The worst thing a film can be is a waste of time. That is not a common thing for films to be either. Disposable? Definitely possible. Deeply flawed? You bet. Yet almost every movie is secretly worth a watch if not your money. There’s always something to personally learn or at least enjoy from mediocrity.
Dark Phoenix is a waste of time in almost every aspect. Even in contrast to other awful superhero films, this film offers very little. Fantastic Four (2015) was a radical departure from a formula and creatively sought new avenues for the property. Batman v Superman (2016) had two of the biggest characters in the world, who have an ideological conflict with each other, with interesting imagery and terrible writing. Even Suicide Squad (2016) or Venom (2018) offer unique styles or humor that created something inherently valuable to them.
Dark Phoenix spits in our faces. This film was made because of reasons unforeseen. Some producers in Hollywood thought that because the Vaughn/Singer soft reboot X-Men films were meeting decent reception and great box office returns, that taking underdeveloped characters played by actors unattached to their characters and slapping the most important X-Men story arc on them to sell tickets was good enough for a film. Despite Fox being in the process of getting bought out by Marvel. Despite a large majority (or all?) of the cast being without contractual obligation to do the film. Despite nobody wanting to see this movie from the moment the words “Dark Phoenix” were typed in Final Draft.
It starts as rough and brutal, with a car crash. It’s an attempt to gain sympathy for the supposed lead of the film, Jean Grey. The actress playing the young Jean is given more emotional depth and stronger writing than the entirety of what was written for her adult actress Sophie Turner. Sophie becomes a walking plot McGuffin for the second half of the film, only to spout lines about being alone or belonging to a family or whatever cliche seems appropriate at the time. MY EMOTIONS DO NOT MAKE ME WEAK, THEY MAKE ME STRONG!
The real antagonists of the film are aliens. They’re looking for Jean to use her hidden power and gift for themselves. This is the real problem of the film. Both in writing and performance, they are given very little to do but be evil. Not even fun evil. They’re emotionless aliens, I can’t fathom why Chastain would have accepted this role. Perhaps in another draft or another production, she had more to do than have a blank emotionless face and monotone voice, but not here. They also don’t really interact with the rest of the cast in a meaningful way and offer no real use to the story other than to tell people “Jean’s a good person even if she’s doing bad things.”
Jean’s fellow X-Men rookies are meant to be the iconic X-Men that people have come to love. I mean, even though there’s no Wolverine or Colossus this is a pretty classic roster from the comics: Jean; Cyclops; Storm; Nightcrawler; Beast; and Quicksilver. Yet, these characters have never been developed. Beast has, but he also has the least chemistry with this team. Everyone else has only been here for a previous movie or two, and the public has never truly been given a chance to explore and love these great characters. We’ve just seen Cyclops so much we know he looks like a dweeb and cares a lot about Jean. That’s all we’ve ever known for twenty years. It also looks super dumb when Apocalypse (2016) ends on their colorful and iconic costumes and this film decides to go for yellow X uniforms because they thought it would test better.
The most interesting the film gets is in the writing of the First Class cast. At least, Xavier Beast and Mystique. Xavier especially gets a lot more range than normal. Instead of a caring, stoic, preaching peace for all he’s an egomaniac obsessed with acceptance. I can actually see why McAvoy would come back, this is an interesting turn for the character. Jennifer Lawrence walks in and walks out of the film as a Mystique that doesn’t want to be there both in the film and in real life. Her makeup is half-assed and she didn’t even want to wear it for half of what little screen time she had. Her bonding with Beast and arguing against Xavier feels like the only real drama of the film and it’s fleeting. Her final scene is ugly and depressing and is sure to be something Lawrence wanted to forget for a long time.
Fassbender’s Magneto gets a worse treatment here. They run through his standard stuff about standing for mutants being kind of a bad guy and having a relationship with Charles, but it’s all done with way less grace. In one scene he preaches how much he’s changed over the course of these films, how vengeance isn’t essential to his life anymore… Yet ten minutes later he has vengeance on the brain and you wonder if the script was even proofread during the revisions. This isn’t even to mention his appearance is probably the most blatant offense to the context and continuity of the X-Men: if this film takes place in the nineties that means ten years later he’s supposed to look like Ian Mckellan did in X-Men (2000). What do they do for him? Makeup? Grey up some hair? Have him seem more tired and beat up? It’s supposedly been thirty years since X-Men: First Class (2011), yet Fassbender remains as strong and as youthful as he ever was.
The best part of the film does, however, go to Magneto, who tells Charles, “You’re always sorry Charles, there’s always a speech, and no one cares.” Finally, somebody said what I was thinking for once in this film.
A saving grace is the train sequence near the end of the film (a product of reshoots I hear), as it provides a very nice fight sequence and other fight sequences earlier show off the team properly despite some grievances.
Everyone was anticipating the Disney buyout to merge the Fox properties as soon as possible. Fans of comic films were treating this entry like an unwanted relative in a home they were eagerly awaiting to die to collect the inheritance. I was one of the few that wasn’t counting the days on the calendar for the cancellation announcement. You know why?
Pretend if you will, that there was a world or an alternate timeline or dimension where this film was good. Any 2019 X-Men film was good. Imagine that this film and Apocalypse and all the ones before it was beloved and artistic and powerful. Imagine people wanting to see these movies. Do you know what Disney and Marvel Studios would’ve done to reinvent the franchise for the MCU? Nothing. They would’ve kept everything as packaged with the casting and direction of the series and just had Spider-Man and Thor quip around them for a bit. Despite Disney’s monolithic hold on cinematic creativity, I gotta give credit where credit is due: Disney doesn’t want to ruin good things. They’ll make twenty sequels to it and maybe upset some neckbeards online, but they know what makes money and what is bad for a brand. They’re keeping the Deadpool franchise just the way it is. Why? Because there wasn’t a problem. Nobody wants to take Ryan Reynolds away from Deadpool or change up the production team or tone.
Remember the modern superhero craze truly started with Singer’s X-Men. It had good (enough) writing, powerful casting, great social commentary, and interesting chemistry and effects. Good X-Men movies were still being made. Logan (2017) just came out a few years ago. There was a way for Fox to preserve this tremendous cinematic legacy, by not trying to keep churning out as much money as possible and treat the source material and everyone involved with respect. Instead, they started to sour the brand.
The biggest surprise was Disney didn’t pull the film. Yet, maybe they wanted it to bomb. Probably not entirely, they definitely tried to advertise it with full force in recent weeks, yet… Maybe they saw the writing on the wall and thought the best way to pull the plug and start over was to invite everyone into the retirement home to see how sick their relative has gotten. The people to feel sorry for is the cast, who do not deserve the tribal -almost cosmic – demand and inevitability for this movie to fail and completely waste everyone’s time.