Dark Phoenix doesn’t do to superhero film what its comic-book adaptation did for its genre, but is a solid instalment to the franchise.
Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp and Jessica Chastain
With all the Beatles-mania level of hype surrounding Avengers: Endgame smashing virtually every record in the book for movie success, it’s sometimes easy to forget the franchise that started the superhero film market in the first place: X-Men. Indeed, compared to the Goliath that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Avenger’s little brother in the X-Men is overlooked. With the news of the acquisition of Fox by Disney last year as well, everybody was aware that the franchise was also easy to terminate, along with the Netflix television programmes in preparation for the influx of content for Disney’s very own streaming service. After 19 years and twelve films, the culmination of this famous franchise has been somewhat marred by the subpar press reception it has received, being pre-emptively criticised for rehashing the same comic book storyline that X-Men: The Last Stand (notoriously considered the worst X-Men film to date) tackled, as well as having to delay its release date not once but twice in the face of extensive reshoots that entailed the entire restructuring of its final act.
Let’s separate ourselves momentarily, therefore, from the shackles of the media and actually form our own opinions – he says, highly ironically, on a media platform to influence other people’s opinions. Regardless, how does Dark Phoenix fare as a film? In contrast to other superhero and comic book films, in which there constantly seems to be the expectation to see ever-increasing levels of destruction, Dark Phoenix is an intimate and thought-provoking experience.
Dark Phoenix has the unique opportunity here, in contrast to many other Marvel properties, in the fact that its villain and protagonist are in fact the same person – if you ignore the slightly inconvenient extra-terrestrial Vuk (Jessica Chastain). The emotional exploration of Jean (Sophie Turner) throughout the film is extraordinary. Turner definitely rises to the challenge, however, navigating the switches in Jean’s personality masterfully and portraying her confusion and heartbreak over her own actions with seeming ease.
The film opens with Xavier (James McAvoy) accepting a mission on behalf of the X-Men (despite the protestations of team leader Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) that it is too dangerous) to rescue a group of astronauts on a space mission gone wrong. We are treated to a brilliant glimpse of the united X-Men in action, with Mystique masterfully commanding each of her team – Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) – to successfully rescue the group of astronauts as an oncoming cosmic force threatens the ship. Mystique is eager to retreat with all but one of the astronauts, but Xavier is adamant that all must be rescued, leading to Jean absorbing the massive cosmic energy force and suffering the extreme ramifications of this.
As well as being an incredibly strong opening, with stunning visual effects used to render all of the superheroes’ powers, this sets up the conflict that lasts the entire film and is explored in depth. Xavier’s decisions in particular are scrutinised and analysed by the X-Men throughout the film. Mystique confronts Xavier for his actions, claiming that he is more interested in human life than protecting the lives of his own team and that he is driven to achieve the adoration of humankind. It is an argument that doesn’t necessarily have a “right” side, but I am intrigued by this film’s willingness to portray Xavier – who has often been sympathetically played – as narcissistic and manipulative. It is largely through Mystique’s eyes that we see this side of Charles, and her discontent almost leads to her leaving the X-Men.
This X-Men film differs from those before it in a few key ways. Firstly, in the time lapse between Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix, the X-Men have received acceptance by society, which frees the film from the usual trappings of civilian fear in the face of the mutant scourge – a plot conceit that, while interesting at first, has worn considerably thin over the 19 years since the original film. Instead, it raises the question that with nothing to fight against, what comes next? The film therefore takes the fight and the conflict more internal, as rifts and divides begin to form through the X-Men as they remain undecided over the best course of action concerning Jean and her increasing instability.
The main thrust of the storyline of Dark Phoenix revolves around Xavier and his attempts to save Jean. The film opens with Xavier meeting Jean following a car accident that she accidentally caused with her telekinesis at a young age, and explores the repercussions of Charles’ manipulation of Jean through the building of psychic blockers that aimed to keep her childhood trauma at bay. It is this deception and these revelations, coupled with the heartbreaking rejection from her father, that cause Jean’s rapid deterioration into being uncontrollable. Xavier’s guilt is only made worse when Jean’s power causes the death of Mystique while Charles prevented Hank from intervening.
The battle sequences that occur periodically throughout the film do not drag on too much, and resist the temptation to have a hugely overpowered foe or army to defeat. Instead, there is a nice symmetry between the opposing sides, allowing for more intimate fight sequences with higher stakes as opposed to endless nameless extras that are indeterminately destroyed by our protagonists. It allows plenty of time for all of our protagonists to have the limelight and showcase their abilities while fighting, and this is nicely complimented by the extra time spent in post-production cleaning up the CGI.
Ultimately, the graphic effects and the storyline are nothing if we are not compelled to care about the lead character. This heavy burden rests upon Sophie Turner’s horrendously capable shoulders. She portrays the multi-layered and complex character of Jean Grey with seemingly acrobatic ease, as she oscillates from callous, all-powerful goddess to a confused and frightened teenager. The graphic effects that illuminate her face while she is taken over by her own strength almost makes it look like she is exploding – something that her fragile performance definitely emulates.
This film certainly belongs to the two characters of Jean and Mystique. Though Mystique’s journey throughout this film isn’t especially long-lived, the effects of her demise taint the rest of the film, and result in the film failing the reverse Bechdel test. For the entire film, there are two topics that men discuss: Jean and her powers, and the death of Mystique. The genuine emotions and the allowance within the framework of the film to explore these highly relatable character moments is the film’s greatest success. Superpowered humans – and especially destructive villains – are not relatable. However, through framing Jean’s horrendous acts through the lens of her trauma helps us to sympathise more with her plight and her storyline, allowing us to still root for her even while she struggles with the forces inside of her. We also see an exploration of these ideas within most of the X-Men: Xavier, while navigating his grief and guilt, seeking to protect Jean, another woman who she feels responsible for, and is keen to protect in a way he was unable to for Mystique; Hank, whose grief turns to rage and vengeance; Erik, whose peaceful life is rocked by Mystique’s passing and leads him to take up arms against those that threaten his idyll; Scott, who remains stubbornly devoted to Jean despite her actions.
The film nicely wraps up the X-Men storyline, with a sense of closure. In a similar vein to The Last Stand, the X-Men as we know it is over. A new generation has begun, with Storm, Quicksilver, Cyclops and Beast taking over as the educators as the storyline ticks on. Somewhat of a definite ending that suggests that this chapter of the X-Men’s history is closed.
It is at this point that we have to take out that block that I put on considering the media. I really did enjoy this film, for all of the reasons I have written above. The three-dimensional characters are beautifully written, and the decisions to make the film more intimate in its nature instead of attempting to compete with the superhero big-leagues was a wise move, as it sets it apart from the rest of its genre. However, I also feel like the creators of this film made it in a media blackout. Apocalypse was widely panned by fans and critics alike, and yet there seems to be little attempt to remedy the issues that plagued this film.
While clearly the executives have attributed the failings of Apocalypse to its grand world-ending scale, the problem was in fact the concept that the audience felt desensitised to the X-Men: and, moreover, to these particular X-Men. In a comic book series with such a long and illustrious publication history, it is tricky to fathom why exactly the franchise was rebooted with younger versions of all of the original superheroes, especially when there are plenty who haven’t been realised yet for film. Moreover, the films have always been tonally inconsistent with the source material, which is mainly focussed upon the exploits of the team as one, while the films seems to revel in splitting up the group and only having a few as its focus.
Indeed, for the vast majority of this film, the X-Men remain divided and fighting amongst themselves, in contrast to the joyous scene we saw at the beginning where Mystique used the strengths of all of the team to overcome a threat. That is the sort of content that fans enjoy seeing, as opposed to another adaptation of the Dark Phoenix Saga. The Dark Phoenix Saga is the best selling comic book arc of the X-Men, and it’s obvious to see why they adapted it, but this was not the only choice, especially considering the fact that it’s already been adapted for film. Lots of the comic book storylines use Apocalypse as an enemy, and unfortunately that opportunity was already squandered, considering the wonderful ways in which Apocalypse was used in the 90s animated series. Instead, even an adaptation of original Phoenix Saga would have been appropriate, in which Jean does not go crazy, but does instead embrace the Phoenix identity in order to protect her teammates. The Dark turn can then be utilised in a later film, instead of trying to cram it all into one, as well as being more brave to include some more cosmic elements – or, indeed, to just invent their own storyline separate from one done in the comics before.
Ultimately, Dark Phoenix is a surprisingly deep superhero instalment, featuring brilliant characterisation and performances from all of the main cast. It’s a film that finds its voice in the quiet moments, setting it apart from its blockbuster competitors. Though learning all the wrong lessons from its preceding film, it is a pleasurable enough end to the superhero franchise that revived comic book fever.
Look out for my assessment of the entire X-Men franchise and my problems with its film adaptations coming soon.
Dark Phoenix is in theatres now.