Rarely have I walked out of a movie theater so conflicted. There is no denying that Dark Phoenix is a mess. With an alleged budget of 200 million dollars and world wide collections of 280 million, it might have recovered its costs but is still a commercial flop. Yet, I’d be lying if I said I did not enjoy it (for the most part). That said, I judge myself harshly for it. This is not a good movie.
It is a long standing argument amongst reviewers whether any product of entertainment, be it books, music, games or movies, ought to be reviewed on its own merits alone. Which is to say, each product should be reviewed in isolation and not compared with its competitors, much less the cultural zeitgeist of the time. I find the “isolation” argument to be silly, if not impossible. There is a reason why the current generation of video gamer does not play the original Doom from 1993, for instance. The world has moved on and the medium with it. Movies are no different. Which is why I will occasionally bring up other movies in this review. In particular, the MCU’s products are the high-water mark for any film in the comic book genre and any competitor is bound to be compared to them.
When audiences went nuts over Endgame, one of the things that the studio got credit for, was allowing the writers and directors enough time to tell a compelling tale. A decade to be precise. It is unfortunate then, that a movie franchise that kicked off the comic book trend to begin with, ends on such a sorry note. After 19 years no less. Regardless of how one views the X-Men as a franchise, there is no getting around the fact that Dark Phoenix will go down as one of its worst offerings. There’s no way other way to say it, the end to this tale will leave many feeling cheated. Now that we, as an audience, have been spoiled silly by the MCU with its penchant for churning out hit after hit, inspite of sticking to a rather predictable formula, it makes many of the decisions by Dark Phoenix’s writers seem like self-sabotage.
This is probably the movie’s biggest failure. Dark Phoenix fails by the standards set not just by the MCU but by previous movies in this two decade saga. There is a horrid lack of consistency in its story-telling. In this respect, I was constantly reminded of Aquaman. But where Momoa’s presence manages to shrug off the occasional stumble in DC’s underwater adventure, Dark Phoenix’s scripting is so bad, that even its roster of phenomenal talent can’t salvage it. What makes it worse is that the biggest gaffes the movie makes could have been completely avoided. The first scene didn’t HAVE to be set in the vacuum of space. It didn’t HAVE to be set in the 90s. It didn’t HAVE to make the antagonists an alien race that no one cares about. But it did. And every aspect of the film suffers for it. Even where these missteps were made, the damage could be mitigated or indeed, negated completely. In some cases, all it would take is a line or two of dialog. But that didn’t happen.
Is having Dazzler show off her musical skills, in a party no one cares about, absolutely essential? Fine. At least try and make it sound like something out of the 90s instead of some EDM bullshit from last year. The same goes for the fashion and general look of the world. I lived through the 90’s. No one wore those clothes. No one had that hair. None of the characters on screen looked like they were from 25 years ago. And this includes extras, not just the main characters.
What makes this worse is the bunch of stuff that Dark Phoenix then decides NOT to do. Remember the appearance of the Phoenix Force during the climax of the last film (X-Men Apocalypse)? Well, looks like the writers didn’t. Instead we get a convoluted non-story of a bunch of aliens that literally show up out of nowhere. How about the resolution of Quicksilver’s daddy issues vis a vis Magneto? The movie pretends that wasn’t a thing. Shooting off to outer space in a jet that is clearly not meant for the job without spacesuits? Oh sure, THAT they can do. Ugh. Just ugh.
It’s like the director insisted on treating the audience like morons. The overriding sentiment can be summed up thusly: “You’re a comic book geek right? Well you’ll have no problem accepting this horse shit then.” Oh come on. How is this the same studio that gave us the masterpiece that was Logan?!? It makes no sense. The same inconsistency carries over to the treatment of its central characters. Magneto is portrayed as someone who has finally forsaken the idea of “revenge”. He even makes a statement to that effect, driving home the point that he has fundamentally changed. This is a HUGE deal and one of the things X-Men Apocalypse nailed. It is a bold and daring risk to take on a pivotal character. Only its not. Because in less than 15 minutes he will be, you guessed it, killing for revenge. The death of a character he wasn’t even close to anymore was all it took for him to go all murdery again. Look, I warned you that this was a bad film, didn’t I?
One of the MCU’s greatest strengths has been to consistently stay true to the core of their characters whilst (very carefully) changing them just enough to make them palatable to present day sensibilities. They have taken some of the strongest story arcs from the source material and adapted it to fit a modern movie-goer’s expectations. Black Panther and Iron Man were strictly B-List characters. But the writers turned them into primary profit makers. Even hardcore fans of those characters had to admit it was well done, regardless of it not being what they expected.
Which brings me to one of my biggest gripes with this iteration of the X-Men, i.e., in an effort to make their characters more compelling, they took away the “core” of their identities. Nightcrawler just plain sucks. Kurt Wagner is one of my favorite comic book characters, period. His portrayal by Alan Cumming in the 2003 film was near perfect for its time. And that scene where he infiltrates the Whitehouse, still holds a special place in the annals of action sequences, comic book genre or otherwise. But don’t take my word for it. Take a look:
And that was 16 years ago! For some inexplicable reason the creators of the new timeline have tied themselves to the new Kurt’s wet rat aesthetic that we were first subjected to in X-Men Apocalypse. It was bad enough that he was portrayed as a mopey, uncertain, reluctant child in his origin story but I can excuse that. After all, he IS a child when he first shows up. But now he’s a full blooded X-Man, a combatant that for years has undergone hours of daily grueling training under the leadership of fellow bad asses. He’s already saved the world once or twice. What the hell is he so unsure about now? The same applies to other characters in varying degrees. Is Beast ok being blue or not? Is Raven finally a “good” person? Will Scott ever get to be cool? Who knows? Who cares? Not the writers, clearly.
So why did I enjoy it then?
Well for one thing, the acting is fantastic. The actors here, far, far supersede the shitty script. There are moments of calm, when there are no explosions, no action and the weight of the sheer emotions driving the characters comes forth in a manner that is utterly convincing. It makes one forget that there is no reason for half the crap driving those emotions to even exist. James McAvoy and Micheal Fassbender are excellent as always and even Sophie Turner does a convincing job. Jessica Chastain on the other hand, is utterly wasted. It is almost criminal the way the creators decided to squander the talent here by hobbling them with a nonsensical mess of a script. This becomes even more apparent when certain mind-numbingly stupid lines show up, seemingly out of nowhere, serving no purpose and making me (literally) face palm.
For another, the music is good. It complements the action and the more “weighty” emotional scenes with aplomb. That said, this is pretty much what one expects from Hans Zimmer in any film. At times, much like the acting, the music overshadows the visual element on screen.
And finally, though the pacing of the film is clunky, there is a lot going on. At no point was I left waiting for things to happen. For all its faults, those two hours in the theater just flew by. When things blow up in Dark Phoenix, they blow up real good. Even if it makes zero sense whilst allowing for the rather forgiving context of comic book logic.
I suppose it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Dark Phoenix has been dogged by production issues for a long while. And there were rumblings of creative troubles even before Disney’s purchase of Fox compressed the time-line for release. But even re-shoots were clearly not enough for what was obviously a project flawed from its very inception.
There in one sequence in particular, where the fact that the movie had multiple directors becomes crystal clear. I won’t spoil it but will say that it involves a train. It is genuinely fun to watch the characters just go hog wild and let loose. And I finally, FINALLY got to see Nightcrawler go all NIGHTCRAWLER. I mean sure, the thing that tips him over the edge is the death of a nobody and the train itself (much like the plot) is headed nowhere, but I didn’t care. After 16 long years, Kurt got to break loose and it was spectacular. But it is a fleeting moment and ends too quickly. What’s more, a moment’s introspection will make you wonder why half the things that lead to this climactic scene even happened. Like I said, you need to be ok with the director treating you like a moron. See why I judge myself harshly? I should hate such visual pandering. Maybe I was short on sleep, or in an exceptionally forgiving mood.
As I write this, Dark Phoenix has a Rotten Tomatoes critic score of 23% while fan reviews have hovered around the 64% mark. I can see why that is. Viewed with a critical eye, this movie is a disaster. From a fan’s perspective, it is not that bad. It’s bad, just not 23% bad. Which is unfortunately, the best thing I can say about it. We deserved better.
FINAL SCORE: 5.5/10
PS: I briefly touch upon what made Logan so special in the last episode of the podcast. Also, if you haven’t watched the first two X-Men movies from the early 2000s, do so. They still hold up.