Picture Credit: Disney/Fox
Dark Phoenix, like every other movie in Fox’s X-Men Universe, had potential. The X-Men are some of the most complex, original, and powerful characters I’ve come across in all of superherodom, but there’s yet to be an adaptation that I feel truly captures the greatness of these characters (James Mangold’s Logan excluded, of course). Dark Phoenix is another installment to the X-Men series showing us all that these characters have to offer, but never fully exploring their potential.
I think it’s unfair to categorize Dark Phoenix as the “worst” or “best” of the X-Men movies and I certainly believe that it’s garnered a lot of unearned hatred. It does have it’s faults (and a lot of them), but I’ll dive into that later. First, I want to address some of the definitive pros of the film that have been largely ignored.
Of all of the superhero movies I’ve seen in the last decade or so (way too many if you ask me), Dark Phoenix has had some of the most impressive CGI. The X-Men franchise has always been good at using CGI as a tool to improve on their films rather than centering them around large scale battles that don’t even further the plot. Dark Phoenix was no different in this regard and I was very impressed with how they chose to utilize it
I also think it was interesting to see the X-Men finally be accepted by larger society to some extent, even for only a few scenes. To see how each character was changed by this sudden acceptance after so many years of fighting constant rejection, persecution, and ridicule was fascinating. One of my favorite things about the X-Men universe is how the people, not the superheroes and not the government officials, have a voice. I only wish that the movie spent more time on the relationship between humans and mutants and how changing political conditions affected the lives of the X-Men.
So while Dark Phoenix surely has its strengths and isn’t nearly as bad as most of the internet will have you believe, it certainly has flaws that are impossible to overlook.
One of my main problems with Dark Phoenix was how characters who in the most recent movies were given so little screen time were given such huge roles. Jean, Scott, Storm, and even Quik Silver were only very recently introduced into the universe and it felt like they rushed two or three more movies into a few scenes. There are so many moments that are supposed to feel epic and all consuming, but end up falling flat because of how little time was invested into these characters beforehand.
My theory is that Dark Phoenix was originally supposed to properly introduce us to the new” X-Men, but when plans for Disney to take over the franchise came about, they had to make changes that compromised the quality of the film. So what should’ve been a movie that introduced the next phase of the universe was turned into a sendoff for the new and old characters.
Even with backstories, quirky jokes every once in awhile, and proclamations of love, nothing connects the audience with these characters. Relationships with the audience that take several movies to establish were rushed and relied too heavily on knowing the history of these characters from previous adaptations. Erik, Raven, Hank, and Xavier have all been built up, we know them, we love them, we know what motivates them and we care whether they live or die. When Raven is killed, we care because we know her, we love her, and we know that this is goodbye. When Jean sacrifices her life to save everyone in the most heroic manner, we feel nothing. This moment that’s supposed to be the final goodbye for such an important character and universe winds up feeling forced and stale.
Again, it’s not because Jean is a bad character or because we don’t like her, we just don’t get enough time to care. Her character arc is never fully developed and the same goes for the newer X-Men as well. Because of it, Jean feels more like an obstacle thrown in for tensions to rise between other, more important, characters.
I hate to compare, especially to the MCU, but in this case it feels necessary. When Tony Stark put on that glove in Avengers: Endgame and sacrificed himself to save his friends and the world in the same way Jean Grey did, it’s monumental and earth-shattering because we’ve watched this character grow and develop over ten years and we knew what was at cost. With Dark Phoenix, it’s unearned and messy. The risk isn’t well defined and it’s difficult for us to really care about or appreciate the sacrifice Jean is making because of it.
Another one of the reasons that Dark Phoenix doesn’t quite work like it should is because it’s not sure who it’s protagonist is.
It’s called Dark Phoenix and Sophie Turner is the biggest person on the poster, but the narrative hardly cares about her. It’s not told from her point of view; in fact almost every scene featuring her paints everyone else as far more sympathetic yet when she sacrifices herself for everyone, we’re supposed to be devastated. Even with flashbacks to her traumatic childhood and a father figure who supposedly cares about her, it’s difficult to feel any real connection with her.
Jean is treated not as a protagonist and not as an antagonist, but as a problem that the X-Men must contain for their own reasons. It doesn’t feel like the team wants to help Jean for the sake of helping Jean. They’re doing it to keep from ruining their reputation and challenging this time of peace politically. The characters (through some mediocre at best dialogue) scream at us how much they care about her wellbeing, but everything from the narrative to the performances don’t do much to convince us that she even has any significant connections. Everything, even her relationship with Scott, feels of surface level importance not only because we hardly know Jean, but because she isn’t the star of the movie. Her wellbeing isn’t the audience’s number one concern
It’s understandable that the filmmakers chose to make this film more about the team as a whole as it was their last chance for closure, but it’s a shame that Jean Grey doesn’t really get to have the spotlight in her own movie.
Dark Phoenix wasn’t the perfect sendoff to the X-Men Universe that we were all hoping for, but it was a pretty decent and entertaining movie that didn’t get to be what it should’ve been because of outside forces.
I’m sad to see this universe go, Dark Phoenix only proved to me how much more potential it had. There’s actually a few great storylines somewhere in there about how Professor X has allowed his ego to overshadow his care for the mutants, how Hank is much more than Charles’s sidekick, and even a real origin story for Storm, but we’ll never get to see them. We can only hope that Disney’s adaptation of these characters takes advantage of all they have to offer.