Dark Phoenix is the directorial debut of Simon Kinberg, a writer/producer who has been involved with the X-Men films in one way or another for over a decade now, and pretty much single-handedly brought back the majority of the cast for the film after the chaotic production of X-Men: Apocalypse, the Bryan Singer-helmed previous entry in the series. The film, a loose adaptation of the comic arc of the same name, focuses on Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), one of the X-Men’s resident telepaths, who finds herself containing an intense amount of power after an encounter with a cosmic force during a rescue mission in outer space. When the power starts to spiral out of control, Jean goes on the run, with the X-Men, Magneto, the United States government, and an alien race led by the evil Vuk (Jessica Chastain) all trying to get to her first.
I kind of feel bad for Dark Phoenix. This movie never had a chance. Given the general public’s lukewarm opinion of the franchise and the Disney acquisition of Fox, Dark Phoenix seems to be viewed as a roadblock to getting to the eventual introduction of these characters into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. One can even feel it in the general reception to the film, a series of violent pans that make it feel like a once in a lifetime disaster. But while Dark Phoenix may not be the disaster that its detractors are making it out to be, it is still fairly middle-of-the-road as far as superhero movies tend to be in this day and age.
While Kinberg has some decent films in his long lineup of credits and his skill as a producer are considerable, that doesn’t fully translate to directorial prowess. His direction of the movie tends to be fine at best and mediocre at worst, far from unwatchable but not impressive, either. The film’s $200 million budget only exacerbates that, with Kinberg’s lack of experience with effects work in particular made abundantly clear during the film’s many VFX sequences.
For the most part, though, the cast fares better. James McAvoy, Nicholas Hoult, and Michael Fassbender absolutely kill it in this movie, never treating the material as beneath them at any point, even at its worst. Tye Sheridan brings an admirable puppy-dog-like energy to the proceedings, and Kodi Smit-McPhee is absolutely wonderful as Nightcrawler1. Sophie Turner’s American accent appears to hinder a lot of her considerable charisma at points, but when the film calls for vulnerability she nails it – a scene of her crying in the rain while trying to scrub blood off her shirt is easily one of the best moments in the entire film.
Unfortunately, however, there were exceptions. Much has been made of Jennifer Lawrence’s lackluster “I’m here, pay me”-style turn, but not enough people have talked about how horribly miscast Jessica Chastain is as the main antagonist. Her role requires a seductress oozing with screen presence, and Chastain is just not that kind of actor. She can give a commanding turn, and even a commanding villainous turn, but Vuk (yes, that’s really her character’s name) is not playing to her strengths at all, leaving her feeling very ineffectual for pretty much all of the film. The direction can definitely be blamed here, but it still feels like a waste of great talent.
Another way that Kinberg’s writing and direction hobbles the movie is in its themes. Kinberg appears to have been going for a feminist story, one about how attempts by men to control powerful women often backfire, and that they should ultimately not try. But while Kinberg’s intentions are undoubtedly good, being a 45-year old cisgender man definitely muddles it at points, especially at one crucial moment during the climax. It just goes to show that even a well-intentioned misfire is still a misfire, and hopefully future attempts at tackling similar themes in blockbusters will have women to write them.
While a lot of what I’ve written sounds negative, Dark Phoenix is not remotely unpleasant to watch. The train-set finale near the end (by far the best action beat in the entire film) is a very good time, and Hans Zimmer’s score is one of his best efforts in a long time. There’s a lot to like in this movie, and simply by its nature of being sort of a throwback to the pre-MCU era of superhero filmmaking I found a lot of it quaint and charming. Those who really hate the X-Men movies will definitely hate it, but by the end of the film I found myself kind of sad that this iteration of the series will be no more. It was fun having a superhero series around that wasn’t constantly about how it fits into a larger cinematic universe, and was just trying to tell stories about a certain roster of characters. Dark Phoenix is not the best swan song, but I was a little moved nonetheless.