Dark Phoenix, the latest installment in the current X-Men series, is fine. Yes, that is damning with faint praise, but considering Dark Phoenix’s odd mishmash of tones and race to the finishing line, “fine” is both good enough and the best outcome one could hope for.
Not exactly a new criticism for a cycle of movies that have been uneven, to say the least. This particular franchise re-ignition began with 2011’s X-Men: First Class starring James McAvoy as Professor Charles Xavier, Michael Fassbender as Erik Lehnsherr, a.k.a., Magneto, Jennifer Lawrence as Raven Darkhölme, a.k.a. Mystique, and Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy, a.k.a. Beast.
First Class was more a collection of movie components than it was a fully formed film. The casting, costumes, and set designs were wonderful, the special effects and writing, less so. First Class wasn’t a huge success — domestic grosses failed to recoup production costs — but it was enough to re-launch the series. X-Men: Days of Future Past, easily the best installment, followed three years later, then came 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse, a nearly incoherent and meaningless trifle of a chapter.
Enter 2019’s Dark Phoenix, which, once again, opens in the past before settling into the movie’s present, the mid-1990s. Joining the cast is Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, a.k.a. Phoenix, who inadvertently absorbs strange cosmic energy that transforms her from an already powerful mutant to the most powerful being in the galaxy. The villain (Jessica Chastain) seeks the energy for her own goals.
Explaining the source of this energy is best left up to Simon Kinberg, Dark Phoenix’s writer, producer, director, and primary connection between this series — Kinberg produced First Class, wrote and produced Days of Future Past and Apocalypse.
Dark Phoenix feels rushed; as if Kinberg wanted to cram two, maybe three, movies into one while Disney was busy gobbling up the studio and all of its intellectual properties. At times Dark Phoenix wants to be like an entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a sprawling galaxy of characters and storylines that require little or no exposition. At other times, Dark Phoenix wants to invoke a somber, melancholic tone similar to the ones Christopher Nolan successfully utilized in his Dark Knight trilogy. You don’t get either, but you do get an overbearing Hans Zimmer score and a mutant who fights using his dreadlocks. And, if that wasn’t enough, Dark Phoenix mixes in plenty of trauma and repression in an attempt to further yoke an emotion, any emotion, out of you.
For anyone unfamiliar with the X-Men series, Dark Phoenix no entry point. But for the X-Men faithful looking for a semblance of closure, it’s fine.