Cinematic Releases: The End of X (For Now): Dark Phoenix (2019) - Reviewed

20th Century Fox has often been criticized for its treatment of superhero franchises. With the exceptions of Deadpool and Wolverine, the consensus among diehard fans is that they don’t quite get it right. 

After X-Men: Apocalypse disappointed audiences with its uninspired treatment of one of the the X-Universe’s most classic villains, many seemed to lose faith in Fox altogether. When the new X-Men film Dark Phoenix was announced, the buzz was virtually nonexistent for this film living in the shadow of Avengers: Endgame. An abundance of reshoots and release date postponements only added to this collective sense of “meh” preceding the film. Is the film worthy of all this preemptive disinterest, though?

Sansa sad. 

With many plot points adjusted for the sake of time and concision (perhaps much to the dismay of comic book purists), the film tackles arguably one of the X-Men’s most highly regarded storylines. The X-Men are on a mission to rescue stranded astronauts when Jean Grey is caught in a cosmic explosion that leaves her with insidious, amplified powers. Upon returning to earth, she and her teammates learn the destructive extent of her enhanced psychic abilities, which not only ostracizes Jean from everyone she loves, but ultimately causes a rift between the other X-Men, who are divided on how to subdue her dangerous impulses. All the while, shapeshifting aliens come to earth in search of the mysterious force inhabiting Jean, aware of its true nature and vast potential.

Dark Phoenix is smaller in scope than its predecessors, and that is its greatest strength. It is more centrally focused and character-driven than Apocalypse, allowing for more of a natural investment in the conflict at hand. Rather than trying to make every X-Man the star here, the majority of the film spotlights Jean’s descent into darkness and the way it is affecting those closest to her. As a result, we see unique, compelling sides of characters like Beast, which adds a depth not often seen in some of the other X-Men installments. There are occasions when the film becomes full-fledged, unwelcomed melodrama, but for the most part, the intimate exchanges work, especially in the first act. The problem arises when the action sequences begin to outnumber the moments of heart, and we eventually become lost in a sea of distracting visual effects and far too many characters fighting for attention by its climax. In the end, the qualities that initially set the film apart have diminished: the character interactions start to feel cold rather than genuine, and the big battles are so drawn out with boring antagonists that they become tedious and disengaging.

The small victories of Dark Phoenix are undeniably due to its strong cast of talented actors. Sophie Turner makes Jean Grey’s turmoil more sympathetic than it is in The Last Stand, while Michael Fassbender’s depiction of Magneto continues to intrigue, portraying a damaged man trying to live peacefully, but is in essence only one bad day away from becoming spiteful again. James McAvoy plays a complex Xavier that was only previously touched upon in Days of Future Past; had a less adept actor tackled the role, the moments where we question some of his intentions wouldn’t have worked as well. We see a real person in him, not an infallible leader that seems to have all the answers. In sharp contrast, the script fails other actors that are typically worthy of praise: Evan Peters as Quicksilver, for example, often brings charisma and laughs, but this time around, his inclusion in the film feels inorganic, with one-liners that are completely cringeworthy.

Sansa mad. 

Although Dark Phoenix is flawed in many regards, there is enough about it that will be worth a watch for followers of the previous X-Men films starting with First Class. Fans of the Dark Phoenix Saga in the original comic books, however, might have to dive in with a more open mind to fully appreciate this one. It’s not the best superhero movie by any means, but it most certainly isn’t the worst. Don’t be scared off too easily by the naysayers, and give this one a chance if a dark, character-based action film with a sci-fi slant sounds like your cup of tea.

-Andrea Riley