WARNING; The following article contains major spoilers for Dark Phoenix, in theaters now.
Director Brett Ratner's X-Men: The Last Stand was so poorly received in 2006 that Fox rebooted the franchise five years later with X-Men: First Class. However, Ratner's take on "The Dark Phoenix Saga" was co-written by Simon Kinberg, which makes it more than a little confusing why the studio would turn to him to helm Dark Phoenix, which stands as a sort of do-over.
With Jean Grey unleashing chaos once more, the question on every fan's mind is, which movie is the better version of the story.
WHICH HAS THE BETTER PLOT?
On this front, it's basically a tie due to both films failing to live up to the source material and then subverting the lore to the point both plots are generic and boring. The Last Stand steered clear of adapting the galactic elements, with the Phoenix consuming a star, instead opting to follow the Ultimate Universe route, in which it was a vicious alter ego of Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) repressed in the mind of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen).
But, seeing her kill off Xavier and Scott Summers (James Marsden) early on, only to ally with Magneto's (Ian McKellen) Brotherhood felt underwhelming. Throw in the mutant cure, and this film didn't know what it wanted to be, watering down the Phoenix arc so we could get yet another case of mutants pondering the option of being normal to fit in.
Dark Phoenix has a better plot, with Sophie Turner's Jean becoming possessed by the Phoenix -- this time a cosmic entity -- and losing control. Her killing of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) also feels earned and has more emotional resonance, and rather than being Magneto's (Michael Fassbender) lackey, the Dark Phoenix is so powerful, his Brotherhood has no choice but to unite with the X-Men to take down the godlike being. Seeing Jean displaying omega-level powers and having everyone else cowering before her also has far more impact this time around, especially because we're still seeing the good in her, and she isn't just a cold-blooded killer like she was in Ratner's movie.
That said, what really harms Dark Phoenix isn't how it bettered The Last Stand, but how it wasted clear storytelling potential. Kinberg decides to ground the movie yet again, which doomed it to failure the first time around. Not taking this film into space or having the Shi'ar's Imperial Guard, Princess Lilandra or the M'Kraan Crystal involved dilutes a story of grandeur, ultimately making this rehash feel like a rinse and repeat of the first attempt. There's no cure or Magneto partnership but the premise is basically the same: Jean kills her teammates and is on-track to destroying both mutant and mankind, therefore she's got to be taken out.
Seeing the plot discard its cosmic start is disappointing as we could have had an off-world spectacle similar to Avengers: Infinity War where Iron Man, Spider and the Guardians fought Thanos on Titan, but instead all we get is another train-wreck of a finale.
WHICH HAS THE BETTER CHARACTERS?
The Last Stand fell flat on so many accounts when it came to character development. Killing off Xavier and Scott was a terrible decision as this removed Jean's two main emotional tethers in quick succession. Hugh Jackman did an amazing job as usual with Wolverine, but while his relationship was Jean was well done, it still felt one-dimensional because the "The Dark Phoenix Saga" really isn't his supposed to be their love story.
The original story spans multiple worlds, so grounding it to a romantic feature would limit Jean as an all-consuming force. This happens in Dark Phoenix, too, through Jessica Chastain's Vuk, who rather than being a truly intimidating mentor, comes off as nothing more than a cheerleader urging Jean to break bad in order to revive her D'bari race.
As for Turner's overall performance, her Jean is given a lot more room to really make you feel her struggle. You empathize with her more due to the possession and corruption she goes through. Turner channels her Sansa Stark pretty well, not relegating herself to being a plot device like Janssen's character. Her angst and hope for redemption sticks with you so that when Jean sacrifices herself to save the planet at the end, it doesn't lack the emotional heft of Janssen's Jean being fridged by a male figure. Tye Sheridan's Cyclops is also given more agency, although a few kisses in this film doesn't make up for the lack of development their romance had in X-Men: Apocalypse.
Also, there's no Logan involved in Dark Phoenix to complicate the plot, especially as the age difference would have been creepy had Jackman still been in the role, allowing Kinberg more time to flesh out the fractured relationship with James McAvoy's Xavier. He also tampered with Jean's mind by suppressing memories of her family's death and eventual abandonment, but the fact he's given time to atone and really prove to Jean he loves her like a daughter scores major points. Not to mention, McAvoy's performance is one of the few consistently bright spots in the franchise.
Lastly, Fassbender's Magneto also adds gravitas to the film with yet another commanding performance. Losing Mystique triggers him, highlighting that while he's no longer a villain (choosing to take care of mutants on Genosha), he can still be a killer as he starts hunting Jean. Kinberg turns him from genocidal maniac and former mass murderer into a better mentor than Xavier is to his own band of outcasts, making the frenemies' dynamic a lot more nuanced.
All of this reaffirms Kinberg had the right cast for the job, it's just the plot he appears restrained on yet again. As a result, the studio has failed to stick the landing once more, which leads to Dark Phoenix fizzling out rather than burning brightly, albeit not in a crash-and-burn fashion as The Last Stand.
Directed and written by Simon Kinberg, Dark Phoenix stars James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Evan Peters and Jessica Chastain.