'Dark Phoenix' Review: The X-Men Franchise Ends Not With A Bang, But With A Feeble Flicker

In Dark Phoenix, the weight of the film is placed on legacy. It is, after all, the capper for a nearly two decade-old franchise that helped catapult the superhero genre to the world-dominating standing it enjoys today. But ultimately, the only legacy of this corner of the X-Men franchise may be its wasted cast.

Longtime X-Men writer Simon Kinberg takes the directing reins for the final installment of the superhero series which started with the seminal X-Men. Back when X-Men debuted back in 2000, the superhero genre was still relatively untested, with successes like Richard Donner's Superman and Tim Burton's Batman film written off as exceptions rather than the norm. With a budget of only $75 million, X-Men was forced to tone down the superheroics and lean on intimate character moments — setting the standard somewhat for comic book films as character dramas with action sequences wedged in-between. Kinberg, who wrote the third film in the original X-Men trilogy, The Last Stand, brings Dark Phoenix back to those character drama roots, scaling back the stakes and giving prominence to emotional beats and tense dialogue exchanges filmed in extreme close-up.

This might've worked if not for the embarrassingly bad script and the apathetic performances of its talented cast who have long checked out of this franchise.

Kinberg takes a second shot at adapting the famous comic book arc The Dark Phoenix Saga, which the X-Men franchise last famously bungled with 2006's The Last StandDark Phoenix more closely follows the events of the comics storyline written by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, picking up eight years after the events of X-Men: Apocalypse with the X-Men now well established as a heroic force for good. Called upon by the president, who has a direct line to Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, perhaps the only franchise veteran still trying) through a Batphone-esque telephone (with a big X slapped on top and everything!), the X-Men embark on a space mission to rescue a team of astronauts waylaid by a solar flare. But the mission goes horribly wrong, resulting in Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) coming into contact with, and ultimately absorbing, a mysterious cosmic force that amplifies her telekinetic abilities to uncontrollable levels. When the titular Phoenix force unlocks a traumatic memory that Xavier had stored away, Jean goes on a rampage that results in the death of a fellow X-Men and makes her a fugitive from the law and several vengeful fellow mutants.

The first two acts of Dark Phoenix are plagued by nonsensical motivations and long stretches of exposition. Kinberg places far too much emphasis on shaky dialogue that should have gone through several rewrites. An early scene in which Mystique (an alarmingly wooden Jennifer Lawrence) berates Xavier for prioritizing the X-Men's image over their well-being stands out as particularly awful, especially when she clumsily declares that the X-Men should be renamed "X-Women." The X-Men franchise has always had a thread of cheesiness, but at least in earlier films and in the 2011 soft reboot X-Men: First Class, the actors delivered their lines with conviction and tried to sell the emotional beats. The veterans of the franchise seem checked out, to say the least, with one conversation in which Mystique obliquely refers to her and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) as being the last survivors of "the first class" coming off as more tiresome than nostalgic.

The relative newcomers Turner, Tye SheridanKodi Smit-McPhee, and Alexandra Shipp try significantly more, but don't have the ability yet to sell Kinberg's gauche dialogue. Turner has the toughest job of the group as the de facto lead of the film. In her first leading role, Turner gamely shoulders the burden of playing both protagonist and antagonist of the film, excelling when she is asked to break down and be vulnerable. But as a stolid villain, she comes off as more distant and cold than turmoiled. Her acts of aggression too, are often awkward — either when she has violent outbursts or early on when she flirts with Scott (Sheridan) while high off the power of the Phoenix. For some reason, Turner and Sheridan have the chemistry of a black hole, which seems odd considering that the Game of Thrones actress generally has chemistry with most actors with whom she shares the screen. The film does a decent job of building up Jean Grey with frequent forays into her backstory, but the issue is that Dark Phoenix doesn't seem to care that much about its titular character.

Turner is not entirely at fault for the scattered focus of Dark Phoenix — the film's obligation to pay lip service to its First Class member while retreading Xavier and Magneto's (Michael Fassbender, predictably somber) age-old conflict — which Erik does hilariously comment on — spreads the film thin. Overall perhaps, Dark Phoenix is slightly better than The Last Stand, but in its eagerness to do justice to the Dark Phoenix saga and the franchise as a whole, it feels more sparse, lacking memorable moments and a strong central protagonist. The villains, led by a cold and clinical Jessica Chastain, are too forgetful to spur the film's momentum.

Surprisingly, considering the focus placed on dialogue and exposition, the strength of Dark Phoenix lies in its action sequences. Kinberg has a knack for crafting a dynamic battle scene that escalates in stakes but remains easy to follow. The final battle sequence, which takes place on a train, is a standout — it's gripping, fun, and near-thrilling. Unlike the CGI noise of many superhero third-acts today, there's a tactile, character-driven quality to these sequences that almost salvage the film.

There's a cheesiness that Kinberg brings to his imagery that recalls the original X-Men movies, with all of their faults and strengths. That sentimentality ultimately doesn't pay off because of the lackluster performances of the cast and the shoddy scaffolding of the first two acts. Still, Dark Phoenix is not as much trainwreck as it is a slow-moving car collision that ends up screeching to a halt right before it scratches the bumper in front of it. No bang, no explosion, just a limp sense of finality. In a sense, Dark Phoenix is the perfect median of the massively uneven X-Men franchise: a middle-of-the-road superhero film that will be remembered for its lost potential.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10