There’s something interesting about the way criticism can affect opinion that I find fascinating. I was so put off by how people reacting to this film that I had decided that I wasn’t even going to go see it at first. Circumstances brought some friends to town and one of them decided he wanted to see it with me, so way we went. While we both had mixed opinions on the film, neither of us reacted with the impression that it was dogshit like so many others, and I actually rather enjoyed it overall.
I’m going deep into the weeds on this one, so hang on and give me the chance to defend that statement.
Dark Phoenix opens on our heroes at a high point. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), Raven Darkholm (Jennifer Lawrence), and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) are fully embraced by society as they run their school for gifted children and allow some of the older ones to fight for the betterment of humanity. The missions keep getting riskier, but young mutants Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), Ororo Munroe (Alexandra Shipp), Peter Maximoff (Evan Peters), and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), are all excited to jump into action. Meanwhile vindictive mutant Erk Lensher (Michael Fassbender) is leading a colony of his people on a small island, content to live a quiet isolation after his decades of violence. Everything is nice and quiet, right up until some unknown force causes an issue with a shuttle ends will all lives saved, but Jean’s powers off the charts after absorbing an unknown force while aliens land on the earth and steal the bodies of a few nameless human hosts.
And this mission is where one of the better themes of the film begins. McAvoy is portraying a more egotistical and cocksure version of Xavier here, recklessly sending these kids into ever-escalating situations. He’s called out on it by Raven (poor Jennifer Lawrence has completely checked out at this point, and I get it) to know avail, while Hank is trapped between his loyalties to Xavier and his continued mutual attraction with Raven. The ego, the substance abuse, these have been part of the character for several years now but they’ve been given another chance to impact the story after being left behind in the last installment. While before he was addicted to a drug that dampened his powers, shutting down his mind and allowing him to walk again in a quiet stupor. This time it’s alcohol, and while not a lot of attention is drawn to it you’ll notice that he almost never goes a scene without a drink in his hand. His reliance is tied to his ego, the cracks in what he’s become that are leaking through.
And those cracks manifest in Jean Grey as well. After absorbing the Phoenix Force and uncovering her memories of trauma, she begins to literally crack as what she’s experiencing leaks out. Most people hide something beneath the surface, but to have that be the idea that violent action feels nice and cathartic is different and displays a level of pain that the series just couldn’t before. Sophie Turner, unfortunately, is either not quite up to the task or only doing the best she can with the material she’s been given. It’s another crack, but probably not one we’re meant to see.
I’ll say this, the train sequence is some of the most pure X-Men action we’ve ever been given. It’s a myriad of power displays and while motivation rarely makes sense, the segment is inspired in how it embraces what this series should be in it’s exciting moments. While the final setpiece feels like a moment of pure CGI nonsense, most of the leadup is excellent.
And at that point it feels like the plot has been sharpened to a point. Up until a specific moment of battle, ending in a rough but necessary moment, the film is messy as hell. It’s difficult to talk about without spoiling it, and I won’t do that here, but it did begin working for me at a certain point and that’s all I’ll say about the matter.
And Hans Zimmer’s score is to die for. There’s a strength in it that elevates the whole film in places. Some of it is the weirdest stuff we’ve ever seen in this franchise, and some of it may feel standard but it’s so perfectly executed that I’m happy to listen to the tracks on their own. Something I’ve always wanted to see in these films is is an attention to the music that takes the material to new heights. Music is important to storytelling in this format, so seeing it so well-crafted made me happy.
End of the day, is this a great film? Not even close, but it’s an interesting look at what happens in franchise filmmaking (particularly with the sale of Fox to Disney), and while it shows I think the final product is far from the worst we’ve seen in the X-Men franchise. This isn’t a great note to go out on, but it’s one we can look at as something fascinating that tries to do some meaningful things with the characters on their final outing as a standalone franchise. Little things like the substance abuse, the cracks, or even the idea of something as sweet as two best friends gazing longingly at each other, all of these can create a stronger connection for the audience that I think many are missing. That’s what I see as the thread of this film, the through-line we can all follow, and I think it’s why more audiences will connect with it than one might think. It’s complicated, but given that the comics these films are based on are an over-complicated teen soap opera I think that’s fitting. I enjoyed it, and I hope you will too.