'Dark Phoenix' Review - What It Does Well and Not So Well Compared to the MCU
This is a non-spoiler review of the new X-Men film 'Dark Phoenix'.
This is a non-spoiler review of the new X-Men film Dark Phoenix, another retelling of The Dark Phoenix Saga, this time set in 1992. (Though, thankfully, the film is not too "in your face" about it being 1992.) It is being perceived as the final X-Men film before the property eventually gets integrated and reinvented by the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Technically, The New Mutants will be the last film of this continuity. And while Dark Phoenix may not necessarily feel like as grand of a finale as one might hope for the cast of the 2010s X-Men films, it puts me in a position where I appreciate what Fox has done well and what Marvel Studios has done well.
When it comes to team movies, the MCU does a great job of balancing screentime between its various characters, giving viewers a good sense of who each person is. Just look at the Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy films. As with some of the previous X-Men films, Dark Phoenix struggles to find an even balance between its characters. Just short of two hours, this film could have benefited from a longer runtime for this sort of stuff. To be fair, what this film does with the characters they choose to give more focus is very compelling.
Jean Grey's (Sophie Turner) past, with its brilliantly set up revelations and all, is fleshed out very well. The struggle with the cosmic force within her feels very believable as an alien race called the D'bari try to use it. And her attempt to seek help to stop hurting others is comparable to one trying to seek a kindred spirit who has endured similar desires or addictions. I buy Charles Xavier (James MacAvoy) as the somewhat egotistical leader trying to gain good PR for the X-Men after years of struggling to bring equality to mutants. I buy Hank (Nicholas Hoult) and Raven's (Jennifer Lawrence) reactions to his arrogance. I buy how Magneto (Michael Fassbender) has changed yet stayed the same in some ways since the events of X-Men: Apocalypse. Some might not like deviations from the comics, but I quite like how Mystique in this new timeline has changed from a villain to a heroic figure who inspires mutants to be themselves. Even if these characters do not feel exactly like other iterations that viewers might prefer, the actors do well with what they are given for the most part.
Other deviations, though, such as Nightcrawler's (Kodi Smit-McPhee) actions toward the end, are a bit hard to swallow. He, Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) to an extent get very little to say, to the point where I sometimes forgot that they were in the movie. Plus, Jubilee is absent, apparently due to Lana Condor (who portrayed her in Apocalypse) having scheduling conflicts. There should be more emotion when it comes to Cyclops' relationship with Jean, but he's just not featured enough. I don't have a good idea of who Storm is in relation to the other characters. As much as I enjoyed Apocalypse, it was bothersome that it lacked any sort of hint that Nightcrawler is Mystique's son like he is in the comics. Such a revelation would have been good fuel for stuff that happens in Dark Phoenix.
And while Quicksilver was previously revealed to be Magneto's son, none of that matters in this film, where he gets sidelined and does not have a scene with Magneto at all. I enjoyed Quicksilver's spotlight-stealing scenes in Days of Future Past and Apocalypse, though I can kind of understand why he would not be utilized so much here. The events of this film need to be a challenge, and he cannot be a fix-all. But that seems irrelevant when Jean becomes too powerful for him to handle. There comes a point where one can just embrace that this is Fox's last stab at these particular characters outside of the MCU, which will do a better job of fleshing them out eventually anyway. If you can accept that, you can enjoy the fight scenes despite the lack of character development. But of course, the MCU has already had a Quicksilver. And how could his relationship with Magneto be depicted given his fate in that universe? Could the multiverse come into play? Possibly. We'll have to wait and see. I suppose that it should also be noted that Quicksilver's best scenes in the previous X-Men films serve for great comic relief, and trying to top them may not have worked with the tone of this film.
Over the years, the X-Men films have wavered between feeling somewhat serious early on, to feeling brighter and a bit more humor-filled without completely losing the operatic feeling of the stories that are told. (Though the Deadpool films of this series are very much comedic.) Logan took place in what is a very bleak future for the titular character and the other mutants who appear in that film, including Xavier himself. Dark Phoenix feels like it has a Logan-inspired influence in how it's trying to feel a bit more grounded than the previous three team films and somewhat bleak like Logan. A dark tone, but not to the point where I would consider it to be off-putting. This is just a very intimate, dramatic story. This is very much an X-Men film that, for better or worse, may take longtime viewers out of their comfort zones.
Hans Zimmer's music for this film feels like it may end up being an acquired taste, but I feel that it makes for a good subtle driving force during synergistic actions showcasing the characters' power sets and gorgeous cinematography. I actually enjoyed the vibe, effects, and aesthetics of this film. At the climax, we get to see the X-Men unleashed, fighting with a refreshing lack of quipping. What strikes me is that Dark Phoenix does not feel like it has a style that would be present in an MCU film, except maybe The Incredible Hulk in some respects.
The conflict of this film is more intimate than large-scale, so for some it might not feel like an epic grand finale for this iteration of these characters. But to me, it does feel like a finale of sorts in that Dark Phoenix makes bold tone choices that Marvel Studios would likely not take with future films if they continue the trend they have been following over the last several years. Yes, the MCU has had both comedic and serious moments, but it feels like it does not really go beyond the bubble that it has established. Perhaps even The New Mutants, which will be more of a horror film, will also feel like a big finale from a bold choice in tone standpoint.
While the MCU has done well with continuity overall, the X-Men films have had their own share of problems. Just sticking to this film itself, the way that it leaves off does not line up precisely with certain details of the "good future" ending of Days of Future Past. But since this is 1992 and that future is in 2023, a lot can happen. Perhaps there is some comic book logic that one could mentally come up with for the time in between? I suppose that one could even use the time travel in Deadpool 2 to handwave away anything that does not quite line up.
I cannot help but wonder whether the ending is from the reshoots or whether it was always the intended ending. Last year, it was revealed that Dark Phoenix was intended to be the beginning of a trilogy. But of course, that is no longer happening, what with Fox's acquisition by Disney. But I do wonder how much of this film was intended, and whether two more sequels would have bridged the gap between this and the end of Days of Future Past better.
In my opinion, Dark Phoenix, as it stands, is better than The Last Stand. (See what I did there?) It does a better job of telling a version of The Dark Phoenix Saga, though a longer runtime and more explanation regarding Magneto's band of mutants and the D'bari's intentions would have been preferred. The critics seem to be saying that this is the worst X-Men movie, but I think that honor goes to X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Dark Phoenix is not as excellent as Days of Future Past or Logan, though it's difficult for me to rank it among the other films since the tone and style feel very different. I would have to re-evaluate each film to nail it down precisely. Maybe next year, for the first X-Men film's 20th anniversary, I'll go through all the movies and try to assign scores for each of them. For all I know, my rating for Dark Phoenix could change slightly by then. But here's the score that I feel it deserves at the moment:
Good. The audience I was with applauded, and I thought it was well-deserved for the accomplishments that the film did present. There is certainly room for improvement regarding the characters, but we know we will probably get that via the MCU. So why not try to enjoy the last outing from these versions of the characters? They're gonna get rebooted anyway. We might lose some stylistic choices when all the mutants transition into the MCU, which is why I would say to enjoy this film for what it tries differently. And it might've been nice to have had the 1992 X-Men animated series' theme included somewhere in the movie, but what can you do?