X-Men: Dark Phoenix Review: Good Movie, Imperfect End

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BY June 7, 2019

Our X-Men: Dark Phoenix review is like many others in that we’re surprised at how good the film was, but also recognize that it has some problems. It’s not a perfect film, nor is it an ideal ending to our first superhero saga, but it’s still a damn good movie. While 2019 saw the greatest cinematic Marvel saga brought to a close, the first-ever Marvel Cinematic Universe also came to an end with much less fanfare. The first tmainstream modern superhero franchise, Fox’s take on The X-Men spawned a dozen different movies spanning many different eras and, at least, two separate casts. If the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the peak of inter-connected comic book film franchises and the DC Extended Universe the nadir, the X-Men is what it looks like when everything doesn’t go right but the storytellers still manage to pull off something great.

In fact, this is probably the best possible version of the Dark Phonenix storyline we’ll get to see on film, ever. Considering this is the second time they’ve gone to this well, that’s perhaps the biggest surprise. The track record of the X-Men films is inconsistent at best, however the past two installments in the ensemble franchise are better than people give them credit for. Any X-men: Dark Phoenix review needs to consider the larger context. But as single entries in the canon, this film and, even, X-Men: Age of Apocalypse, are entertaining action pieces that stumble on both their larger, social messages and most of their third acts. Nonetheless, this film series is a triumph which will live on long after mutants are rebooted and brought into the MCU proper. While there won’t be major spoilers, we will talk about some things revealed during the marketing of the film.

If you want to see the movie cold, bookmark this X-Men: Dark Phoenix review and come back after you’ve see the film.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix Review
Image via 20th Century Fox

X-Men: Dark Phoenix Review – Story Rundown

Obviously, this film will be a version of the Dark Phoenix storyline from the X-Men comics, something we’d seen a version of in X-Men: The Last Stand. Yet, this film makes major departures that don’t negate the events of that film, but rather circumvent it with some handy-dandy space magic. The X-Men start this film in a place we’ve never seen them before. They are happy and beloved heroes. Professor X is respected and has a direct line to the President. In the first bit of the film, they rescue astronauts stuck out in space. Finally, we get to see the X-Men lauded as heroes both by the Professor and the world at-large. Naturally, this is not meant to last. While in space, Jean Gray got whammied by the aforementioned space magic, and it starts to change her.

The film tweaks Jean’s origins as explored during Last Stand but keeps the aftermath relatively the same. Professor X represses her memories and some of her power, and it all comes roiling to the surface after the space mission. Jean Grey goes dark side, killing one of the original members of this new X-Men cast. This is a fact, stunningly, revealed during the marketing of the film. It’s a much better heel-turn than the comics (where Dark Phoenix commits planetary genocide), because it provides a pathway back to the side of the angels for Jean. While this film has a very large scale, though perhaps smaller than Apocalypse’s, the final act is intimate and personal. Again, this change was heavily publicized during reshoots, because it apparently ended very similarly to Captain Marvel. The ending we get is strange but a fitting capstone for the X-Men series.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix Review – Real-World Drama Rundown

Along with the much-publicized reshoots, this film appears to be “doomed” for reasons having little to do with its execution. While this film went through production, 20th Century Fox worked to sell their movie studio and all their properties to a new buyer. Disney, who also owns the rest of Marvel save for Spider-Man, ended up the highest bidder. So, this means that X-Men: Dark Phoenix is the final installment in a franchise that’s been ongoing since 2000. There is another film on the way, the horror-flick New Mutants. Yet, it’s been delayed twice with no clear indication of when (or if) it will actually come out. The film needs reshoots—a common practice—and those also keep ending up delayed. Still, this is the proper final. Along with this added pressure, X-Men: Dark Phoenix follows one of the most disliked X-Men films, X-Men: Age of Apocalypse.

Audience Case Study: Comic Book Guy Council, Andrew W.K. Lookalike, and Fan Girls

Opening-night crowds are usually the best groups to see a new film with, especially superhero or genre movies. Usually, they clap, cheer, and are generally excited to see the next installment of something they love. The atmosphere of the theater seemed more like a wake than a celebration. There was no applause, and the big character death moment got almost no reaction. Seated next to your humble correspondent were two women in their late-20s or early-30s. Their animated reactions made the movie more enjoyable, because they were unapologetically into it. (They also called Michael Fassbender’s Magneto “Metal Daddy” and loved every brooding second he appeared on-screen.) They laughed at the jokes, reacted at the big moments, and likely had the best time of anyone else in the nearly-sold-out theater. Though, they were deeply disappointed that Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool didn’t make a post-credits appearance.

Outside of the theater, four men in their 40s who each bore a passing resemblance to Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons bemoaned the film outside afterwards. They griped about how it differed from the comics, and they seemed generally displeased at the idea that the X-Men franchise continued at all. They all decided that Disney (who had nothing to do with this film) was so voracious for money that they greenlit this terrible movie and will greenlight another mindless sequel. (They won’t.) However, two men—one who bore a passing resemblance to Andrew W.K.—were also angry. They, however, were mad at their friend for trashing a movie they thought was good sight unseen. They decided to see it again this weekend. For what it’s worth, your humble correspondent also plans to see it again with his teenaged daughter (who loves the X-Men s much her dog is named “Logan.”)

X-Men: Dark Phoenix Review – What the Movie Gets Right

Unlike most X-Men films, this movie doesn’t introduce any new hero characters. The team we have is the team we see at the end of the previous film. This is the right call, because it allows the movie to keep the focus on those legacy characters we care about. Despite this being the first “cosmic” X-Men movie, it’s a collection of very personal, grounded character moments. Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey gets the most of this attention, and she carries the film fairly well. Having a great, dangerous power you can’t control is a key part of many X-Men stories, but Turner finds a fresh take on it. She oscillates from teenage anger to despair believably. The ultimate result feels earned, and it offers an interesting ending to both this discrete story and the larger one of the series.

While the producers may not feel this way, the reshoots that resulted in the ending we see in the film were the right call. Instead of a large CGI-heavy disaster battle, like the last film, we get a very personal, close-quarters battle. The lack of urban (or space-based) mass destruction means that the final clashes we see are more intimate. It also offers great individual hero moments for under-utilized fan-favorite characters like Storm and Nightcrawler. Also, Metal Daddy is left to his own devices and delivers a fight sequence as fun to watch as anything John Wick has ever done. This film also feels like its about something more so than many recent X-Men films. As we’ll detail later in our X-Men: Dark Phoenix review, this film might even work as a meta-commentary on the state of the superhero genre.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix Review – What the Movie Gets Wrong

Unfortunately, this movie doesn’t reach the heights of the best in the X-Men franchise, X2: X-Men United or X-Men: Days of Future Past. Like its predecessor, the third act has some problems. Specifically, the movie fails to see how quickly the public turns on the mutants during the second act. It appears that in a span of 48 hours, they go from being the greatest ever to universally reviled. In fairness, too much of this exposition might have dragged down an already-full movie. Also, characters turn on Jean more quickly than they should. One character, who was mind-controlled in the last film, should understand more than others how a great, unknown power can make a good person do a bad thing. While not terribly jarring, they do seem like unearned moments thrown in for the plot’s sake.

Finally, it’s clear from the ending that this wasn’t to be the last film in this series, at least if they cared about correcting continuity. In Days of Future Past, we are shown the Xavier Mansion in 2023. Characters who are seemingly killed or gone their own way at the end of the film are present. This could be an oversight, but it’s unlikely. Simon Kinberg wrote and directed this film, but he also wrote Days of Future Past. It’s obvious that the next film was meant to bring the team back together and deal with the traditional comic book business of raising franchise characters from the dead. This actually might be a blessing for fans. Because now they can dream up the fix themselves, which will probably be a more satisfying story than what they’d get.

What X-Men: Dark Phoenix Is Really About

As mentioned above, this film—more so than others in the series—feels like it’s about something more than superhero fights or the general X-Theme of being afraid of people different than yourself. Most obviously, this film is about the hubris of Charles Xavier. Viewers spent film after film watching him fail, so we easily forgive the character for basking in success. However, we see him being reckless with the lives of his students. This is the premise of the X-Men since its inception, and for the first time the film series asks “why are we okay with him endangering kids?” He is still ultimately a good man and as much a hero as ever, but we see him be careless with his students’ (and friends’) trust. It’s about his mission to show humanity that mutants are good, but even telepaths aren’t immune to vanity.

The other theme in this film is more nebulous, and whether it is delivered with success may depend on the viewer. There is the obvious parallel to real life, of course. Jean’s terrible power, and by extension the rest of the kids’ powers, represent the potential they have in them that adults or society sometimes fears. Much is made in this story about how keeping secrets and lying to “protect” people from painful truths. There is also a feminist angle, because of how the men react to this young woman who is more powerful than any other mutant. Older, privileged men make decisions about Jean without consulting her or telling her what they are doing. Magneto, an international terrorist three times over, spares no mercy for Jean. Instead, he immediately seeks murderous vengeance on her for something she did in the throes of this great power.

The End of an Era

It’s difficult to know where the series would head after this film had Disney not purchased the studio. The ending here suggests a theme common in many storied franchises from the MCU Proper to Star Wars: passing the torch on to the younger generation. Spider-Man: Far From Home is about young Peter Parker becoming “the next Iron Man.” Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker will be about this new generation of heroes having their moment outside the shadow of the legacy characters. This film also ends with torches being passed on to the younger X-Men. This makes sense, because it is the only way to ensure that “Xavier’s dream” outlasts the man. Not just because everyone is mortal, but also because (as this film shows) even leaders of global movements aren’t perfect. By empowering his younger charges, Xavier allows the X-Men to live on despite his own mistakes.

The X-Men never had the chance to pull off what Marvel Studios did. They had too many cooks in the various kitchens, and the studio lacked the commitment of Kevin Feige and his team. The continuity is a mess. This film also plays with it, but fans can now connect the end of this movie to the end of Days of Future past in fan-fiction and head-canon. Still, at a time when comic book movies seemed as risky as they were silly, the X-Men series ignored that. People grew up with these films. So, no matter how Marvel reboots these characters, this series of films will live on.

What did you think of the movie? Is there anything we missed in our X-Men: Dark Phoenix review? Let us know in the comments below. Also, don’t forget to share this review on social media so your friends can get in on the conversation.

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Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.

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