In this age when we’re cursed by identity politics, it’s time for a few confessions. I’m a Marvel guy (sorry, DC…not a big fan), and furthermore A vs. X? It’s X all the way. When I was twelve, my family moved into a new home in the South Bay area of Los Angeles. Within biking distance was my local 7-Eleven, which is still there. For the first time, I discovered the spinner rack. I grabbed two comics—Rom #1 and Uncanny X-Men #132. Fans of the Uncanny X-Men will know this is the Hellfire Club storyline, which leads directly into the Dark Phoenix Saga. After purchasing my double-sized Death of Jean Grey issue, I was hooked on comics.
At the 2019 WonderCon, writer/director Simon Kinberg mentioned he was a fan of the Dark Phoenix storyline…like myself. The question remains, was he blowing smoke or was he a real fan?
Dark Phoenix opens in a time when humans and mutants are on the cusp of a trusting co-existence. The space shuttle Endeavor has just launched into Earth’s orbit when the shuttle comes into contact with a mysterious space entity. The shuttle is now spinning out of control, and the President calls Professor X (James McAvoy) to save the day. Led by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), the X-Men—consisting of Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee)—come to the rescue. Let’s just say at the end, Jean Grey becomes “possessed” by this space entity, giving her a surge of great energy, and our story begins.
“…at the end, Jean Grey becomes ‘possessed’ by this space entity, giving her a surge of great energy, and our story begins.”
So, Dark Phoenix—while not a direct adaptation of the comic—hits on main themes of the original storyline. The main one being, how do you deal with a mutant that is so powerful he/she has the potential to do great harm to…well…everyone? Do you hope for the best or “deal” with the situation? The film starts with a young child, Jean Grey, who is having trouble controlling her emotions and thus her powers and Charles Xavier as the only mutant powerful enough to contain those power. In fact, he goes through extraordinary lengths to contain those powers. That is until he can’t anymore.
Mutant-kind is divided into two camps concerning the Jean Grey problem. The first is Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who wants her dead, and Xavier, who still sees hope in Jean. To further complicate the problem, we have the alien Vuk (Jessica Chastain), who accompanied the mysterious entity to earth. She plans to use its new host (Jean Grey) to harness that power and prepare the planet for an invasion by Vuk and her team.
Because we love lists and rankings, I’d put Dark Phoenix firmly in the middle of the pack of X-Men films—better than the worst and not as good as the best. Admittedly, this is a tough story to tell. First, Dark Phoenix is a dark film. There’s a lot of brooding and drama between the all-powerful Jean Grey and everyone who’s trying to kill her, stop her, or tell her everything’s going to be OK. Then there’s a frustrated Mystique, who thinks Charles cares more about his ego that the safety of the kids. And Beast (Nicholas Hoult), who leaves the school having lost faith in the Professor. How about Charles, whose hopes of peaceful co-existence is ruined by Jean’s out-of-control devastation and Magneto who just wants to live a solitary life on a commune with other mutants. Everyone is so serious with very little joking around.
“…the final fight at the end is fantastic. It is by far the best X-Men fight in its franchise history…”
Look, I wish this film was better than it was. Its biggest problem is that it never earns the emotional connection and sympathy needed to engage in the gravity of the story. It’s both a story problem but more a franchise problem. If you think about it, if you didn’t see the original X-Men films and remember Famke Janssen’s portrayal of the titular character, Jean Grey is pretty much a minor character up to this point after her first appearance in X-Men: Apocalypse. Considering that Apocalypse wasn’t a good film, our sympathies for the Jean Grey character is limited. Dark Phoenix tries to tap make that emotional connection by killing her parents at the beginning, but it’s just not enough to invest appropriately in her fate and the emotional turn on Jean’s part in the third act, just falls flat.
Before I get too far into the weeds, this is a comic book movie for crying out loud. We’re here to see mutant powers in action. The corny display of mutant powers has always been problematic since the first X-Men movie. Professor X still uses his power by putting his fingers to his forehead, Magneto waves his arms, and everyone else stands and then poses. That said, the final fight at the end is fantastic. It is by far the best X-Men fight in its franchise history (not counting Deadpool). It’s so good, it could be in an Avengers film. For the first time, they fight as a team as opposed to pairing off with their villainous counterpart. Also, the film’s fight feels less like a piece of computer-generated animation but comes off feeling practical and real. I should also mention Kodi Smit-McPhee is fantastic as Nightcrawler. He finally becomes the bad-add hero he’s supposed to be.
After seeing the initial trailers, I was expecting the worse. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised, that I liked it. Kinberg succeeds in hitting on the themes of the original Dark Phoenix Saga from the comics and in the end, stands alongside the first X-Men film in both stories. There are a few sappy moments that may induce a chuckle and an angry feminist statement from Mystique, that comes out of nowhere and exists solely to trigger your daily dose Trump-hate for yet another day. Far from perfect, but definitely worth seeing for the fans.
Dark Phoenix (2019) Written and directed by Simon Kinberg. Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jessica Chastain.
7 out of 10 stars