Maybe X-Men: The Last Stand wasn’t an accurate adaptation of the Dark Phoenix comics, but at least it was a fun celebration of an ensemble of character. Dark Phoenix feels joyless and obligatory. I don’t believe it was. I believe writer/director Simon Kinberg really cares about Dark Phoenix, but somewhere along the line that passion didn’t make it to screen.
Eight-year-old Jean Grey (Summer Fontana) suffered a childhood trauma when her mutant power she couldn’t control killed her parents in an automobile accident. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) took her in to teach her how to control her powers. On a space mission, X-woman Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) absorbs some space heat that makes her powers uncontrollable again as an adult. It turns out Charles actually manipulated things in young Jean’s head that the space heat unraveled.
X-Men stories work best when they are metaphors for prejudice and persecution. There is still a valid metaphor in the issue of Jean’s empowerment. Parents often manipulate kids to “protect them,” but ultimately you can’t micromanage your children’s problems away and they will manifest.
Charles and Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) also argue about his strategy to basically do PR stunts as the X-Men to make sure the public loves them. He’ll do anything to avoid the days of mutant persecution. It’s a good debate when Raven argues that it’s not worth risking their lives to make them like us. Her line about X-women is a little blatant but the sentiment is valid. The film never really explores either argument though.
Also some aliens come to Earth and take the form of Margaret (Jessica Chastain) and her dinner guests. The aliens look like the Skrulls and have the exact same powers but I guess Captain Marvel called dibs on using their actual name so they’re just unnamed aliens in Dark Phoenix.
Dark Phoenix seems more preoccupied with the aliens’ mission to gain Jean’s power and the divided X-Men looking to kill or save Jean than it is with Jean’s own struggle with her abilities. It is great to see a woman come into her power, but it’s like Dark Phoenix knows the right message but doesn’t know how to get there.
As such, you’ll find yourself distracted by blatant minutiae. Jean suddenly has blood on her shirt from killing someone, whom she literally never touched because her powers are telekinetic. After a tragedy, Hank (Nicholas Hoult) sits at the table with a glass of water. It’s literally half full. Get it?
All of the action set pieces occur in the middle of nowhere: an empty suburban street, Magneto (Michael Fassbender)’s off the grid encampment, on a train going through the forest. Remember when X-Men battles took place on the Statue of Liberty or Golden Gate Bridge? To be fair, the airport in Captain America: Civil War is fully evacuated before the superheroes fight there, but at least it’s a place that would be the center of activity on a normal day.
Park Avenue in New York City has heavy traffic on it. So the stakes are a tad more heightened there and there’s a fun subway gag. In another battle, Jean and Magneto go head to head waving their arms and grunting. At least Fassbender commits.
The main theme of the X-Men, persecution, is relegated to the background of Dark Phoenix. We hear news reports about detainment camps reopening, and the White House suddenly goes “new phone, who dis?” at Charles, but for a series about struggling to be different in society, it really gets short shrift.
Charles has basically been a different character in each of the McAvoy movies. In Dark Phoenix he’s a dismissive parent who keeps saying, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Given this is likely the last appearance of this cast, it doesn’t really leave him in a place to become Patrick Stewart, whom he met in a previous film anyway.
Dark Phoenix doesn’t do the X-Men movie timeline any favors. So at this point, Days of Future Past basically restored the present day X-Men to pre-Last Stand state, but in Apocalypse Wolverine was in the Weapon X program again. Now characters die who we’ve seen as adults.
X-Men movies now officially make less sense than the Highlander franchise, and Highlander eliminated an entire planet from its own continuity. The continuity doesn’t matter if the story is good. But they violated continuity just for this?
At least, I guess, if you love the Dark Phoenix story, you now have two different options for movies you could watch. Just like you have two different movie options for the Spider-Man origin story and 15 different options for the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents. To each their own.