Home > Reviews > Thoughts on DARK PHOENIX (or is it X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX?) (spoilers)

Thoughts on DARK PHOENIX (or is it X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX?) (spoilers)

Thanks to my library, I’ve finally seen the last film in Fox’s X-Men series (discounting the not-yet-released spinoff New Mutants), which was shown theatrically under the title Dark Phoenix, with the X-Men supertitle restored for home video. Written and directed by Simon Kinberg — who co-wrote the franchise’s first attempt at the Dark Phoenix story, X-Men: The Last Stand from 2006 — it’s his attempt to use the rebooted timeline of the later X-Men movies to take a mulligan and try to get it right this time.

I actually thought The Last Stand was a decent film, though a flawed one. A major flaw was that its original goal of telling a cinematic version of Chris Claremont’s classic Dark Phoenix story (building on what was set up at the end of the second film) was hampered by the studio’s insistence on merging it with the mutant-cure storyline that Joss Whedon had introduced in Astonishing X-Men a few years earlier, so that Jean Grey’s story arc was reduced to a B plot for much of the film and didn’t have room to breathe. The new film lets Kinberg focus solely on Jean’s story this time out.

Dark Phoenix was a box-office and critical failure, so I didn’t go in expecting much. But I was pleasantly surprised. Certainly the film has flaws, some that I only realized after the fact and a few that stood out right away and took me out of the film. But overall, I found it to be a reasonably effective story, and on balance I’m satisfied with how it played out.

In some respects, the film uses the same beats as The Last Stand. It keeps the idea that Jean Grey always had extraordinary power that Charles Xavier suppressed with mental blocks, tarnishing his pure image and turning Jean against him when she finds out and the barriers in her mind fall down. (In that version, the Phoenix was purely an outgrowth of Jean’s own exceptional power. Here, it’s a cosmic force that merges with her, but it’s her exceptional power that draws it to her and enables her to survive the merger.) But the way it plays out is very different, feeling like a deliberate counterpoint to TLS’s choices, and I prefer this version, which turns out to be far more optimistic and better serves the characters and their relationships.

In other ways, though, the characterizations are a weak point of the film. It’s relatively short by modern standards, only about 100 minutes of story once you subtract end credits, so most of the ensemble cast gets only cursory attention and the plot is raced through. Some of the character transitions and motivations are too abrupt and extreme. Jean turns on the team too quickly after learning Xavier lied to her about her childhood, although to be fair, it is shown that she has no control when her newly unleashed rage takes over. But when she accidentally kills Mystique (to accommodate Jennifer Lawrence being too big a star now to be available/affordable for the whole thing, I reckon), both Magneto/Erik and Beast/Hank jump way too quickly to wanting to murder Jean in retaliation. It’s kind of silly the way it plays out with Magneto. Erik: “I stopped killing because I realized revenge didn’t make the pain go away.” Hank, a couple of scenes later: “Raven’s dead.” Erik: “REVENNNNNNGE!” Hank’s motivation doesn’t work much better — the film seems to suggest a romance between him and Raven, which I don’t think is something ever suggested in previous films (I could be wrong), and is unnecessary because their long friendship going back decades should be enough.

(That’s another flaw in the film, by the way — it’s set in 1992, three decades after First Class, and there’s no attempt to age the actors up.)

Some of the plot points advance in a similarly arbitrary and unbelievable manner. Mainly, the film is set in a time when the X-Men are admired worldwide as superheroes, mutants are accepted, and the President of the US has an actual X-Phone hotline on his desk… but as soon as one mutant, Jean, goes wild and attacks some local cops, all of a sudden the POTUS is ghosting Xavier and the TV news is talking about proposals for mutant internment camps. That’s way too abrupt a change in response to a single incident, and it badly undermines the film’s credibility. Yes, there would be a surge of bigotry flaring up after something like this, but it wouldn’t lead to such an instantaneous change in government policy; it would take time for anti-mutant pundits and politicians to shift the Overton window far enough.

A better alternative for setting up the climactic sequence — where the military takes the X-Men captive on a train where the bad guys attack them — would’ve been to spend more time on the machinations of said bad guys, the D’Bari (named after the alien species that Phoenix carelessly destroyed in the original comics, but here retconned into Skrull-like shapeshifters who want to capture the Phoenix Force that destroyed their world and use it for conquest). The D’Bari leader Vuk is played by Jessica Chastain (in the likeness of a woman Vuk killed and impersonated), but Elementary‘s Ato Essandoh plays her second-in-command, impersonating an FBI agent. It would’ve worked better if, say, Essandoh’s character had been shown pushing for a more aggressive stance against the X-Men and faced resistance from officials who still believed in them. I wonder if something along those lines was cut for time and replaced with the sloppy, throwaway voiceover line about internment camps.

One more weakness of Dark Phoenix, unfortunately, is the casting it inherits from the previous film. This time, Sophie Turner as Jean and Tye Sheridan as Scott/Cyclops have a much heavier burden to carry than in X-Men: Apocalypse, and it shows that they’re the weakest members of the ensemble. Turner has her occasional moments (though is nowhere near as appealing as her predecessor Famke Janssen), but she’s out-acted by Summer Fontana, who plays Jean’s 8-year-old self in flashbacks. Sheridan is completely dull and one-note as Cyclops; it’s a role that demands a strong actor to make up for being unable to see Scott’s eyes, and Sheridan totally fails to deliver. What’s more, he and Turner have no romantic chemistry to speak of. It weakens the impact of what should be a core relationship in the film.

Still, what ultimately works for me is how much more optimistically the Phoenix story plays out than in the original film version. In TLS, Magneto wanted to exploit Jean as a weapon for his war on non-mutants; here, he tries to keep the peace and stops her from harming a group of soldiers — and his desire for revenge only lasts for the second act before he chooses a nobler path. In TLS, Jean was so overcome by her runaway power and madness that she killed both Cyclops and Xavier, the two people she was closest to; here, it’s their love for her that reaches her through her pain and bitterness and reminds her of who she is. In TLS, Jean lets Wolverine execute her to stop her from killing her family, but here, she makes her own sacrifice by choice, embracing the power and evolving into something higher in order to save her family. Not only that, but the mature entity she becomes at the end is a really beautiful rendering of the Phoenix in its full flaming majesty, the sort of thing I kept hoping for in the original films but never got. Throw in the additional optimistic beat of that one soldier choosing to trust the X-Men and release them to help defend against the attacking D’Bari, and the upbeat turn the film takes in its last act does a lot to make up for its shortcomings, and works well as a rebuke to the nihilism of TLS.

The action in the last act is also excellent. The train attack sequence was very well-made, I thought, with some very creative uses of superpowers. I’m not crazy about superhero fights where the goal is to ruthlessly kill a whole army of attacking aliens — I prefer superheroes to save lives rather than take them — but the action was intense, frenetic, and creative. It’s the one place where the breakneck pacing did the most to help the film rather than undermine it.

By the way, one odd thing Dark Phoenix shares with one of its predecessors is an apparent desire to homage Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The climax and final scene of X2: X-Men United were deliberately meant to evoke TWOK’s ending, with the closing shot having the same kind of hint of the sacrificed character’s resurrection, a voiceover from said character, and a very similar musical sting leading into the end credits. Here, there’s a sequence where Vuk is tempting Jean with the power of the Phoenix and showing her a mental simulation of using its power to bring life to a lifeless world, and it’s essentially a higher-quality recreation of the Genesis simulation from Carol Marcus’s project proposal in TWOK (the first entirely CGI sequence ever used in a feature film, though beating TRON to the screen by only a month). Interesting to see the same idea executed with technology 37 years more advanced, though it seems a bit incongruous in this film. (As well as making me feel really old — has it really been 37 years?)

So, all in all, Dark Phoenix is a very flawed and inconsistent film, but it’s been a very flawed and inconsistent series. It’s far from the best film of the lot, but far from the worst, and for me the parts that work outweigh the parts that don’t. Despite its cursory, rushed storytelling, I feel it succeeded in its goal of getting right the aspects of the Dark Phoenix story that The Last Stand got wrong. And though it fills the same role of bringing about the end of an era for an X-Men team and film sequence, it does so in a better, more upbeat way that brings closure yet leaves more hope for the future (well, as long as you don’t think about the future Logan established, which may or may not be in the same timeline as this). I think that’s a reasonably satisfactory way to conclude Fox’s long, turbulent X-Men film series.

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