‘Dark Phoenix’ Lands Dead on Arrival

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox

“What you choose to do with your gift is entirely up to you . . .”

A Professor X voiceover atop a black screen introduces a familiar origin scene motif. Only this time, it is a young Jean Grey who is the focus in the long-delayed Dark Phoenix. Fittingly, the emergence of Grey’s powers causes a traumatic car crash where her family is (seemingly) killed, landing her in the care of Charles Xavier. Repeated and elaborated upon several times throughout the film, this car crash is sadly more symbolic of the film itself than anything actually intended by the film’s producers. In this adaptation, the X-Men find themselves pit against one another as Jean Grey’s powers are enhanced by the cosmic Phoenix Force, unlocking tragic memories that lead her on path of destruction.

The Dark Phoenix in Print

The “Dark Phoenix” saga originally appeared in the X-Men comics over the course of two separate arcs — beginning in Uncanny X-Men #101 – 108 (1976-7) and concluding in Uncanny X-Men #129-138 (1980). In its original incarnation, the X-Men are dispatched into space for a mission when Jean Grey is inhabited by the cosmic Phoenix Force. Back on Earth, Jean’s newfound power leaves her vulnerable and allows her to be manipulated by the illusion-weaving mutant Mastermind. He corrupts her into joining the Hellfire Club as their new Black Queen. When his control backfires during a psychic battle with Cyclops, Jean’s wrath is unleashed. The Dark Phoenix persona emerges, lashing across the universe and decimating an entire planet. As a result, the Shi’ar Empire, led by Charles Xavier’s lover Lilandra, send their Imperial Guard to bring in Jean as the host of the Phoenix for trial. What followed was an epic of galaxy-hopping friendship, love, and sacrifice some would say is untranslatable on screen. Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, however, prove just the opposite. Instead of engaging with the epic source material, Dark Phoenix overreaches  and underwhelms at every possible opportunity, creating a self-serious parody that feels more like an episode of Beverly Hills 90210 with X-Men cosplay.

“Jean…it’s okay. I don’t know my character’s purpose either. Just ‘act” like you do.”

First off, I want to offer my condolences and mutual bereavements to the true X-Men fans out there. You…I….we…none of us deserved whatever it was that just transpired on the screen under the X-Men logo and brand as Dark Phoenix.  Clearly, the now defunct 21st Century Fox owes us all an apology, but the sincerity of such would go down about as smoothly as European nations apologizing for kidnapping African children during their colonial occupations.  Please take this opportunity to revisit Kitty Pryde & The X-Men, X-Men: The Animated Series, Wolverine & The X-Men, X-Men: Anime, and basically anything of actual quality that will cleanse your mind of this movie.

The Dumb . . .

Afters months of delays, shuffled release dates, and rumoured reshoots to restructure the entire third act, Dark Phoenix arrives dead on arrivalTreading the same path as X-Men: The Last Stand, it minimizes a story meant for three films into a boring, rushed film that is unforgettable only for how comedically horrible it all plays out. First-time director, long time X-Men writer/producer Simon Kinberg ultimately repeats the exact same mistakes as the worst entry in the series. Vague and illogical emotional leaps, underdeveloped relationships, and sloppy storytelling with generic characters and performances create something that feels like the screenplay was written and carried out as an “I hate you” letter to not only fans of the comics, but of the film franchise itself.

No mutants darker than a paper bag…unless they’re blue, of course.

Much of the narrative tragedy and appeal of the original Dark Phoenix saga rested upon the relationship between not only Jean Grey and Cyclops, but the X-Men as a family unit. While the film tries to force these moments with the school at this time being full of younger students, it falls short of creating the intimacy of the institute’s inhabitants in X2 (2002). Since introduced in 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse, Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey has only appeared bored and confused, while any apparent relationship with Tye Sheridan’s Cyclops is presumed only because the film tells us so, not because we have seen their love grow in any believable manner. Your favorite characters are cheap, hollow caricatures of anything recognizable — Nightcrawler spends 80% of the film stoned or confused, Alexander Shipp’s Storm performs an interesting accent upon accent imitation of Halle Berry’s “Nokandan” dialect, and even Quicksilver is pretty disposable. Generic characters are introduced with little or no connection to the story or mythology; they are just extra bodies in cheap costumes. (Even worse, two of these characters are the only POC aside from Storm who have any screen-time.) Any character nuance in the screenplay goes to the irrational, creepy paternalistic vibes of McAvoy’s Professor Xavier.

The Dumber . . . 

Per usual, the character development and translations for the mutant on-screen counterparts fall flat. Since X-Men: First Class, the use of Mystique as a hero and founding member of the team has always been wrong, off-tone, and overly-influenced by the star status of Jennifer Lawrence. Lucky for Mystique and Lawrence, the character dies early on as Jean loses control of her powers after attempting to reconcile with her father. This incident triggers the other players to take action — Beast seeks out Magneto to kill Jean to avenge their mutual blue lover; Charles and the other X-Men want to stop her from creating an incident that could lead to the introduction of mutant internment camps; and body-snatching aliens known as the D’bari appear on Earth to reclaim the Phoenix Force for themselves. In the original comics, the D’Bari were a race whose planet was annihilated by the Phoenix. Sadly, in this film incarnation their origins are vague, and their intentions merely unclear and almost inconsequential to the plot.

The only thing that the film happens to consistently maintain is the franchise’s snaggletooth-fractured timeline. Dark Phoenix takes place in the year 1992, using the Endeavour space shuttle mission as its historical anchor. In the 8 years since saving the world in X-Men: Apocalypse in 1984, the X-Men have become world-beloved heroes and icons. Little boys clutch Nightcrawler dolls and young girls carry placards declaring their love for the team. (Note: This set up for the inevitable rise and fall cliché of outsiders who are suddenly accepted only to be shunned again actually could have been an interesting theme and plot for a better film by more careful filmmakers less concerned with beating a dead horse.) Days of Future Past took place in 1973 and 2023, while First Class kicked off the new timeline in 1963-64. Professor X, Magneto, Beast, and Mystique should all technically be 29 years older than their original appearance…you know, in a timeline that makes sense.

The Dumbest . . .

Neither Fassbender’s role as Magneto nor James McAvoy’s turn as Xavier can muster enough charisma to make up for the blank, pouty boredom that runs throughout the film and Sophie Turner’s transformation into Phoenix. The most emotional visual exploration the film can offer is a shot of Grey crying in the rain next to a trashcan like some a 90’s grunge rock video. When she finally does go full Phoenix Force, there is nothing more than a vague display of orange and pink energy signatures, giving no real scope to the meaning or depth of the cosmic force’s power or proof of why the D’Bari need to harness it. Scenes meant to be emotional and poignant come as comedic-melodrama without cracking a smile. Anytime Sheridan and Turner attempt to emote toward one another, or most embarrassingly, when Phoenix forces Xavier to “walk” to her up a flight of steps, one has to wonder if the actors, director, or even editor thought this scene worked on any serious level.

Some Positive Thoughts

But is it really all bad? Well, yes. There are a few highpoints, but they are too few and too late. Cyclops, mostly useless and neutered throughout the film, drops an appropriate F-bomb albeit in a clumsily bratty moment. Since his introduction in X-Men: Apocalypse, swaggerless Cyke as Sheridan cements James Marsden’s portrayal of the character as way more competent than anyone originally thought.

If you notice some familiar dissonant tones, heavily syncopated orchestral swells and understated synthesizer tinkerings in the music, you realize the film’s only MVP is composer Hans Zimmer. After announcing his retirement from the superhero genre in 2016, Zimmer’s decision to return for Dark Phoenix injected some relief into early reports of the film. Surely, with Zimmer involved, it couldn’t be that bad.  Perhaps even Zimmer saw the fate of Phoenix before she rose, however, and as a result the score sounds like B-sides from Inception and Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. Nothing emblematic. Nothing memorable or poignant. Not even an attempt is made to call back to Michael Kamen’s original X-Men (2000) score for some sense of finality or acknowledgement of the series’ history. Seemingly just like everyone else involved, Zimmer dialed it in, washed his hands, and walked away with the bag secured. Schon gemacht, Hans. Schon gemacht.

Check on your X-Men fans, fam.  Give them a hug. Buy them some pie and coffee. Let them vent and let them heal. They need you more than ever. As the 20 year stewardship of the FoX-Franchise comes to a close, let’s never speak of this film again. Bury it in the same grave as Halle Berry’s Storm gig from 2000.

Dark Phoenix, opening June 7, stars some people who probably don’t want to be associated with this film. Directed by a guy who may be losing some projects soon.

 3 out of 10 Disrespected Epics

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  • Jon-Carlos Evans is a Berlin based filmmaker, audiovisual artist and writer. He holds a B.A. in Film Production from Webster University-St.Louis and a MFA in Media Arts Production from the City College of New York. Under his musical alias Klaas von Karlos, Evans is also is the founder of experimental-electronic collective ReVerse Bullets and creative director of the GLITCH performance series/music label. As Klaas von Karlos, he is also a member of music projects BIINDS, Naked Sweatshop, and Divan Rouge. He is the Programme Lead for the Creative Production-Film MA at Catalyst Institute for Creative & Technological Arts in Berlin.

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