Simon Kinberg’s Dark Phoenix might as well be retitled Contractual Obligations: The Movie. For a comic book adaptation of this thematic magnitude, speaking for female representation en masse, it’s devastatingly inconsequential. Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s “The Dark Phoenix Saga” continues to be referenced as one of the Marvel Comics Universe’s most iconic storylines, but Kinberg’s cinematic reissue fails to attain equal reverence. As exhaustively procedural a franchise shakeup you’d never ask for, (possibly) ending Fox’s X-Men canon with one last hurrah that got creatively scooped by Captain Marvel. This is a phoned-in finale; nothing more but potentially even less.
Marvel’s “Dark Phoenix” arc sees Jean Gray (Sophie Turner) become the ultimate evolution of her psychic and telepathic powers after colliding with chart-spiking solar flares. Jean feels descriptively “great,” but Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) worry when their friend cannot restrain her amplified abilities. Not even Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) can quell Jean’s inexplicable outbursts (for his own selfish reasons), which leads to a scared mutant fleeing from institute grounds in search of answers. That’s when Jean encounters an alien shapeshifter, Vuc (played by Jessica Chastain), who teaches the betrayed orphan about what limitless powers she now possesses. She’s the devil on Jean’s shoulder as the X-Men pursue their unstable rouge teammate.
Dark Phoenix details the corruption, fall, and subsequent rebirth of Jean Grey. Power unbeknownst tears the X-Men apart as they debate how to save her. Xavier, who assured the small parentless child she’s anything but “broken,” leads a rescue party alongside Cyclops (Jean’s flame). Magneto (Michael Fassbender), partnering with Beast for undisclosed reasons, forms a rival assassination squad. War soon breaks out, creating collateral damage in plain sight as all Xavier’s work to achieve coexistence between humans and mutants is catastrophically undone.
Despite the gravity of what I’ve described above, Dark Phoenix never lives to replicate Claremont and Byrne’s momentous milestone. What should be torturously heartfelt and rife with humility barely registers a pulse as characters fill expected and divided superhero roles.
“Dark and gritty” becomes their comfort zone. No emotional beat feels earned, creaky and robotic with each actor doing their best “smoldering brood” persona. Case in point: you *know* Cyclops is distraught because he drops an F-bomb in front of Xavier. How edgy! Expect dullness in seriousness, failure in sacrifice, and worst of all, one-dimensional storytelling that numbs one of the most complicated X-Men character studies.
It becomes obvious whose filming schedules were more open than others, as Quicksilver (Evan Peters) noticeably disappears without a mention for Act II and Act III. Don’t worry, Kinberg introduces Magneto’s government-sanctioned mutant reservation where we meet fan-favorites such as Mr. Dreadlock Whip Braids or Goth Punk Lady Xavier, nameless and only defined by their powers.
Characters outside of Jean are undeveloped as nothing but pawn sacrifices, from signature X-Men a la Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) to Jessica Chastain’s extraterrestrial mentor. The latter is granted zero depth beyond chasing intergalactic God-being status (which is permitted by Jean’s new glowing aura), despite tossing some choice lines about “small, puny-brained men” who undervalue and overshadow vastly more powerful women around them.
Dark Phoenix beats a drum for Jean’s female-led superhero existence – see: Mystique’s “X-Women” quip about how ladies always seem to be saving the men, or gaslighting as a core textural component – but with such slight, unenthusiastic arcs, sincerity suffers. The tone resonates like a Marvel soap opera, and not the energetic Telenovela kind.
Kinberg’s dour X-Men glibness is not without highlight elements, of course, as you’ve got Hans Zimmer’s haunting score. It provides orchestral sobriety during rainy kitchen table arguments or frantic reclamations of self imbues dense, bleak moods, only to be wasted on stiff dialogue delivered by “conflicted” aka desensitized characters.
Act III brings an explosive battle between Vuc’s changeling clan (random civilian skins) and imprisoned mutants mid-locomotive travel where Magneto’s finger-flicked metal weapons beat attackers senseless, but the primal ferocity of, say, Nightcrawler’s (Kodi Smit-McPhee) snapped rage never ignites. Big, epic moments sink rather than spike excitement, and Kinberg never shakes this unconvincing performance quality throughout. You can spot production issues on screen – chopped up story reconfiguring, budget sidesteps, reshoot reshaping – and it’s a bummer. You can’t blame Chastain for voicing disdain over Vuc’s relegation to forgettable villainy.
With X-Men properties now under Disney’s umbrella, many hoped Dark Phoenix would be a thunderous crescendo to close Fox’s ongoing mutant saga. Alas, Simon Kinberg’s hinging on Jean’s emotions being her true superpower – oddly not the radiating solar mysticism surging through her veins – is but an inconsequential footnote. Actors appear tired and battle-weary from superhero franchise fatigue, which translates to a spiritless and dismal affair. Kinberg’s narrative is a product of patchwork scrambling and unearned patriarchal damnation without punch. Dark Phoenix dares to define a moment in society and superhero rebranding, but fails when living up to such ambitions. If this is the last we see of McAvoy’s Xavier and his X-Clan, what an unfortunate exit.
Dark Phoenix takes arguably the most heavily thematic X-Men comic arc and delivers the most dully procedural, chopped-to-bits cinematic franchise entry in Fox’s mutant canon.