It’s the 1990s and Charles Xavier’s dream of mutants being judged as regular people, even considered ‘superheroes’ who can help in a crisis seems to have been fulfilled. Though it’s not perfect, there’s a tolerance and co-existence that he’s sought all his life. When the Endeavour space-shuttle runs into trouble shortly have blast-off, the President turns to Charles (James McAvoy) and his X-Men to help rescue the crew from what appears to be a solar flare.
But it’s not a solar flare and this will prove a fateful mission. Most of the crew are whisked to safety but with one member still on board, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) risks everything to save them, taking in the cosmic power herself. Miraculously she survives and, in act, feels better than ever before. But as her powers seem to increase, her ability to control them becomes questionable. Years ago, Charles put some barriers into her mind to save her from some of the truths of a childhood trauma and now they are coming down… and Jean no longer knows who she can trust.
As her friends and team-mates try to help, tragedy strikes – and now the divisive question becomes whether they can still save Jean or merely try to stop her permanently.
And to complicate matters, there are those from afar who will seek to take this ‘Phoenix’ power from her for their own use…
Dark Phoenix proves an interesting experience, largely because of its placing as Twentieth Century Fox‘s farewell to their alternate take on the mainstream Marvel Cinematic Universe (all the heroes now effectively under one production roof since the Disney merger… and the release of it’s troubled New Mutants consistently postponed until at least next year). If this had been an earlier volley in the Fox canon it might have been better received and certainly it’s light years ahead of the last attempt to tackle the comic’s most seminal moment and fondly-remembered stories. The Brett Ratner-directed The Last Stand (the third X-Men in the original version of the franchise) treating Jean Grey’s powerburst as a B-story was just one of the misfires within that particular entry.
But Dark Phoenix comes in a year where Avengers: Endgame upped the stakes so considerably, that the X-Men saga just can’t deliver the ‘epic’ factor as needed. The effects are okay, the performances satisfactory, the story…adequate. But audiences have come to expect and demand more. That being said, there are some creative decisions from writer and director Simon Kinberg that are probably wise. Perhaps knowing some of the benchmarks against the film would be found wonting, he has decided to give a set-piece-punctuated film that is far more character and personality-based than some of its recent chapters.
Sophie Turner is fine. In Game of Thrones, she was the sensible, stoic Sansa Stark that everyone expected to be sat on said iron chair when the music stopped, but her Jean Grey, though played adequately as troubled and frustrated and pissed off in growing degrees, ironically fails to replicate Sansa’s inner passion. Turner has a grace and style and may well go on to greater things, but she simply doesn’t scorch the screen as such a role requires. Kinberg’s script and James McAvoy make Charles Xavier not so much the villain of the piece, but a telepathic character who has failed to think things through – acting out of arguably noble intentions but with a growing hubris for the bigger picture that makes him forget the necessary details that hold it together. (A lesson superhero films often fail to learn). Michael Fassbender’s Erik/Magneto delivers the lines that could feature in any of the films and Nicholas Hoult as Hank/Beast, served better, contractually bides his time. Jessica Chastain, a superb performer when utilised correctly, is wasted here, picking up the cheque for a bland, pale performance.
There are moments in Dark Phoenix that feel like a farewell tour of previous set-pieces from the entire X-Men run. Charles Xavier and frenemy Erik have yet another explosive discussion about ends and means (and, yes, a chessboard once again gets shown as a metaphor). Nightcrawler ‘bamfs’ through corridors creating his own unique here-and-there momentum and – in what amounts to little more than a cameo – Evan Peters’ Quicksilver gets to reprise a ‘speed’ scene where everyone else is moving slower than he. And, let’s be honest here, the fact that our mutants are, at one point surrounded by soldiers with MCU patches is truly ‘meta’ whether it was truly intentional or not.
Though the story tries to keep things personal, the truth is that we’re not as invested in the characters as we once were and that’s a huge millstone for a milestone tale that wants the ties that bind to be seminal to proceedings. Thanks to time-bending, rebooting and limited budgets, the likes of Sirs Stewart and McKellen are long gone and with them the likes of Halle Berry and Hugh Jackman. While James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are solid enough, the territory is too familiar to them and one wonders if Jennifer Lawrence asked to be written out for the same reason. (Also, for a franchise that places its more recent entries in the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, those three characters fail to significantly age to any noticeable degree). The rest of the X-ensemble do what they can with what they have and with the previous instalment (the tepid Apocalypse) being the first outing for some of the B-team X-people, they really haven’t captured our hearts and minds. (Imagine if the ten-years-in-the-making Avengers: Endgame had suddenly recast most of its supporting heroic ensemble with the second-string cast of CW shows and you see the problem…)
Kinberg adds several lines into proceedings that seemingly want to lean into the mood of the moment (Charles tells Jean he won’t try to ‘fix’ her because whatever people say about her, she’s not ‘broken’; Raven/Mystique notes at one point that it’s “…always the women saving the men around here – you might want to think about changing the name to X-Women…“) but in a tale about ultimate empowerment, it feels like lip-service to a story that still makes them victims.
And, trying not to be too spoilery, the real problem here is lack of specifics throughout – more blueprint than structure, perhaps a casualty of much-noted reshoots that fundamentally changed the third act. The alien threat that Jessica Chastain and her group represent is really never fully explained. Yes, they are survivors of a world destroyed by the Phoenix Force, but that’s the extent of the backstory. Chastain’s character is barely named (apparently it’s ‘Vuk’, but that whizzed by so fast I originally missed it), her planet is anonymous and their method of survival and travel unexplained. They feel like a footnote threat suddenly writ large.
And more importantly, once set-up as its core, the film simply doesn’t know how to resolve its central moral dilemma: whether to hold the out-of-control Jean responsible for her actions and several pivotal deaths along the way or not. In the comics story on which it is based, Jean Grey destroys an entire planet (not ours!) as her power-set goes ballistic and the head of Marvel at the time (Jim Shooter) shot down the intended plans for Jean to be ‘cured’ in the story’s climax. He insisted that merely ‘curing’ Jean was not enough of a morality tale – and thus, a new ending was written and drawn where Jean ended up taking her own life to stop the forces raging within her from inflicting any more destruction. Controversial though it was, it became one of the industry’s milestones. Here, it’s all a bit hand-wavery, with an ending that suggests a similar sense of self-sacrifice and then immediately undermines it completely with a needless narration in case more rabid fans start a pointless petition for a rewrite.
In the early 1980s, before Watchmen and V for Vendetta, Marvel‘s Dark Phoenix saga defined what mainstream comics could do and the idea of heroes dealing with the consequences of their actions and powers. There’s little chance this loose 2019 cinematic adaptation, well-intentioned but unspectacular, will resonate with any such passion. Essentially this is neither the roaring fire triumph nor the cold winter failure it could have been – its the embers of a once roaring fire and a fractured franchise going out seeking one last breath of oxygen.