Written by David Holland
I think we sometimes forget just how unlikely it was that the MCU would ever be so successful. There was very real speculation somewhere in Phase 2 that the market would be saturated with comic book movies or that as the franchise slogged on with increasingly obscure titles people would eventually get tired. This never really happened with the MCU, which seems to have settled on its money-printing formula. But other franchises were not so lucky. By 2019, “Spider-Man” had already made it through two iterations before succumbing to the MCU and now the “X-Men” franchise was on its last legs. “Apocalypse” had dramatically underperformed and, true to actual comics lore, the universe’s timeline had become convoluted. There were still plans to keep this film universe going, but they hinged on “Dark Phoenix” being successful.
I know this movie is described as a failure that led to the end of this franchise, but here is my “Dark Phoenix” hot take: It’s better than “Apocalypse“. I’m not saying it’s the best X-Men movie, or even near the top, but I place it squarely in the middle of the pack (see my ranking of all X-Men movies below). There’s plenty to criticize about this movie, and I will, but there was also plenty I liked. Watching Jean struggle against the overwhelming “id” that is the Phoenix Force, and seeing the X-Men nearly fall apart as they wonder what to do about her, makes for real emotional character development. The friendship between Beast and Xavier nearly disintegrates and the other X-Men question the philosophy that brought them together in the first place. I also think the fight sequences in “Dark Phoenix” are really good. They aren’t the sort of massive-scale, city-destroying battles of past installments, but they are personal, close quarters fights that I think are actually more interesting.
I also liked this version of Dark Phoenix and here’s why – remember at the end of The Matrix when Neo became “The One”? It seemed like the ability to “rewrite the Matrix’s code” meant that Neo would be a demigod, that he could alter reality itself with a thought. In practice it just meant he could fly and stop bullets, but otherwise not much changes.
Jean Grey’s Dark Phoenix is what Neo’s “The One” should have been:
The fights with Phoenix/Dark Phoenix are terrifying. Watching her deflect Storm’s lightning, move fast enough to react to Quicksilver, and smash Magneto’s helmet on his own head illustrates why she is the deadliest mutant in the world. She has the ability to remake reality and she is fueled by pure desire.
What didn’t work:
The D’Bari didn’t work. I think their name gets mentioned once? Their powers are poorly defined, and that’s one of the many things that irked me about Apocalypse (at least I’m consistent). The time spent on Jean Grey is important, but it means that everything about the D’Bari feels rushed, like they are just shoehorned into the story. Vuk, the D’Bari leader, is somehow stronger than the others even though we don’t really know why. She just has whatever power is convenient for making her threatening, and that’s just poor character development. The motivations, powers, and backstory of the race just don’t get enough attention to make them any more than a convenient “Act Three villain”.
The Phoenix Force is also pretty poorly defined. There are so many “forces” in comics that there is actually a running list here, but just to list a few: Phoenix Force, Nova Force, Dark Force, Uni-Force, Goblin Force, Odin Force, and more. We get a little bit of explanation about the Phoenix Force, but it is going to be tough for anyone who isn’t familiar with the lore to follow. The story is just convoluted enough to keep it from being compelling. Anyone familiar with the Dark Phoenix storyline will be disappointed by the failure to capture the sense from the comics and the animated series, while those new to the story will probably just walk away confused.
I also have a sneaking suspicion that a big part of what sank this movie isn’t just its own failures but the massive success of a little indie film that came out around the same time called “Avengers: Endgame”. This movie wasn’t terrible, but it couldn’t possibly compete with the MCU’s crown jewel.
Not as bad as some of the criticisms make it out to be, but not strong enough to sustain a franchise that was already on life support. It is definitely the superior “Dark Phoenix” movie incarnation.
What’s next for the “X-Men”?
The mutants are apparently coming to the MCU. Disney, one of the four media conglomerates who own everything in the world, recently pried the rights from 21st Century Fox’s hands in exchange for buckets full of cash. I’m not sure how they will explain away where all of these mutants have been this whole time, but I expect some hand-waving dialogue to explain it away for the sake of opening up a whole new world of characters.
Ranking the “X-Men” Movies (Worst to Best).
Tier Three – The Disasters:
10. X3: The Last Stand
9: X-Men Origins: Wolverine
8: X-Men: Apocalypse
Tier Two – Good, not Great
7. The Wolverine
6. Dark Phoenix
5. X-Men: First Class
Tier One – Gold Medal
3. X-Men: Days of Future Past
1. X2: X-Men United