Reading the damming initial reviews for Dark Phoenix (2019) is quite frankly a pretty depressing exercise. After all, we're talking about a film which is billed (albeit tentatively) as the last hoorah from what is a hugely influential and successful series which has spanned almost twenty years, so it's undoubtedly a shame that the franchise flame should go out to the tune of such strong criticism before its assets are swallowed-up by the MCU behemoth following the Fox-Disney merger.
"It's time to let a fresh team of MCU filmmakers reboot the series," reads one review. "Dark Phoenix proves there's no pulse left in a franchise that never managed to evolve," says another... It would seem that it's all too easy to forget that Fox's X-Men has just recently spawned the likes of X-Men: Days of Future Past as well as Deadpool and Logan (the latter of which is a very brave film which would never have been made under the MCU umbrella) and has consistently dealt with interesting themes about outsiders and belonging through the membrane of numerous mutant characters who are almost always brought to life brilliantly.
And at the end of the day, Dark Phoenix (2019) very much continues in that very vein, and in fact it's quite arguable that it's the growing belligerence towards the franchise itself which has given the film such a bad rap, as quite frankly it's rather hard to understand how it's been received just as negatively as it has. Sure, it's got its flaws, but it's also a very well-intended, well-executed, and good-hearted film which continues to explore the franchise territory whilst testing its characters emotionally like never before.
The story picks up after X-Men: Apocalypse where Charles Xavier’s (James McAvoy) X-Men are revered across the world as they complete dangerous missions to save lives. When one in assignment in space goes horribly wrong though - sending their most powerful and unstable team-member Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) spiralling out of control - it leaves this big mutant family to face a friend as well as some terrifying truths of their own.
It's a story we've seen adapted before in X-Men: The Last Stand, but this time around - even if the central plot device affecting Jean is rather clumsy - it's all engineered far more effectively to test the characters to their emotional limits whilst exploring some interesting themes. It's a film that raises questions about the effects of hiding the truth from people, it discusses how quickly public opinion can change and how divisions in society are often bubbling under its surface, and it continues to dissect these outsider heroes and how they deal with their differences.
Those are all admirable things for a big blockbuster to do, and that's why it's hard to deny that Dark Phoenix is - at the very least - a good-hearted film with some interesting stuff in it. But there's much more to it than that, as this is also a film which works brilliantly on an emotional level because of the way that it develops the characters that we've grown to know and love over the years.
The usually calm and measured Charles Xavier is struggling to come to terms with how his mistakes affected Jean, the X-Men family are deeply troubled by her tortured new powers, and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) once again turns to rage as he realises her full capabilities. Everyone is pushed into a very difficult place both physically and mentally here because they're all facing a friend rather than a conventional villain, and that's an interesting narrative doing its job well.
That's all brought to life of course by a set of stellar performances from this typically outstanding cast too, but it's also undoubtedly helped by the fact that the man behind the script and the camera here - Simon Kinberg - has now turned his hand to directing after overseeing this X-Men franchise from the beginning. He understands these characters better than anyone, and even if his often-awkward script can't quite construct coherent arcs without pulling in the direction of multiple character or thematic beats, he crucially devotes an awful lot of time to seeing these folks talk and come to terms emotionally with what's happening, and that - along with a powerful score from Hans Zimmer - makes for a surprisingly sombre affair overall.
None of that is equally to say however that Kinberg can't do action, as the set-pieces here are actually up there with the franchise's best. The whole film has a sense of dynamism about it as Mauro Fiore's camera weaves masterfully around the characters to expertly place you within the events, whist the initial space-mission is brilliantly tense, and the final action sequence - despite building to a fairly lacklustre finale story-wise - is a great final-blast; perhaps indeed a final-blast for the franchise as a whole.
So sure, Dark Phoenix (2019) has a pretty clunky script and plot-device at its centre and a fairly weak ending all things considered, but mostly it successfully serves as a sombre character-study about a friend who's spiralling out of control whilst exploring some interesting themes in a good-hearted way. Its score and camera-work are sublime and the film never becomes overrun with action, and all of that is admirable in what is still a big comic-book movie blockbuster.
In the end then, I for one think it's a crying shame that - for all of its flaws - Dark Phoenix (2019) has been received as badly as it has. The X-Men franchise has given us a lot of great movies and has explored its central themes admirably from the start, and whether all of that will continue when these characters move to Marvel remains to be seen. One thing's for sure though, whilst we're unlikely to get something as clumsy as Dark Phoenix, we're also unlikely to get something as well-intended and interesting either.
Final Score: 7 out of 10
Avengers: Endgame • Run time 1:53 • PG-13: for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action including some gunplay, disturbing images, and brief strong language