous space powers that she cannot control. These new abilities tear down all the “walls” put up in her mind by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), revealing all that Professor X kept secret from her before adopting her into his school and becoming her mentor.
The problem with Dark Phoenix is not that it’s a bad film, but rather that it’s a vacant one. Very little actually happens, be it character development or epic set pieces or thoughtful interactions or even enjoyable special effects. It exists, the characters move through it as though they’re being directed through a badly rendered MMORPG, people say how they’re feeling rather than show it, and the film seems to end before it ever really started. Ideas are tossed into the mix and then promptly discarded before the next sequence of events. Scenes full of dialogue seem to hinge on points that are never actually made. Somewhere in the middle of it all, the plot of Dark Phoenix happens, but it’s not particularly moving or engaging. It’s like watching someone painstakingly fill in a Connect-the-Dots page when you can already tell what the picture is meant to be at a glance.
There are two glaring issues with the movie, the first being that it has no real interest in making Jean Grey the central character of her own film. On the one hand, that’s hardly surprising—we only met this version of Jean one story ago (in the incredibly lukewarm X-Men: Apocalypse), so it’s hard to feel attached to her, or even have an idea of who she is. On the other hand, if you don’t know how to make Jean Grey a dynamic and interesting lead, maybe this isn’t the X-Men story you should have your heart set on retelling every decade or so. Maybe it would have been better to let this crew of actors go out on a fun adventure for their final bow, and let poor Jean come into her own as a team asset, and a friend, and a mutant still figuring out her power.
The only thing you really know about Jean Gray by the end of the film is that space powers give you utterly flawless full-face makeup that never budges from your face, no matter how many times you cry or how often your skin cracks from cosmic energy buildup. (Seriously, if anyone knows where that glitter eyeshadow set can be found, hook me up.) It would be funnier if this weren’t, at its core, a story about male fear of female power, which the movie never remotely manages to touch on.
Which brings us to the second problem with the film: the constant realignment of morality around Charles Xavier. X-Men fans know the Professor is far from the benevolent figure these movies have often made him out to be—the comics give Kitty Pryde room to cry out “Professor Xavier is a JERK!”, and the casual old guard sexism that Xavier displays in First Class and Days of Future Past highlights that he’s got a wide range of blind spots, some of them hypocritical and unforgivable in the extreme. Since the franchise renewed itself by going prequel in First Class, this series has dedicated time to deconstructing Xavier’s myth of benevolence, and worked occasionally to call him out on how he leverages his power constantly in order to make decisions on behalf of others… most of them women.
Apocalypse at least tried to suggest that maybe Charles Xavier had learned a lesson for once; he acknowledges the importance of Jean’s power, puts Raven in charge of the X-Men, and gives Moira MacTaggart back the memories he stole from her following the events of First Class. But the opening of Dark Phoenix sees a self-aggrandizing Xavier who doesn’t actually seem to have learned a thing from his prior errors. It seems as though the film is gearing up to really make the professor the true villain in this particular story, to show the audience that he’s to blame for these problems and he never really learned better—but the narrative sharply pulls that punch because it simply can’t stomach the thought of not allowing Xavier to be a hero and a good person deep down. What this leaves us with is a Charles Xavier who admits to his culpability in the X-Men’s problems, but still ultimately insists that he means well in the same breath. Rather than this coming across as true moral ambiguity, the good kind that can drive narrative, it only serves to further point out that the film can’t settle on a story to tell. We never really figure out how we’re meant to feel about the man.
All of this could possibly be forgiven if the film gave us something to latch onto, but nothing arises. The action sequences are dark and slippery beyond recognition. The true villain—they’re aliens—are never interesting enough to serve as more than canon fodder. Most of the actors who made the more recent films enjoyable (Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Nicholas Hoult) are so far checked out you can practically see their next projects lurking in the reflections of their eyes. And what’s worse, Dark Phoenix’s moral is one that was already tackled better in another superhero film of 2019: Captain Marvel. When Dark Phoenix moves for the same crux, it does so with the most trite dialogue any superhero film has ever thrust on its unsuspecting audience. The whole story collapses under its weight and then it’s just over. The tag scene to tie the whole experience up at the end is honestly lovely, but it belongs to an entirely different movie. Something sweeter, smarter, more balanced as a whole.
So this era of X-filmmaking comes to a end with none of the excitement that powered its entrance. Hopefully when we see the X-Men again (because you know we will someday), it will be under better circumstances.