X-Men: Dark Phoenix Review: Is It Really As Bad As Critics Say?
X-Men: Dark Phoenix is a mixed bag with a number of disappointing parts, but also some really cool moments.
There are critics out there calling Dark Phoenix a dumpster fire of a film. And, to be honest, as an X-Men fan from the 90’s, the movie is a bit disappointing in some parts. But I think it’s important to understand that there’s quite a lot of moments in the Dark Phoenix that really are cool and I think need to be talked about.
The film explores the X-Men going into space to help out NASA astronauts being attacked by some sort of entity from space. Jean Grey gets caught up in the ship as the rest of the team gets evacuated, and the entity enters into her. She experiences changes in herself and her powers spike, and she finds it difficult to control herself and her emotions.
Jean ends up hurting those around her, and she looks to find a way to escape. Yet a mysterious woman appears to coax her into embracing the depths of her power, and indulge in her darker side. Now the X-Men have to battle to save Jean Grey from others on all fronts, and from herself.
A Splintered Team
There are elements of the classic X-Men team dynamic that play throughout the film. Right off the bat, there’s a battle amongst the leadership about the purpose of the team. It all starts with that mission to save the NASA crew in space, and the risk that mutants take to save the lives of humans. Xavier puts them in harm’s way in order to get some good PR for mutants. Mystique is more concerned about keeping mutants safe and not sticking their necks out for the people that once hunted them.
What really got me is the amount of dialogue in the film versus the amount of action. The NASA rescue mission only felt like a few minutes, and the danger posed to Jean and the team isn’t really felt. When they touch back down to earth, it just seems like another Tuesday for the X-Men. But the exposition they go through about purpose and their potential versus the dog and pony show they have to put on for the public seems to be a revolving theme in every act of the film. Not that I got tired of it, but I can see where some folks would get exhausted hearing about it over and over again.
If you’ve read the Fatal Attractions arc of Uncanny X-Men by Fabian Nicieza and Scott Lobdell, you know how heavy the dialogue in the panels of an X-Men comic can get. So, X-Men fans will appreciate the back and forth between the team members. Although, some of the one-liners could’ve been delivered amongst a flurry of dialogue panning across the team members rather than individual shots where they delivered the line. But these are small nitpicks.
I didn’t like Nightcrawler, Cyclops, or Storm in the first part of the film. They seemed like kids compared to the much older Beast and Mystique. Jean was unsure of herself, Cyclops wasn’t the headstrong leader the comics portray him as, and Storm served little more than a background character.
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Thankfully, after Mystique is gone (is it really a spoiler if the Director of the film gave it away in an interview?), they start stepping up to their leadership roles. Scott has more to say to the kids who lose hope when things go awry. Storm is more up-front about her willingness to be part of the team. And I haven’t been so excited to see Nightcrawler in action since he showed up in X2 during that epic opening scene. These three have potential as leaders of the Gold Team, the Blue Team, and eXcalibur.
Just to note though, they are far cry candidates from their comic book variations. The Alan Cumming version of Nightcrawler was far superior, and James Marsden being older now and having experienced more roles would absolutely sell the role of Cyclops/Scott Summers more than his 2000 version. And I still haven’t seen a truly awe-inspiring Storm/Ororo Monroe in live-action film. The closest version of Ororo to the comics I’ve seen is in the X-Men Animated Series back in the 90’s.
I can go on for days about how this version of Mystique is not the comic book version, and really doesn’t do justice to the character. I like Raven Darkhölme more when Rebecca Romijn played the villain. But that ship has sailed.
Another mismatch is Beast. When Kelsey Grammar played the bouncing blue beast Hank McCoy, his voice and mannerisms were perfect for the character. When Nicholas Hoult plays him, all of that goes missing. We don’t get any speeches with more than a few syllables and quotes from Sophocles and musings about Damocles’ sword and arguments using Nietzsche and Shakespeare. I miss that.
Characters on Point
I hear people complaining online about how James McAvoy phoned it in for his role as Professor Xavier. I’ll have to disagree with their assessment. I think he really sold the role of a teacher trying to do the right thing for his students. And the morally grey area of what he does is where the rift starts to happen. I had no problem in believing his performance as the Professor who, even in the comics, has done some messed up stuff to protect others. But intrinsically, he has a good heart.
Michael Fassbender as Magneto is another role that needs some applause. He really sold it as the epic Master of Magnetism living his life out in the Genosha fields. It feels more like the Cullen Bunn version of Erik Lehnsherr, which I liked very much. Seemingly regretful about his past decisions of murdering and putting lives in danger in a quest for mutant superiority, he relinquishes to a quiet life away from human society. His spark for vengeance reignites when he finds out the truth about what Jean has done.
And hats off to Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey. She doesn’t come off as pompous about her power. Rather, she’s somewhat sympathetic, even fearful of her power. Even to the point where she debates using it when it might harm her teammates. Her growth from a frightened girl to what she ultimately becomes in the film is a bit rushed. But given the pace at how much she grows, it seems believable. This isn’t the empathic Jean Grey from the comics, but Turner pulls off a girl transitioning to a woman, from powerless to powerful and the range of emotions that happen from that.
A Rushed Story
The Dark Phoenix Saga is a series of books back in the 80’s (Uncanny X-Men #129-138). Before that we had the Phoenix Saga (Uncanny X-Men #101-108). However, this movie attempts to tell the lengthy story in just over an hour. Obviously, there are connections with characters that feel a bit off or forced, like Jean with Scott. I didn’t feel like they were much of a couple. Comic book readers know the connection that is lost when Jean does what she does during the Phoenix Saga. It affects the entire team, and Scott especially, which gives Mr. Sinister a way in to enact his plan.
Turner handles the range of emotions well enough. But we don’t get to see that same range of emotions with the other characters.
Having said all that, general audiences will probably enjoy this film for what it is. It’s an entertaining romp. And it has some surface level explorations into a deeper discussion about what we do with a gift. There are action moments that feel small in scale. And it’s somewhat disappointing considering the monumental power inherent in the Phoenix force, one of the most powerful entities in the galaxy.
A Bunch of Mutants We Never Get to Know
A problem I’ve had with X-Men films as a reader of their comics is that all they do is give nods to other mutants living in their world. Yet, they never give these characters a proper introduction in subsequent films. Which would take time, I understand. I would have hoped the characters would do more than occupy the background and flash their powers for a few minutes for an action set piece.
In the first X-Men, Magneto’s brotherhood is no more than cannon fodder for Xavier’s team. Electrocute Toad, slash at Sabretooth, stab Mystique. There’s no exploration into their characters, who have had deep histories in the comic books. I’m glad we see Nightcrawler as part of the team, continuing his involvement in the X-films from X-Men Apocalypse. Sabretooth eventually gets a back story, although in a horrible film in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Mystique also gets a backstory, but it’s horrible and makes us comic book fans angry. I guess we won’t get to know Toad’s history any time soon.
This is even the case for the main mutants in the X-team. And it continues the tradition from the original film in 2000. Scott Summers and Jean Grey’s relationship feels forced and there wasn’t much time in the previous film to dive into their characters. Only in this one do we get a sense of where Jean is coming from. And Storm is just more wasted potential, continuing the tradition from Bryan Singer’s direction of Halle Berry.
Jessica Chastain’s character is something more I’ll have to get to in a more spoilery post. However, it seems her role was overblown and ends up being disappointing given the rich source material they could’ve pulled from. I will admit that my nerdy speculations about her being an astral projection of the Phoenix Force were completely wrong. But what she ends up being for the film is a lot less interesting. Her performance out of everything felt flat, and her threat level wasn’t anything the other mutants couldn’t handle.
From the range of my feelings about Dark Phoenix, I think it has enjoyable parts. But the deviation from the writings of Chris Claremont and Len Wein somewhat throws me for a loop. There are characters who feel off compared to their comic book counterparts, or even previous iterations played in other films. X-Men comic book fans will feel a bit cheated with the story, but not completely disgusted with the experience. It’s a movie with really cool moments where I genuinely smiled at the action on screen. But it did little to deliver depth for a number of characters on the team. And this is the last outing for the X-Men as part 20th Century Fox studios. Sadly, it falls short of the other films that have given brevity to the ends of their characters and franchises.