The "what went wrong?" behind the scenes exposés of Dark Phoenix, tenth and final film in the X-Men series, appeared with absolutely shocking speed after the film's franchise-worst opening weekend. In these testimonials, we find the nugget of information that the film exists in its current form largely because, after the drowsy critical and audience reception to 2016's X-Men: Apocalypse, the studio's biggest and only note was "do not-that, next time." And it shows. Dark Phoenix is better than its emergent reputation as some kind of particularly heinous blight on the superhero movie landscape - it is much better than 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand, which shares the same particular comic book arc as source material; it is also better than 2019's own Captain Marvel, with which it shares no specific plot details, but overlaps in so many tropes and points of iconography that Dark Phoenix allegedly had to reshoot its climax to avoid looking like a rip-off - but it is definitely not a good movie. And it is not a good movie in a way that feels exactly like what happens when filmmakers have absolutely no idea what to do, only a well-developed sense of what to avoid. It is, besides that, much worse than simply "not good"; it is boring. The stakes for boring superhero movies have gotten pretty high of late (Apocalypse itself being an especially noteworthy offender), so I don't want to go around calling Dark Phoenix the most boring member of its genre, or anything like that. But reader, know that I was sorely tempted to.

The film kicks off in 1975 with the tragic moment when little Jean Grey (Summer Fontana) unwittingly used her nascent mutant powers (telepathy, telekinesis) to freak out and cause a fatal car accent that left her an orphan. Leaping ahead to 1992, 25-year-old Jean (Sophie Turner) has benefited from years of loving attention from mutant philanthropist and teacher Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) to become one of his X-Men, an elite team of mutant fighters saving the world from various dangers; he has carefully managed the team enough that normal humans generally regard him and his pupils as heroes, rather than the uncanny threats they've been considered in every other movie in this franchise. It's a neat change of stakes that might be enough to make for a movie that complicates the dynamics of the X-Men movie formula, presuming of course that nothing happens to imbalance this carefully worked-out peace. Such as, for example, if Jean were to absorb a huge cloud of sentient cosmic radiation during a rescue mission to save the Space Shuttle Endeavor, in the process becoming so overwhelmed with power that she begins to erratically and unpredictably lash out with psychic storms and beams of pure destructive energy. It would sure be a shame if that happened, because then we'd most likely end up with some uninspired go-through-the-motions action movie.

Anyway, Dark Phoenix does actually manage to knock the pegs out from under the typical X-Men movie formula: for the first time in 10 tries, the movie has a lead character who is none of Charles, Erik "Magneto" Lensherr (Michael Fassbender), or Wolverine (who doesn't even appear in the form of an Easter egg). The other cinematic version of Jean Grey, the one played by Famke Janssen, sort of got that kind of attention in the first X-Men trilogy, the one from 2000-2006, but nothing like the sustained way that Dark Phoenix throws itself at the task of giving her a fully-realised character arc as she discovers that Her Whole Life Is A Lie, and The Corrupting Influence Of Power Must Be Resisted, and all that good stuff.

The big problem with this is that four-time X-Men screenwriter Simon Kinberg (also making his directorial debut) has spent too much time relying on the trick of developing characters across movies. That's not an inherent sin - it's most of why Logan works, and Logan is probably the best live-action comic book movie of the 2010s. But the thing is, Jean Grey, this Jean Grey, only showed up once before, in Apocalypse, and whatever bits of that most outlandishly forgettable movie stood out as worthwhile were not the ones involving her and fellow newbies Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), Kurt Wagner (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and Ororo Munroe (Alexandra Shipp). So really, Dark Phoenix is the first chance we've had to meet our star; yet Kinberg treats the character like a well-established known quantity.

The result is a character study totally devoid of compelling, characters; the closest it comes to any sort of actual interesting beats are all hung around Nicholas Hoult's Hank McCoy, who is growing increasingly surly at the responsibility-dodging Charles. Which is asking a lot of Hoult compared to his co-stars (Fassbender, typically the best member of these "prequel" X-Men films, has been given insultingly little to do, and Jennifer Lawrence is back to openly telegraphing how much she doesn't like being in this franchise). The point remains, anyway, that Jean is extremely flat and underdeveloped, and Turner's best efforts to give her pain and trauma can only go so far when the script is letting her down.

This overall interest in being a character study runs smack into the film's mandate to be a popcorn movie, something it does indifferently for most of its blessedly tidy running time (it's 113 minutes, practically a short by comic book movie standards). Kinberg is not any more than a proficient director, either of his cast or of his camera; cinematography Mauro Fiore overlights things to a simply shocking degree. Between the two of them, they manage to make this egregiously expensive film look somewhat chintzy and small, mistaking glossiness for style.

Really, the only time it manages to do what it has to as a popcorn film is when the climax comes along, and all the mutants face off against the waves of aliens that this film has randomly decided to introduce into series continuity. It's a remarkably long chain of setpieces mostly taking place on a train, and it's honestly a little great. The X-Men films have only a mixed record of arranging action sequences that give all of the mutants a chance to show off their different superpowers, but the train sequence here does that as well as any of the films have since X2, a whole generation ago at this point. Speaking as someone who persists in finding X2 one of the high water-marks of the superhero movie even all these years later, I consider being reminded of it to be an unambiguous good, and Dark Phoenix at least gets one thing decisively right: between this action sequence and its collection of epilogue scenes, it manages to backload all of its very best material to the very end, which at least makes it easy to feel well-disposed to the film once it's over. Not well enough to consider this anything but a limp, weary finale to the founding franchise of contemporary blockbuster cinema; but it could have been worse, and in this exact same franchise, it already has been.

Reviews in this series
X-Men: The Last Stand (Ratner, 2006)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Hood, 2009)
X-Men: First Class (Vaughn, 2011)
The Wolverine (Mangold, 2013)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (Singer, 2014)
Deadpool (Miller, 2016)
X-Men: Apocalypse (Singer, 2016)
Logan (Mangold, 2017)
Deadpool 2 (Leitch, 2018)
Dark Phoenix (Kinberg, 2019)
The New Mutants (Boone, 2020)

Other films in this series, yet to be reviewed
X-Men (Singer, 2000)
X2 (Singer, 2003)