Warning: SPOILERS ahead for Dark Phoenix
Dark Phoenix deserved better than the brutal reviews it received from critics and its failure at the box office. Writer-director Simon Kinberg's film currently stands at 23% on Rotten Tomatoes and, partly as a result of the negative word of mouth, Fox's final X-Men film is predicted to lose $100-million. This certainly isn't how anyone wanted the X-Men franchise to end. Box office performance and critical reactions aside, however, the actual film itself is not the disaster its Rotten Tomatoes score indicates.
On paper, the plan for Dark Phoenix made sense. Like the fans, Kinberg was still smarting from how poorly Brett Ratner's X-Men: The Last Stand (which he co-wrote) adapted Marvel Comics' The Dark Phoenix Saga, relegating it to the film's B-plot and making it more about Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) than Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). Now that he had creative control of the X-Men, Kinberg wanted to make his adaptation truer to the comics, including the cosmic aspects of the story: the Phoenix Force was a power source from outer space that bonded with Jean, the X-Men would go into outer space, and there would be aliens for the mutants to fight. Kinberg also had a young cast, led by Game of Thrones' Sophie Turner as Jean, to completely distinguish the movie from The Last Stand.
Instead of a full-blown adaptation of the comics, Kinberg planned a more intimate film about Jean's fracturing psyche and the X-Men breaking apart because of her, with some nods to the original story's cosmic elements. But once the first trailer was released in the fall of 2018, it was evident that Dark Phoenix still looked and felt too much like X-Men: The Last Stand and wouldn't be a new or different kind of X-Men movie, so fans were already disappointed. Dark Phoenix wasn't just up against fans' bad memories of X-Men: The Last Stand; its June 2019 release date placed it right on the heels of Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame, both of which were monumental successes for Marvel Studios that critics and fans adored (especially Endgame).
All told, Dark Phoenix had an incredible amount of production issues, reshoots, delays, and circumstances beyond the creative team's control (specifically, the purchase of Fox by Disney). These combined problems would be insurmountable for any film. and Dark Phoenix was no exception. In truth, the movie isn't quite everything it could (or should) have been. But, if it's possible to remove the film from the issues surrounding its release and the pressure it was under to perform in spite of it all, Dark Phoenix is actually a far better film than its low aggregate Rotten Tomatoes score indicates.
Dark Phoenix Negativity Came From Years of Build Up
After critics and fans had experienced years of negative build-up to Dark Phoenix, the film itself would have needed to be undeniably fantastic to overcome the bad buzz. It's fair to speculate that a lot of people's minds were already largely made up that Dark Phoenix was a disaster, sight unseen. And, when Dark Phoenix proved to be less than spectacular, that just cemented the pre-determined opinion that the movie was destined to be a bomb. The box office results proved that right, since many fans heeded the bad reviews and decided Dark Phoenix wasn't worth seeing. It shouldn't all be quite so cut and dry, however.
Dark Phoenix made its way to the big screen amid a litany of setbacks. Originally slated to premiere in November 2018, its release date was pushed back to February 2019 (immediately after the first trailer was released touting the November date), and then it was delayed again to June (because the February date conflicted with James Cameron's Alita: Battle Angel). Bad test screenings necessitated costly reshoots, which led to the original ending being changed and scaled down. Meanwhile, the Disney/Fox deal happened during Dark Phoenix's production and the X-Men film rights returned to Marvel as a result. This meant that Dark Phoenix became the final film and the end of Fox's X-Men franchise - a significance it was never originally designed for.
Also, Dark Phoenix's marketing certainly didn't help. It was only in the last couple of weeks before its release that Dark Phoenix began to be touted as "the final chapter of the 19-year X-Men saga" where "the X-Men would face their greatest enemy" (implying it was Jean when the real villains were Jessica Chastain's alien Vuk and the D'Bari). This angle suddenly positioned Dark Phoenix as the culmination of the franchise, i.e. X-Men's equivalent of Avengers: Endgame - but Dark Phoenix originally wasn't meant to be the grand finale of the saga. Indeed, there were plans for more X-Men movies after Dark Phoenix and its ending hints at another film that won't be made now.
Dark Phoenix Is Far From The Worst X-Men Film
Some of the vitriol Dark Phoenix received is completely off base, and it's definitely far from the worst X-Men movie, despite what the Rotten Tomatoes score indicates. Between X-Men Origins: Wolverine and X-Men: The Last Stand (the two worst X-Men movies) and X2: X-Men United and Logan (representing the series' apex) the goal posts at either end of the X-Men franchise were already firmly established and Dark Phoenix lands somewhere in the middle. There have been far worse X-Men films, by far, than Dark Phoenix, but Simon Kinberg's movie is being taken to task even more harshly for the sin of not being great.
Dark Phoenix was originally conceived as two films, and we will never know if Kinberg's aborted plans might have turned out better. The final film has been changed as a result of reshoots to the original ending, which had a huge battle at the United Nations and Jean becoming the Phoenix to repel an alien invasion. This was scrapped in favor of a scaled-down (but still very entertaining) fight on a train. At one point the aliens were supposed to be the Skrulls, but that was changed to the D'Bari. Other alterations from what was seen in the trailers included Storm (Alexandra Shipp) joining Magneto's Brotherhood along with Beast (Nicholas Hoult); in the final film Storm remains with the X-Men, though she still wants to stop Jean.
But even before these changes, Dark Phoenix was (unfortunately) never going to be the X-Men franchise's equivalent to Avengers: Endgame. Rather, Dark Phoenix was supposed to be a palate-cleanser from X-Men: Apocalypse, which fans rejected for being overblown and cartoonish. As a more intimate story about the X-Men and Jean Grey, Dark Phoenix was designed to play more to the soap opera aspects of X-Men (and The Dark Phoenix Saga comics) to make it more about the characters than about sheer spectacle. This follows the example of Logan, the emotion-packed sendoff for Hugh Jackman's Wolverine.
What Dark Phoenix Gets Right... And Wrong
As a cinematic do-over of The Dark Phoenix Saga, Dark Phoenix still underwhelms, but the film nevertheless does a number of things right. Dark Phoenix's first act is its best: Set in 1992, the X-Men are publicly adored superheroes, which is something movie fans haven't seen before. Accompanied by an electric score by Hans Zimmer, the X-Men's outer space mission is the film's highlight, with Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) proving himself invaluable as Jean is struck by the Phoenix Force. There's also a fun victory party (with a cameo by Dazzler) that lets the X-Men relax and highlights the relationship between Jean and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan). After Jean goes on a rampage, the action shifts to Genosha and draws Magneto (Michael Fassbender) into the fray. While the film did Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) no favors in the way she is awkwardly killed off, Dark Phoenix does expertly play into the shared history of Professor X (James McAvoy), Magneto, Mystique, and Beast that goes all the way back to 1962 in X-Men: First Class.
Jean's torment by the Phoenix Force and Dark Phoenix's ending aren't ideal, but it does have the virtue of not having Jean die a second time. Instead, Jean chooses to control the Phoenix Force instead of letting it overwhelm her by feeding off her rage and trauma; when Vuk tries to steal the Phoenix Force so the D'Bari can take over the world, Jean chooses to become the Phoenix to protect the planet and the X-Men, whom she realizes are her true family. To destroy Vuk, Jean becomes a higher form of life and transforms into the fiery Phoenix Force itself, which plays on the X-Men saga's theme of evolution. Rather than being a tragic victim, Dark Phoenix allows Jean to choose her destiny. Although the execution is muddled, at least it's focused on Jean as the hero, rather than being about Wolverine having to kill the woman he loves, which was one of X-Men: The Last Stand's biggest mistakes.
Overall, Dark Phoenix is a fine X-Men movie with solid performances and a few exciting action set pieces. It's a much better film than X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, although Dark Phoenix also doesn't reach the heights of X2: X-Men United, X-Men: Days of Future Past, or Logan. Just from a conceptual standpoint, however, Kinberg's decision to remake The Dark Phoenix Saga was his first mistake, as 13 years since X-Men: The Last Stand was too soon for a do-over. Dark Phoenix was also following up X-Men: Apocalypse, which was not well-received, and the absence of Wolverine hurt the film's drawing power with mainstream audiences. As a first-time director, Kinberg does a decent job overall, but he makes questionable writing choices and visually, Dark Phoenix lacks the epic scale fans have grown accustomed to, especially from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Fans Are Just Waiting For The X-Men To Join The MCU
Disney's purchase of the X-Men from Fox made the feeling that Dark Phoenix was a lame duck unavoidable - and that's another major reason why the film flopped. At this point, most fans are happy to wait until the X-Men are rebooted and finally join the MCU. When Marvel Studios' productions became the most dominant superhero movies in the world, it only highlighted the many flaws of the X-Men franchise. To be fair, X-Men has also delivered a handful of the best superhero movies ever, but Fox's mutant saga has had as many misses as hits and their failures (which now includes Dark Phoenix) have been embarrassments.
X-Men, which launched 8 years before Iron Man, was always the MCU's erratic older sibling. Simply put, Fox never ran the X-Men franchise with the same kind of long-range planning, high level of consistency, and attention to detail that the MCU has. Now, fans not only crave seeing Wolverine meet Spider-Man or Storm meet Black Panther but they also yearn to see the X-Men handled with the same level of reliable quality that the Avengers get from Marvel Studios.
In the end, Dark Phoenix's failure, unfortunately, ends Fox's X-Men with a whimper rather than capping off its 19-year saga with a glorious success. But perhaps history will be kind and will one day regard Dark Phoenix as a pretty good X-Men movie that was shot down by impossible circumstances.
- X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019) release date: Jun 07, 2019
- New Mutants (2020) release date: Apr 03, 2020