When last we left the current “X-Men” series, we had been made to suffer through what is arguably the worst entry in the entire franchise, “X-Men: Apocalypse.” With its meandering storyline and one-dimensional villain, it was a major disappointment to the fans, especially after the first two entries of the rebooted saga (“First Class” and “Days of Future Past”) resulted in the two best films in the “X-Men” universe to date. However, this has not stopped the studio from surging forward with another entry in an attempt to close out the saga on a high note. This brings us to “Dark Phoenix,” written and directed by Simon Kinberg, who had been responsible for writing the aforementioned disaster. However, he also wrote “Days of Future Past,” which seemed to indicate that this next entry could easily land on either side of the spectrum. With this in mind, all the fans could do was hope for the best.
As “Dark Phoenix” opens, we witness the tragic car accident that supposedly resulted in the death of Jean Grey’s parents in 1975, leading her to go live with Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) at his school for “gifted” children. In the present day (1992), we find that regular humans are becoming a little more accepting of mutants thanks to them helping to save lives, including those of several astronauts whose ship malfunctioned in space. However, during this rescue mission, an unknown entity passes through Jean (Sophie Turner) and becomes a part of her, making her much more powerful than ever before. The power becomes too much for Jean, and, after an incident at a school party, she decides to run away out of fear of hurting her fellow students. Further incidents result in everyone trying to find her, including another unknown entity, Vuk (Jessica Chastain), who seeks to acquire the power that Jean has been granted, but for a rather sinister purpose that would put the whole world at stake.
When it was announced that the next film in the “X-Men” series would be taking on the “Dark Phoenix” saga, it was met with a little optimism for it’s probably the single most popular arc in the entire comic series. However, with the film coming on the heels of “Apocalypse,” it was also met with a fair amount of skepticism, for after botching the titular villain, how could anyone expect Kinberg to do justice to such a beloved story? Pile on to that numerous reshoots and trailers that didn’t exactly spark a lot of confidence in the final product, and it looked like you had another disaster in the making. So was it? The funny thing is that the answer surprisingly ends up being yes AND no.
At its onset, the film competently sets up Jean Grey’s storyline, giving us her past tragedy and her current dilemma, and ergo setting the stage for what seemed like it was going to be a surprisingly decent entry in the series. In fact, after hearing nothing but hateful disdain, it was starting to seem like there had been a gross over-exaggeration to how the film had turned out, for the first half is actually alright. Granted, it didn’t seem like Kinberg was doing as much as he could with the material, but still, it was becoming hard to determine how it had earned the amount of vitriol that had been spewed at it.
That being said, it became clearer as the film entered its second half. It’s here where the film transitions from being about a scared young woman trying to cope with something unimaginable to a loud, bland, and stupefying action spectacle, in a sense, throwing away everything it had built up with that promising first half. The emotion of the story quickly wanes as we watch everyone try to reach Jean in one big action sequence, which is followed shortly after by the even bigger climactic train fight/light show. Just as it had been in the previous film, it becomes quite monotonous, making you lose interest in what’s happening. In the end, all it does is make you wonder what kind of film this could have been had Kinberg not resorted to this lower route, and rather continued on the emotional track where the characters were the focus, instead of allowing them to get lost in the scuffle.
Even with this unfortunate turn of events in the latter half of the film, it’s pretty safe to say that “Dark Phoenix” easily manages to outdo its predecessor. The previous film had been a disappointment on pretty much every level from beginning to end, but this latest entry actually has a lot to like. As mentioned, the first half sets up what could have been a decent film, showcasing the talented Sophie Turner, on top of the same great cast that we’ve known for many years now, including James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, and Nicholas Hoult. It is a pretty big shame that the incredible, two-time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain is completely wasted in the villainous role of Vuk, but it’s always good to see her regardless.
Unfortunately, even with its more likable qualities, it’s not nearly enough to stop the film from being another disappointment in the series. This rebooted franchise did indeed give us the two best films in the entire “X-Men” universe, but I suppose it was foolhardy to think that that level of quality could be kept up indefinitely. As we come to the end of the “X-Men”/Fox era, I suppose there’s a reason to be hopeful about the future of the franchise. If they do eventually become an official part of the MCU, there’s no telling how incredible the next entry could be. It’s sad to see the current run go out with a kind of whimper, but at least we can say that it resulted in some greatness, and it’s those films that will always be remembered. 2/4 stars.