OK, hear me out.
“Dark Phoenix” is the 12th (and ipso facto final) installment of Fox’s “X-Men” series, before its likely reboot by Disney into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film follows the X-Men as they confront one of their members who has been exposed to a strange power source during a space mission. James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp and Jessica Chastain all star as Simon Kinberg writes and makes his directorial debut.
This film has been through the ringer so much over the course of its production that some doubted it would ever even be released; it was originally due out last November before being delayed to February and then finally this June weekend. The entire third act was reshot to avoid comparisons to “another 2019 superhero film” (read: “Captain Marvel”), and test screenings were reportedly awful. Then Disney bought Fox and many figured the film would be buried on Disney+ or Hulu. But here we are, the day and film are both here, and critics have been quick to lambast it. And while “Dark Phoenix” is horribly written and almost never justifies its own existence, I found myself somehow enjoying it for one reason or another.
Ever since the reboot/sequel/prequel that was “First Class” in 2011, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender have been the heart of this franchise and they again turn in dedicated performances. Both these men are far better than this series deserves but unlike other members of the cast (read: Jennifer Lawrence, who is admittedly slightly better this time around than in the awful “Apocalypse”) they have continued to show the roles and fans respect. McAvoy especially must convey fear and parenting in single glances, and he continues to show that he is one of our more underappreciated actors.
As the titular Phoenix, Sophie Turner (best known for “Game of Thrones”) is solid enough, although a bit inconsistent. Some scenes she has to switch emotions on a dime, from sad to angry, happy to confused, and is able to sell it. She sometimes falls victim to the script (as does Jessica Chastain, who is given less scenery to chew than, say, a Cate Blanchett in “Thor: Ragnarok”), but that is another issue.
The script (by longtime “X-Men” writer and producer Simon Kinberg) feels like a first draft. So much of the dialogue (when it isn’t purely expository) comes off like a line that could have just been fixed with some polishing or made aware that something less cringey or cliché was available if merely read out loud. The plot feels a bit over-bloated with too many characters, as the case with most of these “X-Men” films, but there is something somehow engaging about everyone moving around.
The action sequences are mostly solid, with a few kills and mutant face-offs that rank among the series’ best. The film clearly runs out of money in the third act (which like I said, was completely rewritten and reshot last fall), as some effects look like their being rendered right before your eyes, but other effects are cool. As a director, Kinberg seems to have a better grasp on CGI fights than Bryan Singer, but it’s his conversation scenes that fail to compare to Singer’s; those can drag or seem entirely pointless.
“Dark Phoenix” offers a few (accidental) moments of closure for this near-20 year old franchise, including the closing scene, but it never comes off (nor was it conceived as) a cumulation event in the vein of “Avengers: Endgame.” The whole thing feels like one of those already-produced films that Netflix would buy (like Andy Serkis’ “Mowgli”), and it’s fascinating to see a film that is trying to be respectful for its characters while at the same time has a “[exhale] here we go again” vibe about it. It is nowhere near as bad or boring as the hyperbolic clickbait reviews would lead you to believe, although if you haven’t seen or cared about an “X-Men” movie up to this point I don’t think this will suddenly make you want to binge the series. The franchise should have ended with “Days of Future Past” not only because it is the best film in the franchise but because it featured the new blood and the classic cast, but Hollywood will take dollars over dignity any day of the week. So instead we close on “Dark Phoenix,” a film that is almost a perfect analogy for the franchise under Fox: entertaining at some turns, confusing at others and reeks of wasted potential, but at the end of the day you’ll take it warts and all.
Critic’s Rating: 6/10