Sadly, personal circumstances have kept me from the opportunity to write this review until Rotten Tomatoes has declared ‘Dark Phoenix’ a dud and the box office appears to be the worst opening weekend of any ‘X-Men’ film. Sad, because the vitriol that is being thrown at this film is misplaced and based mostly on preconceived notions of what this movie was suppose to be. Not what it actually is. This doesn’t mean that the film is free from issues or that it is one of the best in this saga of films. It’s not. It is, however, a fairly gutsy and moderately satisfying finale to the film franchise that started the whole modern superhero craze.
The plethora of complaints leveled at this film mostly seem to conclude it is unnecessary, lacks excitement, humorless, and phoned in, but mostly that it doesn’t do the sprawling Phoenix story from the comics any justice. Well, most of these complaints are certainly fair to an extent. No movie is necessary, there is a lot less action in this film, it’s not very funny, and it certainly is missing a lot about the Phoenix story that fans hold dear. Now, the bit about actors phoning it in is nonsense. There is not a false not on the screen and if there are any issues here worth mentioning they come from creative decision alone.
In fact, the biggest problems I personally had with this film were the fairly one note villain that Jessica Chastain plays, the relative lack of time spent on developing threads for newer characters, perhaps a few cheesy one liners, and how much smaller in scale the film is in conjunction with the rest of the stories. Yet, the last part of my issues can also be seen as a virtue. Unlike most of these type of films, this film is littered with small moments that attempt to dig a bit deeper into some of the themes of these characters and illuminate things that haven’t been explored much onscreen.
The most predominant of these themes is directly related to psychology and the way that we process trauma. You see, in this narrative, Charles (James McAvoy) has used his power to suppress some of Jean’s (Sophie Turner) past. His attentions are inherently pure, but the decision is also selfish and builds her understanding of herself as a lie. The film then goes further into Charles and the consequences of his decisions for his X-Men by engaging in all those small moments I referred to earlier. These moments include everything from a young Jean being comforted like a therapist by Charles, to Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) trying to explain to Hank (Nicholas Hoult) how Charles is placing his ego ahead of their family and how it might be time for them to start living their own lives.
In fact, most of the lead characters are questioning their own futures and what they want their lives to look like here. Jean is trying to discover who she is and what to do about the demons that are being unleashed. Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is grappling with trying to make a future for an island of mutants and his urge for vengeance. Charles is trying to figure out how to maintain a peace with the humans and what sacrifice his own kind has to make for this endeavor to work. Not to mention his ego and whether or not his decisions are truly about protecting the kids he swore to provide sanctuary for. Mystique and Hank question their places in this newfound world of Charles’s brokered peace. And this all plays out through mostly small scenes of dialogue.
This is not the kind of summer spectacle that people have rightfully come to expect. The whole endeavor is decidedly toned down and left to reflection or questions about ones action. These are not purely life and death situations or heartfelt trips down memory lane like ‘Avengers: Endgame’ so brilliantly did earlier this year. These are subtle questions about life, whether characters are doing the right thing for themselves, what the future should hold for themselves, and honestly the whole world saving thing just seems to be a consolation price for their own selfish pursuits. Even Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), arguably the most stoic of the characters in this film, is operating purely out of his love for Jean. He hardly even considers the larger ramifications that Jean’s power might have on the people of the planet.
All these selfish endeavors lead the broken first class of X-Men back together for a mission that only comes upon them reluctantly and through the reflection of their actions. It may all be a bit messy in its execution and needed some more time to be fleshed out properly, but it is some heady stuff for a finale. Director Simon Kinberg certainly sacrifices potential spectacle for trickier character drama, with decidedly mixed results. Yet, it’s admirable to see him try and go there. The narrative is flawed, but it’s also rich and never leaves you without something to consider. Plus, it does all eventually lead to a showdown on a train that is pretty damn well staged. It could have been more spectacular, but it’s certainly a bad ass action sequence.
You couple this with a propulsive score by Hans Zimmer, some tight editing by Lee Smith, plus a smart choice on how to end the whole thing, and you have a finale that mostly works on its own terms. Is it going to please everyone? Clearly not. Are many people just done with this series and want something new out of these characters? Obviously, based on this weekends returns. Still, this doesn’t mean this film doesn’t work or that this finale was in vein. For those of us who have followed these characters closely for decades of our lives, this is a bittersweet, but partially satisfying send off. We wish they were all as good as ‘Endgame’, but sometimes that’s not the case. This doesn’t mean that the story has no value. So, if you have been a fan of these characters and want to say goodbye to the series, then I think this is worth checking out at some point. It’s far from the high point in this sprawling and jumbled continuity, but it’s worth your time.