If you went and saw Dark Phoenix this weekend, or plan to see Dark Phoenix this weekend, I’m going to make a few assumptions about you. First, that you probably have seen some of the previous X-Men films. Why? Because the title Dark Phoenix makes absolutely no sense and tells you nothing about the film unless you’ve been following this series since day one. (Compared to say, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which tells you in the title it’s about a bunch of monsters…) The other assumption is that you probably watch other “super hero” movies like Shazam or Captain Marvel because again, no one’s first super hero movie experience would be sparked by trailers featuring Sansa Stark with a bad case of nuclear eczema.
So with those two assumptions in mind, I can comfortably warn you away from ever seeing Dark Phoenix. It’s not the worst comic book movie ever made, but it’s not very good either. Dark Phoenix is like watching the play The Color Purple, but every character is played by a Kardashian. (Yes, Khloe would play Celie). It’s what happens when white-washing and gentrification takes so much soul, seasoning and meaning out of a story that what you’re left with is Gossip Girl with super powers. And not in a good way.
The timeline of the X-Men movies has been a mess for years. (Didn’t we basically get a Dark Phoenix story with Famke Janssen in X-Men: The Last Stand in 2006?) But what’s important to know about Dark Phoenix is it takes place in 1992 and is the fourth installment of the team we first encountered in the excellent X-Men: First Class, which took place in 1962. Like all of the X-movies of this timeline outside of First Class, Dark Phoenix barely qualifies as a period piece; there is nothing about this movie that screams 1992, no Game Boy references, no Clinton jokes, there is absolutely no effort on the part of the director to age Charles Xavier, Hank McCoy (Beast), Raven (Mystique) or Erik (Magneto) despite the fact that all of them should be in their mid-to-early 50s by that point. Honestly, if it weren’t for Charles’ occasional turtleneck and chain combo the movie could have taken place in 2019, although that wouldn’t improve the plot.
In Dark Phoenix, The X-Men are now supposedly loved and accepted by the world—how that happened since X-Men: Apocalypse is a mystery. Maybe a Mutant Obama got elected president in 1984? Together, they go on a mission to save a crew stranded on a space shuttle. Xavier makes some incredibly poor decisions and Jean Grey (not the rapper) almost dies but is saved by ingesting a gigantic, brightly lit, tentacled space hentai version of the same creature we’ve seen in other mid-level to bad superhero movies like Green Lantern, Suicide Squad and Justice League.
Major mistake No. 2: Nobody on the X-Men gets ultra-paranoid about how this giant hentai monster within her has amped up her powers, so when Jean starts to go crazy with this new power, they react too late, and all get beat up or killed trying to stop her. Some other aliens show up trying to steal the hentai monster within her, and the end result is a pretty bad movie outside of some obligatory fight scenes outside a New York City brownstone and a bullet train. However a mediocre plot is not the worst part about Dark Phoenix. It was the absolute lack of any other meaningful themes in the movie.
I get that hard right and woke left people love to write think pieces about superhero movies.“Was Batman a conservative?” Was Thor “fat-shamed” in Avengers: Endgame? But the X-Men movies are actually supposed to be about social and political issues. The whole genesis of the X-Men is a ham-fisted 1960s white liberal’s interpretation of the philosophical battle between Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
While X-Men: First Class embraced some of these issues, each subsequent film in the series became less and less attached to any meaningful real-world issues. This happened so much so that Dark Phoenix could easily have been written by a group of teenage boys writing angry fan-fiction. It’s bad enough that the X-Men are based on the struggle of African Americans but there have never been any African-American X-Men in the movies. Storm, the only black X-Men (who is Kenyan), has been reduced to Ernie Hudson levels of insignificance in the movie.
The X-Men comic by the early ’90s had become a paragon of diversity, featuring at one point a team that was majority women, yet this movie reduces women to weak gender roles as counselor or sacrifice while essentially “fridging” a major character to motivate the men. How many times do we have to see the same trope of young white women not being able to control their powers and men having to save them? This might have been an OK plot idea with the original Dark Phoenix story in the 1970s, but like Black Panther, Captain Marvel and even Black Widow in the Avengers’ movies you are supposed to update some of these concepts and gender roles to make the movie more interesting and less offensive. The 1992 Fox Kids X-Men Cartoon version of the Phoenix storyline gave Jean Grey more agency than they gave to Sophie Turner.
Even the 2009 Wolverine and the X-Men cartoon provided a chance for women to come across as heroic, more than simply damsels who can’t be controlled because they get so damn “emotional.”
When the world turns on mutants again (of course we never knew why they started liking them to begin with) there was an opportunity to really expose Charles Xavier’s philosophies. You see, Xavier isn’t really Martin Luther King Jr., who believed in love but also self-defense. Xavier is more like Booker T. Washington, who believes mutants (i.e. “black folks”) have to earn respect from humans (i.e. “the white man”) to be free. A concept where he’s been proven wrong in EVERY. SINGLE. X-MEN. MOVIE. But in Dark Phoenix, the argument boils down to an angry spat with him and Hank McCoy over drinks and not a real re-evaluation of what the X-Men should really be about. In a movie that takes place the same year as the L.A. riots, the Gulf War and the Clarence Thomas hearings, a super powered minority trying to police one of their own who goes rogue could’ve had a lot more social justice juice. Instead, we got pumpkin spice progressivism.
Save yourself $15 and skip Dark Phoenix until it comes out on-demand. It’s not necessarily worth $4.99 either but at least you’ll feel less guilty about contributing to the white-washing of a once great franchise.