There’s a very thin line between “drama” and “unintentional comedy.” It can be very hard to tell if the emotion you’re conveying is going to translate to the audience being moved or if there’s something in the shot that will cause eyes to roll. It’s such a difficult tightrope to walk it’s been said that no one (director, screenwriter, producer, actors) are even aware which side of it they’re on until the movie is finished. I suppose that means the blame falls on the editor but I don’t think that’s fair.
Dark Phoenix was edited by a good editor, so that can’t be the reason this movie is such a mess.
Lee Smith is an academy award winner. He has handled the cut on every Chris Nolan movie, as well as other gems like Master and Commander, The Truman Show, and even—keeping within the genre—X-Men: First Class. Those movies had great moments of drama and managed not to collapse. A comic book movie like First Class has all the cornball stuff you expect in an X-Men film but everything is played straight (like an X-Men film should) and…it works. The drama feels like drama and there’s never a moment when you laugh at how stupid it all is. You buy in. You suspend disbelief. Comic Book movies live and die on such things. It’s the difference between this:
No, there must be something else wrong with Dark Phoenix, and—by extension—with all movies that fail to capture the right tone. There must be some explanation because the X-Men franchise deserves one. It’s been an up-and-down series of movies, but the ups have been tremendous (X2, First Class, Days of Future Past) and overall the franchise (in the top-ten box office earners of all time) deserved a better ending.
If I had to put an emotion on it, I would say Dark Phoenix is a movie that feels “uncertain.”
There are great actors in this movie but none of them seem to know what they are supposed to be doing with the very superficial and thin screenplay. There are good ideas to be found here, but they’re lost amidst a story that doesn’t know how to develop them or the characters at the heart of them.
If you’re going to blame someone, blame Simon Kinberg, the producer-turned-first time director who has been arguably the second most influential person in the X-Men franchise at Fox after Bryan Singer. After Josh Trank imploded during the making of Fantastic Four, Kinberg stepped in and oversaw the reshoots to “save” the picture. During the filming of X-Men: Apocalypse, when Singer went AWOL just as the latest round of allegations came to light, Kinberg stepped in to keep the shoot running on time. He’s clearly a hands-on producer and someone with plenty of experience. After all, he’s been involved in every main-series X-Men movie since the third film (The Last Stand).
But he’s neither a great writer nor a great director.
Dark Phoenix felt like a movie that had a checklist of things to accomplish, accomplished them, and then the credits rolled leaving the audience feeling empty, leaving the franchise to effectively end with a feeling of “that’s it?” It felt like exactly what it was: A producer became the director, looked over his checklist, and then started ticking things off, one by one, without any of the intangible stuff that good directors bring to a shoot, without any of the flair or clever moments of inspiration that lifts a movie from something mundane to something with life.
 Do yet another version the Dark Phoenix plot
 Make the villain an alien invader
 Give the X-Men more “comic-like” costumes
 Have some deaths for drama’s sake
 End with Xavier and Magneto, putting a cap on the series
Five big boxes and the film checks them all but there’s no stitching, not energy, nothing to make the plot feel like an organic story where each part fills like a piece of the whole.
Yes, there is “Dark Phoenix” plot. I suppose it’s marginally more faithful to the comics than the 2006 movie tried to be (Kinberg helped write that one too), but not enough to matter, and it’s not good enough to make the changes worthwhile.
Yes, the villain is an alien invader, but there are no Skrulls (even though the aliens can shapeshift), nor is there a Hellfire Club (even though they try to manipulate Jean/Phoenix), nor Lilandra (even though Jessica Chastain would have been perfect). The villain aspect of the plot had no significant development of any kind. They were the definition of one-note villains who appeared, attempted to execute their plot, and then were foiled, boom-boom-boom.
Yes, the leather uniforms are gone, and the replacements look sort of like the New X-Men unis, if you blur your vision and squint. Up close, however, they look like they were bought at a Halloween store.
Yes, there are deaths, but the drama fails. A final “I love you” before dying looks good in a note but you have to make it work on the screen. A sacrificial death to save…well, nothing really, is all well and good as an idea (except for the “saving nothing” part) but coming as the climax of a story that had no actual build-up makes it worthless.
Yes, the final shot of the movie offers a nice little capper on the Xavier/Magneto story that’s always been at the heart of the X-Men. That’s fitting (on paper) since the series is ending and Kevin Feige’s MCU is taking ownership. But it fails within the context of this movie since Xavier and Magento are—at best—supporting players here and only had a single scene in this movie before the final shot.
This is a movie written and directed by a producer, and it shows.
Mercifully though, it is ended. Now the franchise can rest, cocoon itself in the sheltering arms of the MCU, and one day rise again, greater than ever, with stories told by storytellers who actually care about putting the comic page on the screen, and who know how to adapt those comic pages into stories that work as movies.
Dark Phoenix wasn’t that.
4/10 – A really very below-mediocre movie, with a wasted cast, some long stretches of boredom, and disconnected story beats.
Take a break, mutants. See you in six or seven years.