(WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD FOR DARK PHOENIX)
It's official, Dark Phoenix had the lowest box office opening of any previous X-Men movie. That includes Apocalypse, Last Stand and many others that fans have thrown on the trash heap. So, where did it all go wrong? Was this kind of a response from movie goers justified? I went to see Dark Phoenix this weekend with an open mind, and left the theater with plenty of different thoughts. I may jump around a bit as I unpack them all, but beyond just Dark Phoenix, I think there is a larger point to be made here. I want to go ahead and quickly start there.
I'm not sure if I've ever said this on the podcast, or even out loud before, but I'll go ahead and say it here: it's time to stop making direct adaptations of superhero comic book stories to film. I'm not saying never have any elements from a comic book find their way to the screen. I'm a sucker for seeing my favorite panel come to life just like a lot of fans are. What I am saying is, name me a comic book movie that was a direct adaptation of a story that worked out well. Even Captain America: Civil War, which I know was a loose adaptation, was the weakest of all of the Cap movies in my opinion. Some of the best comic book movies are movies that just tell their story, sprinkle in story elements and images from comic books pages when they work, and flow on their own terms. You tell me, or most other comic book fans, that you're putting a specific story from page to screen and that will immediately raise expectations. Adapting a book is a bit different in that there is no visual component to go along with the story. In comics, you have what is written AND what is seen. Those things both factor in. Given those factors, Dark Phoenix was playing from behind before the first ticket was sold. I'll leave it at that for now, because I want to get to the movie itself.
Things start out well enough, the X-Men are sent into space to rescue some stranded astronauts. It's clear that some of them think the mission is dangerous, but they go anyway. Long story short, things go wrong, and Jean gets hit with some sort of cosmic energy. They think she's dead, but she comes back seemingly normal. That's when things start to slowly unravel and she loses control. The space scene I didn't have a problem with. As a matter of fact, when I saw the same scene at WonderCon this year, I thought it was pretty solid. The origin wasn't the problem so much as it was some of the things that happened after the fact.
This movie was centered around Jean, as it should be, but there was another focus that we saw a bit too much of. Professor X is painted as the villain during a large portion of this movie. They do try to sell it a bit by showing his ego getting out of control with all of the attention that he is getting. They even try to sell it more by showing Jean's childhood tragedy and making it look like Charles ripped her away from her family for his own selfish gain. Once you see how that really played out at the end, it was like reacting to the headline of a story without reading the actual story. You get to see all of what transpired in that hospital room and it makes perfect sense. I understand that some of the fellow members of the X-Men needed a place to direct their anger during certain times, and that went Charles' way. I'm just not sure that painting him as the villain was necessary in order to accomplish any of the climax of the actual movie. Directing the anger at him does make sense regardless, because he is the mentor, father figure or whatever label you want to slap on him. That's his burden to shoulder in times like these in those roles, especially when you're talking about dealing with younger heroes and students. Trying to make it seem like he was responsible for this entire thing seemed unnecessary. Now, he did push Jean to go save that ship, so that's a fair thing to blame him for. I do believe it's unfair to place the blame solely on him. I could make the argument that society was to blame. A society that shunned mutants for so long, that Charles thought he had to go above and beyond (even putting his people in danger) in order to maintain their good faith. That argument is never made, implied or even brought up in this movie. Instead, it's used as a reason to vilify him in a movie that already had a true villain in place.
Let's talk about that villain, or villains, for a moment because that was another issue that I had. These aliens that we see, led by the recently shape shifted Jessica Chastain, were a huge mystery before, during and after this movie. We know why they showed up and what they want, I'll give you that. What we don't know is exactly what their powers/abilities are, or really anything other than their motive. If they could really twist people's guts out that easily, why didn't they just do that to the guards in the train? Why not do that to the mutants as well? There were no sets of rules or reasons for them being able to do what they do. There was also no set way for how to kill them either. One minute they're fending off a massive barrage of gunfire, the next they are taken down by a couple of shots. Everything about these antagonistic beings was horribly inconsistent. Sure Chastain's character was able to manipulate Jean, and even take some of the power at one point. It didn't seem like she was able to do much with it when she did get it. Sure Jean has to sacrifice herself to dispose of her, but it seemed like that was probably going to happen no matter what anyway. There was just no moment of dread with these aliens as a threat, not even a fear of what they were doing and/or plotting. They were just their as means to an end it seemed, and pretty much wasted the talents of Jessica Chastain.
Speaking of "moments", few of those are actually earned and impactful in this movie. When Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) is killed by Jean, it did not hit me as hard as it should have. Part of that could be the fact that I knew it was coming, but even then, it should have felt like it mattered more. While it was a necessary element and catalyst for the rest of the movie, it's was not the memorable scene that it should have been. Magneto's reaction to the news of her death was more impactful than the actual death. The X-Men fighting one another also wasn't as impactful as it should have been. When Beast is fighting Cyclops, then Professor X has to control his mind to break it up, that should have meant more than it actually did. This was a common problem throughout most of the movie.
Ok things have been a bit heavy so far, so let me tell you something that I think did go right. Storm was an absolute star in every scene that she was in. Alexandra Shipp may be one of the best things to come out of these last couple of X-Men movies. She just seemed to own ever action sequence that she was in and seeing her powers on full display was really fun to watch. We don't have too many moments with her outside of that action role, but when we did, it really felt like she was coming into her own. Kodi Smit-McPhee was also an overlooked star in this movie. Nightcrawler is such a tough character, and I really felt like he brought an innocence to him that you wouldn't otherwise expect. One part of this movie that was impactful was when Kurt snaps and starts aggressively taking down the bad guys. That was one moment they earned by having him appear so innocent up until that breaking point. Michael Fassbender has been amazing as Erik/Magneto from day one, as has McAvoy as Charles. We know how amazing Sophie Turner CAN be, and I think this time around she did the best that she could with what she was given.
The other major plus about this movie was the practical effects that was saw. For example, the scene with the subway car was an actual subway car and not CG. That realism could really be felt throughout, which was something that I really did enjoy. That's not something that can always be said for a big budget superhero movie. You still have plenty of CG with powers coming into play and cosmic energies flying about. It's the fact that they only used that when it was necessary that made this feel a bit more real. If there are any notes to take for anyone making a superhero movie from here on out, that is one thing to take note of.
This might be a spoiler filled review, but I'm not going to give you a full summary of the movie or spoon feed you every big moment of the movie here. What I did want to give was my overall impression. Despite the problems that I highlighted in the beginning, I actually did enjoy this movie for the most part. At the very least, I don't think that Dark Phoenix deserves all of the hate that it seems to be getting. I don't think this is a Top 5 X-Men movie by any stretch, but it's not the utter disaster of a finale for 20th Century Fox that people are making it out to be. It was just a poor adaptation of a very specific story that is very popular to a lot of fans. Had this been presented differently, who knows how it would have been received. With reports coming out that Disney is in no hurry to reboot the X-Men, it looks like this will be our lasting impression for a while anyway. This has always been an impressive young cast that, far too often, were never given the opportunity to show their full potential. The real failure here was not letting someone come in with a fresh perspective to take over with these stars and make something truly worthy of the X-Men name after Apocalypse. I'm not sure we would be in a much different situation than we are in now in the post-Disney merger era, but I do think chances to end things on a higher note would have been greater. As a standalone movie, Dark Phoenix will always be slightly below the middle of the road. That doesn't mean that I wouldn't watch it again, should I find myself flipping through the channels and stopping on it. It's not a masterpiece, it's not a dumpster fire, it's a reminder that either some things shouldn't be done or should be done with much greater care. I hope anyone about to sit down and make a similar movie keeps that in mind.
Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox