The best thing that can be said about Dark Phoenix, the final film produced in 20th Century Fox’s 19-year-old, 12-or-13 film franchise (depending on the fate of 2020's New Mutants), is that the uncertainty surrounding the Disney-Fox acquisition during its production might have made things enviably confusing for writer-director-producer Simon Kinberg.
No one may ever know exactly the options available to him and the compromises that had to be made, but despite those legitimate questions there don’t seem to be any easy answers as to why Dark Phoenix is as joyless, violent, and sometimes outright cruel as it is.
This is a film with a frankly mean disposition, devoid of any sentimentality or seemingly any intent towards fan service, which is an odd choice given it’s this version of the core franchise finale.
Built primarily and somewhat clunkily around four major action set pieces that like David Ayer’s Suicide Squad take great delight in destroying helicopters, Dark Phoenix revels in a greater level of violence that’s typical for a PG-13 superhero film but lacks the sarcastic self-awareness that took some of the edge off the R-rated Deadpool and its sequel’s more graphic moments.
From the opening moments depicting a car crash that a pre-teen Jean Grey causes in more up-close, slow-mo, bloody detail than in any way necessary to Jean’s climatic, supposed-redemptive moment in which she destroys the film’s malevolent alien henchmen with a self-satisfied smirk on her face, the film chooses time and time again to be callous and arguably sadistic.
Perhaps even more off-putting than making the pacifist and mostly still-decorative Nightcrawler go on a murderous rampage on the villains for whatever reason that choice was made is when a still-fully ‘dark’ Jean uses her powers to force the heavily put-upon Xavier (more on that in a moment) to ‘walk’ up a long staircase like a badly-controlled marionette, mocking his disability with unnecessary indignity.
The narrative explanation for the moment seems to be to demonstrate how evil the alien 'Phoenix Force' possessing Jean is, but the sequence just comes off as wince-inducing and gratuitous but exemplary of the film's tone.
Other odd choices raise more questions, like why is Evan Peters’ Quicksilver injured in the film’s second action sequence, putting him on the shelf for the remainder of the film? Was it a pragmatic story choice - did his abilities make the rest of the fight sequences harder to justify? Or was it a budgetary issue - was depicting his powers multiple times too expensive? Either way, one of the franchise’s best characters is purposely shelved with any levity in the film along with him.
And no, if you’re hoping for some follow-up to Quicksilver and Magneto’s relationship, they never appear on screen together and it never comes up.
That omission is kind of the vibe of the entire production. Besides the appearance of Dazzler (Halston Sage) in what hardly even qualifies as a cameo role, we don’t even get to meet any familiar ‘new mutants,’ an easy way to please invested, hardcore fans.
A version of Selene (the Black Queen) is introduced as a companion to Magneto on a version of Genosha that appears to be a vacant lot, but is never evem referred to by name. His other powered companion is a brand new character despite a catalog of thousands of comic book mutants to choose from and his Medusa-like braids of hair are hardly awe-inspiring.
Dark Phoenix just indifferently ends the main series by ending the film without a flourish or nod to it being goodbye. It doesn’t have a credits scene of any kind, if you want to get a jump on exiting the theater.
The closest the film comes to offering some sort of closure to the main franchise and possibly the entire Fox era is its final scene involving Magneto and Xavier, which calls back to the final moments of 2000’s X-Men and the characters’ friends/adversaries dynamic. It feels very much like a tacked-on scene produced quickly and inexpensively in reshoots to provide some sort of - albeit it very low key - sense of finality, but all it does it exasperate the problems with the franchise’s casual relationship with continuity.
As opposed to trying to close the time loop and end in film in some way that crediby could lead into the first X-Men, just eight years later in movie time, it does the opposite. Whatever Days of Future Past did in its final scene to both undo The Last Stand and try to connect the two sets of past and present casts in a credible timeline, Dark Phoenix re-undoes, and any illusion of a connected loop is shattered.
The victim of this scene besides continuity is (again) Xavier and the deserved-much-better James McAvoy. In addition to the staircase indignity Dark Phoenix presents Xavier as something of a clueless dolt throughout the film, drunk on mainstream acceptance and seemingly unprepared that anyone would question the ethical violations he committed against Jean.
McAvoy is forced to play the fool, particularly highlighted in another wince-inducing scene in which his long-time assistant friend Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) angrily calls him out for his deeds and the script commits the actor to play it like he didn’t see it coming and can’t comprehend his anger.
Kinberg’s script does McAvoy dirty again just moments later when Xavier tries to call the President of the United States in the Oval Office directly on the X-phone (no, that’s not a joke) and is told by someone other than POTUS the hotline is being disconnected. Cue the dial tone and Xavier’s clueless surprise.
Xavier’s only redemption comes when Jean realizes despite his misdeeds and miscalculations his heart was ultimately in the right place. But the film closes with Xavier in appropriately forced or voluntary retirement, the school he founded renamed and carrying on without him, with a villain of questionable morals his only friend.
And as I’m literally writing this an ‘ah-ha’ moment hits me. This version of Xavier actually serves as a good analogy for the entire Fox X-Men era - it meant well, had some legitimately fine moments, but ultimately committed too many fatal errors to continue. Forced retirement is necessary, appropriate and welcome, and hopefully the ‘dream’ of mutants on film will live on in better, more capable hands.