Review: Dark Phoenix

I never listen to critics. I almost never agree with them. Nonetheless the buzz around Dark Phoenix was so uniformly negative that it did eventually dampen even my hype. It doesn’t help that the last X-Men movie, Apocalypse, was a bit underwhelming.

Promotional art for X-Men: Dark PhoenixSo even though I’m a huge fan of the X-Men movies, I went into Dark Phoenix with very low expectations.

I was a fool. The critics are wrong — Dark Phoenix is fantastic.

The film begins with the X-Men ascendant. They’ve achieved the acceptance Professor Xavier has worked so hard for, and they’re now a household name, beloved by mutants and humans alike. But the success has started to go to Xavier’s head, and after Jean Grey is nearly killed on a dangerous mission undertaken despite strident objections from Raven, events start to spiral out of control, threatening to destroy the X-Men and all that they worked to achieve.

It isn’t perfect. There’s a few minor things that made me do a bit of a double-take, and not in a good way. The writers definitely don’t understand how physics work in space, and I’m not sure I’m onboard the X-Men suddenly having Dragonball Z style power level meters.

There are times when Dark Phoenix does feel like it’s repeating the same story beats as the last take on this arc, X-Men: The Last Stand, but on the plus side this is a better movie than that was.

It also feels a bit rushed at times, and the ending feels a little too inclusive for my taste, but at the same time, “it left me wanting more” is kind of a good problem for a movie to have.

Dark Phoenix is not the best X-Men movie, but it does capture a lot of what is best about this franchise and its characters.

Sophie Turner as Jean Grey in Dark PhoenixWhat strikes me most about this movie is how human all of the main characters feel. Dark Phoenix shows Xavier at his worst — he screws up badly in more than one way — but his reasoning for all of his choices feels very understandable. It doesn’t feel like it runs counter to how virtuous he’s been in the past. Indeed, it’s his very optimism and desire to always do the “right” thing that trips him up.

Dark Phoenix is about Xavier making terrible mistakes, but at no point does he feel unsympathetic. He just feels human.

The same is true of Jean Grey. This movie also takes her to a very dark place — no pun intended — but again her emotions feel valid throughout. You still feel sympathy for her.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: This is what makes the X-Men special. No matter what powers they may have, they still feel like three-dimensional people, with flaws and vulnerabilities. They feel real in a way that most superheroes don’t.

Dark Phoenix is a movie that easily could have slid into the ridiculous with its godlike cosmic forces and sinister alien threats, but by focusing on nuanced characters and believable emotion, it manages to still feel grounded and relatable.

Another strength of the X-Men films that Dark Phoenix carries on is that it nails the tone very well. It’s ultimately a very optimistic movie; it’s about the power of love and compassion to conquer all. But it’s also not afraid to go to dark places when story calls for it. The victories feel earned because they come at a high price.

Professor Xavier and the X-Men in Dark PhoenixDark Phoenix also does an admirable if slightly imperfect job of maintaining another strength of the X-Men: its ensemble cast. The heart of the story is Jean Grey, but lots of other characters get their spot in the sun, too. There are a few I’d like to have seen more of — especially Storm and Quicksilver — but the film does do a pretty good job of giving every cast member at least one moment where they get to be awesome, whether it’s a powerful character scene or kicking ass in battle.

Beast, in particular, gets a lot of attention, and the movie is better for it. All credit to Nicholas Hoult for a very strong performance.

This is why I don’t listen to critics. I loved this movie.

Overall rating: 8.5/10

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5 thoughts on “Review: Dark Phoenix

  1. I do plan to watch this soon and make up my own mind. I also went back and read your review of Age of Apocolypse, and I’d say our opinions of it are nearly identical. One thing that frustrates the heck out of me is that that if you go back and watch all of the deleted scenes in AoA, there is clearly a possible potential cut of the movie that is much better than what we got. Really important bits of plot and character development got chopped to reduce the running time. If I had a blue ray editor I’d make my own cut of it with the deleted scenes jammed back in and swap it out for the one on my media shelf.

    • I haven’t seen the deleted scenes from Apocalypse, but that sounds interesting. I don’t think the final product suffers nearly as badly, but I did get the impression that Dark Phoenix also left a lot on the cutting room floor. It manages to still be a pretty solid movie, but there are definitely some plot threads that feel rushed or like pieces are missing.

  2. Having been an ardent fan of the concept of “criticism” since I was a young teenager, I always feel obligated to jump in when someone says something like “I never listen to critics. I almost never agree with them”. I feel it’s a complete misunderstanding of the form. In this case, however, you *are* a critic and a professional one at that so I’m certain it’s not lack of understanding.

    I could write a book about reading critics. It’s a skill that needs to be honed and practiced and developed like any other. You can’t just read or watch a review and by doing so learn what you need to know in order to make decisions. You need to triangulate. You need to know the critic, their tastes, predilections and prejudices. You need to know the editorial policies of the platform that publishes them and, if possible, its funding sources. You need to know the critic’s and the platform’s expected audience, which may be different, even opposed. You need to know the purpose of the critique or review, whether it’s intended as information, entertainment or academic analysis.

    If you don’t know at least most of these things it’s like asking a stranger in the street. Less useful, in fact. In the case of Dark Phoenix, about which I read a handful of reviews, the majority were attempting to view the movie from the perspective of a general movie-goer rather than a fan. I did read a couple of reviews that went the other way and those were marginally more sympathetic.

    Critics who attempt to review or critique from perceived perspectives not their own, something extremely common in much broadcast and mainstream media, are, in my opinion, not all that successful at doing so. If you watch anything up to a dozen movies every week for years it’s all but impossible not to make connections, see similarites, draw comparisons that a general cinemagoing audience simply won’t be aware of. That’s very tough to counteract and few manage it.

    It also makes those critics even less useful as gatekeepers than the other kind of critic, who assesses everything entirely on their own terms, tastes and reactions. That kind of critic can become an extremely important belweather for the reader. It makes no odds whether you agree with them or not. Over time you can establish with a fair degree of accuracy where their opinions and ractions align or diverge from yours and what they say or write about a movie (or book or album or whatever) will give you a strong lead on how you might enjoy or appreciate the same thing.

    My feelings about Dark Phoenix, though, have nothng to do with the reviews I read. I bought the Claremont/Byrne X-Men as it was published, It was the biggest thing in comics at the time and almost everyone I knew loved it. I certainly did. I was very interested to see the movie… and then i watched the trailers. They were terrible. Embarrassingly bad. That’s why I read al those reviews when the movie came out – to see if it could possibly be as awful as the trailers suggested. Most of the reviews I read suggested it wasn’t as bad as I imagined but nothing I read convinced me I hadn’t seen what I’d seen – stiff, wooden acting, banal dialog, actors who sounded like they were doing a first-morning read-through.

    I probably will get it on DVD and watch it out of curiosity, eventually. If it’s better than the trailers that will be very interesting, and surprising, because obviously most trailers are de facto crisper, punchier and more inviting than the movies they promote.

  3. I bought the tickets before I read the reviews, since it’s been a while since I went for an X-men film in the cinema. Then I skimmed some reviews, felt mildly alarmed, and as you say, went to watch the movie with rock bottom expectations. I was prepared for something incoherent and wildly out of character like X-Men 3.

    I was most pleasantly surprised.

    Dark Phoenix deviates from most X-Men movies by being a very human, emotional, low level story, even as it deals with mutants, aliens and out of this world superpowers. And I think it’s stronger for it.

    If most of the X-Men films veer into stereotypically masculine territory – action, conflict, posturing, competition, attacking, Dark Phoenix distinctively veers into more stereotypically feminine interests – relationships, feelings, bonds, protection, defending, which I think makes perfect sense seeing who the title protagonist is. One cannot superhero style beat up the Dark Phoenix into submission and call that a successful climax.

    Story-wise, it was mostly coherent. To me it satisified going from A to B to C quite sufficiently with understandable cause and effect. I didn’t quite like one death because it felt railroaded for the sake of the story, but with less attention to general universe/world continuity. But if one suspends disbelief and treats the movie as an encapsulated experience, rather than an episode part of a greater universe, it works and is an entirely watchable one.

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