‘X-Men: Dark Phoenix’ Review

A tribute to the franchise that most closely approximated what it's like to read comic books

Dark Phoenix

Now that 21st Century Fox has become the property of Disney, one imagines that the nearly 20-year-old X-Men franchise will be rebooted* and integrated into the stunningly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe at some point in the next few years. It may be worth taking a moment, then, to pay tribute to the series of films that most closely approximated what it's like to read comic books.

Blade (1998) served as proof of concept for the idea that Marvel's intellectual property could be mined in a compelling and profitable way, but 2000's X-Men was Marvel's first real big budget effort to adapt a hugely popular series in a manner that wouldn't be seen as instantly embarrassing. Its release was legitimately exciting for those of us in the comic book community (read: dorks). Here was something we'd always envisioned and hoped for, but had never really seen outside of a few mediocre Superman movies and two decent Batman flicks.

Excitement gave way to disappointment, as the creative team switched from the steady hand of Bryan Singer (whose X2 remains one of the genre's highlights) to Brett "The Big Butt Book" Ratner (whose X-Men: The Last Stand remains one of the genre's jokes, though I'd argue this is a bit unfair in retrospect). Comic book fans are eternally arguing about creative teams—which writers truly understand their characters; which pencilers give books the realism and excitement they need to entertain—and movie fans were happy to do the same.

Then came the spinoffs: Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) earning standalone movies of their own, just as they had earned standalone comic book titles years earlier. Sure, this diluted the brand a bit, but fan favorites are fan favorites. Then came the reboots and retconning in the form of X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past, which in turn led to disappointment (X-Men: Apocalypse, just terrible on every level) and, at last, the final stage of comic book fandom: boredom.

The problem with X-Men: Dark Phoenix isn't so much that it's bad. It's not good, exactly. Weird things go under-discussed. I'm not entirely sure I could explain to you the powers or the weaknesses of the alien race headed by … well, Jessica Chastain—I guess, I can't really remember the character's name—that is stalking Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), who has gained some sort of cosmic power. For that matter, I'm not sure I could explain to you the powers of cosmically powered Jean Grey, other than to say she can do a lot. The action scenes are wholly under-baked, especially in comparison to some of the series' highlights like Nightcrawler's assault on the West Wing in X2 and the opening battle in Days of Future Past, one of the few action films I've ever seen utilize 3D effectively.

For the most part, Dark Phoenix is a perfectly competent bit of X-Men action, a movie where Professor X (James McAvoy) preaches the need for mutants and humans to live in coexistence while Magneto (Michael Fassbender) argues it can never happen.

This, of course, is the real problem: the series has never moved beyond that dichotomy. It can't move beyond that dichotomy. These characters are hamsters stuck on a wheel: There's only so much for them to do, so many world-threatening forces to defeat, so many speeches about tolerance that can be delivered. As any reader of serial superhero books knows, things have a tendency to repeat, to veer toward redundancy. There's a limit to the number of stories you can tell when you have a single theme (equality!) and a single mode of storytelling (epic action!).

This is why the MCU succeeds and endures: They are making many different types of movies (epic action, yes, but also buddy comedies and space operas and heist flicks) that aren't really weighed down by ideas. Boredom has yet to set in because super-producer Kevin Feige has, like Daenerys Targaryen before him, broken the (hamster) wheel.

Feel free to skip Dark Phoenix. It's the sort of movie only completists need to see. But take a moment to remember the X-Men franchise as it fades into oblivion.

*If I had to guess, The New Mutants movie that keeps getting pushed back will never be released as a feature film in theaters.