[*No spoiler review*]
As the credits rolled to close Dark Phoenix I looked over to the friend who foolishly accompanied me and remarked, “So when does the movie start?” We then waited a moment trying to put together the words to properly describe the images and noises we had previously observed before giving up and leaving. I had heard there was no post-credits scene but even if there were, I doubt it would be worth staying for. Besides, after two hours of this limping, inessential conclusion to what had once been a franchise partly responsible for the modern success of the superhero film genre, there really is nothing left to say.
Most movies fall somewhere within the range of fine to pretty good. Dark Phoenix is not a good movie. It’s not fine. It’s not even okay. It’s bad. But it’s not a good kind of bad. It’s not unintentionally-funny bad. It’s not guilty-pleasure bad. It’s not could-have-been-great bad. It’s not even so-bad-it-bypasses-fun-and-goes-right-back-to-bad bad. It’s just bad. Yet, it’s not that bad. It’s just a boring, pointless bad. There’s nothing to be outraged over. There’s no fun to be had in pointing out its faults, no single moments of brilliance to lament, no deeply offensive scenes to bury it with. There isn’t even any cheese or camp either facepalm about or enjoy (for the record I did facepalm about five times). In fact there’s really no joy at all. Moments of triumph are undercut by Zack Snyder-levels of self-seriousness, and moments of horror lack the intensity to be any more than shallow mimicry. Even the score plays the same notes over and over as though to drive home the film’s lack of variation. There is no humor, no excitement, no thrill, no outrage. Perhaps the best single image of the film itself would be that of the X-Men team: a bunch of similar-shaped young people wearing matching ill-fitting blue uniforms so plain that a yellow X is their only distinguishing feature. That’s it.
When thinking about highlights of Dark Phoenix what comes mind is that Magneto makes a really awesome entrance. Everything else, from a predictable opening sequence – fade in to young Jean Grey sitting in the backseat while her parents distractedly drive down a lonely country road. You already know what will happen don’t you? – to a lackluster “climax” reportedly re-shot after the original too closely resembled Captain Marvel, is too bland to remember any longer than it takes to lead into the next scene. The film tries to have stakes, and stuff happens, but it’s so perfunctory as to be meaningless. And yeah X-Men fans could be angered over how some of the longstanding characters are treated, that the mythos is so changed as to lose purpose, or that once again the films fail at adapting one of the most iconic comic book arcs of all time but… why? We’ve seen this movie before. Why waste energy on getting upset?
Some scenes in Dark Phoenix are poor bootlegs of those in X-Men: The Last Stand. Nearly every other scene from the first to the last are copies of scenes from other movies Xeroxed over and over until the details wash into blotches as indistinguishable as the team’s matching uniforms. Besides, these characters will only be resurrected into the MCU in a couple years anyway. Maybe then they’ll finally be given the proper damn respect. Until then, nothing says “Even the producers don’t care about this movie” like handing directing duties to a first-timer who already failed once at adapting the Dark Phoenix Saga to film and wrote both X-Men: Apocalypse and 2015’s maligned Fantastic Four. Makes me wonder what someone has to do to get fired in Hollywood… other than be too creative, or accused of sexual assault.
To be fair, there are some elements of Dark Phoenix that could be worthy of outrage. The series continues the gimmick of hopping a decade, although the clothes, the music, and the ages of the characters display no signs of this gap leaving the nine years between Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix as a way to gloss over the transition of the X-Men from hated mutant menace to a resource with a direct line to a fictional president, and to continue an unnecessary gimmick. Also during that time the fundamentals of the characters have been rewritten into whatever the script now needs them to be. New characters are introduced even though older ones could have been used in those roles, and then are never given names. The trio of Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy which had so wonderfully anchored the rebooted X-franchise return with only McAvoy and Fassbender offering some effort while Lawrence is so checked out that she barely changes expression. Any film that has Fassbender, Lawrence, McAvoy, and Jessica Chastain should be nothing less than solid. Yet after the death knell that was X-Men: Apocalypse, which wasted Oscar Isaac, did we really expect anything better? Sophie Turner tries her best but with this version of Jean being introduced only one (mediocre) film ago the character lacks any emotional resonance. Tyler Sheridan is also… there… I’m not sure what he brings to the role other than being… there. The same could be said about the rest of the cast. They probably made a lot of money so… good for them. …sigh.
Honestly, I had sort of hoped that Dark Phoenix would be the absolute trainwreck most people expected it to be. Truly horrible movies, the kind that viewers rant about for hours, are possibly even rarer than truly great movies, the kind we rave about. After the disappointing X-Men: Apocalypse, as well as a set of bland trailers, a twice postponed release, and news of reshoots, poor test screenings, and a tepid response from all involved, I rather hoped that Dark Phoenix would be bad enough to deserve either a dissection like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice or a rhetoric thrashing akin to Kingsmen: The Secret Service. While I still regard Kingsmen as one of the worst films I have ever seen, destroying the goodwill Matthew Vaughn creating by resurrecting the X-Men franchise after its first botched attempt at the Dark Phoenix Saga, I would sooner endure the abomination that is Kingsmen, or even mutter angrily over Last Stand, than sigh through Dark Phoenix again. At least those two films evoke an emotional response, albeit vitriolic, instead of the bordem of this latest and oh so thankfully final installment in the current X-Men film franchise.
I’d say that Dark Phoenix is a Marvel franchise finally having its Justice League moment, a film so bland that there is nothing for fanboys to be passionately for or against, so devoid of anything noteworthy as to be completely pointless. But that moment was already reached with Apocalypse. Dark Phoenix is the unnecessary continuation of a film that should have marked the death of the franchise. It’s the Weekend at Bernie’s 2 of superhero films, not in the sense of quality but in the sense that the subject is already dead, there is no need to dig it up just to make it perform a pathetic little dance to no one’s amusement before burying it again.
The X-Men is a great property with some of the most compelling stories, characters, and themes in all of superhero comics. The early films reshaped the public view of superheroes and proved that comic book adaptations can make money and compel thought. Personally, X-Men comics are what inspired me to start drawing, then writing, and I still believe that X-Men 2, along with Spider-Man 2, stands as one of the best comic films of all time. So, as a fan, I should be screaming that these stories, these characters, these themes, and this once vital, landmark franchise are being so mistreated. But we’ve already seen this franchise drown in the mud once. We’ve seen it come back. And we’ll see it come back again. That’s how banal Dark Phoenix is. It’s not even worthy being angry over.