As we approach Thanksgiving, let’s check out the fiery bird that cooked the X-Men’s goose.
As a comic book character, Jean Grey is famous for repeatedly returning from the dead. Hence the code-name Phoenix. As a movie character, she’s famous for repeatedly killing off the X-Men franchise. Hence the cycle of reboots.
X-Men: Dark Phoenix put the final nail in coffin for the FOX version of the X-Men. It lost a ton of money, right on the eve of the studio losing most of its assets in a fire sale to Disney. While it does mean the mighty mutants get to join the wider MCU, it was a ignominious end to a franchise that had some high points over the years.
Like everyone else, it seems, I skipped this bird in the theater. That makes it a perfect candidate for our Thanksgiving Leftovers reviews, where we’ll try to see How Bad Is It?
X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)
The X-Men enjoy unprecedented popularity. Thanks to their heroic efforts and Xavier’s work behind the scenes, humanity has come to accept them. Even to call them heroes. When NASA has trouble with their shuttle encountering a weird spatial anamoly, it’s the X-Men who get the call.
Racing against time to save the astronauts from an approaching wave of energy, the X-Men have to use all of their talents. Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) attempts to hold the shuttle together from the inside with her powerful telekinesis, but gets caught in the energy wave before she can be rescued.
The wave imbues her with tremendous power, but also unlocks memories of her tragic past that Xavier (James McAvoy) had buried. As she looks for answers, she begins to succumb to the power’s desire for destruction. Can the X-Men rescue one of their own, despite being divided internally?
What Went Wrong?
- Character Assassination. Dark Phoenix tries to flip expectations by making good guys morally degraded, and bad guys tragically sympathetic. It doesn’t really work. When so many people act out of character, it feels like manipulation instead of development.
Jean being possessed by cosmic power, and wrestling with its desires versus her own is the beating heart of the piece. That works pretty well. The reboot version of Charles Xavier operates in a morally grey area throughout, so I wasn’t too mad that he’s treated like a villain. Apparently shitting on Prof. X is now the default setting in comics anyway.
I was less pleased by Magneto (Michael Fassbender) becoming some suffering messiah figure. Magneto works for me as a foil to Charles’ naive optimism. If Charles is a shit, tragically heroic Magneto feels like just ego stroking for Fassbender.
I absolutely hate Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique She has morphed from Charles/Magneto’s Beatrice (which was problematic) into a stereotypical feminist scold (which sucks). Her canned dialogue features groaners about renaming the team X-Women because “they’re always saving the men”, and heaping coals on Charles for…reasons? I mean,she’s the REAL leader of this team, so it must be true! I was thrilled when she gets promptly murdered by the plot, except it makes her an insufferable martyr which then causes Beast (Nicholas Hoult) to do a heel turn. The whole film is full of people blowing up their character arcs just because the script thinks it’s intriguing. It really aint.
- Mismarketed. Did you see the ubiquitous trailers for this film leading up to release? Bet you were confused as to why FOX was stupid enough to redo X-Men The Last Stand, the film that famously killed the franchise. The trailer really makes Dark Phoenix feel like exactly the same story. That’s a huge disservice to the actual movie.
Dark Phoenix and Last Stand do share plot elements. The same comic book arc inspired both, so that’s natural. They tackle the material in much different ways, though. Ways that would be important to highlight. Apparently that difference was too tough for the boys down at marketing to wrap their minds around. So they marketed it as a clone of the disastrous third movie in the franchise. That’s D-U-M-B.
- No Quicksilver Musical Sequence!!! What the hell was FOX thinking? The absolute high point of each of the last two X-Men movies was the big set piece where Quicksilver (Evan Peters) pulled off physics-defying feats to a slapping soundtrack. That “Sweet Dreams” segment in the X Mansion is still my favorite five minutes of cinema from the whole franchise.
In Dark Phoenix, we get a little wet-fart scene where he saves the space shuttle crew (with no accompanying music) and one regurgitated attempt to recreate the Quicksilver Vs. Apocalypse scene, here against Jean Grey. He gets unceremoniously punked and is out of action for the whole rest of the movie. Lame.
This goes to a larger complaint: the musical sequences were a great way to acknowledge and celebrate each film’s period setting. You could feel the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s vibes of each entry. This film’s period setting is vague and unimportant. It wastes a great aspect of the rebooted franchise, and benches one of its most charismatic characters.
What Went Right?
- Jean Grey Grows Into Her Powers. Sophie Turner’s Jean has had flashes of depth in the series. I liked her interaction with Logan/Wolverine in Apocalypse. Here, she really puts the project on her back and makes it work. It makes sense: this is Jean’s story – it needs a strong Jean to sell it.
I bought her emotional and moral conflict, because Turner sold all her interpersonal scenes. She’s good interacting with McAvoy or Fassbender, she’s great interacting with Jean’s dad, and she even sells me on a tender relationship with Cyclops. Even though Tye Sheridan is a bland, wet noodle! I didn’t love her conflict with Jessica Chastain’s lead villain, but it wasn’t a deal breaker.
Overall, I really was able to empathize and buy in with this Jean Grey. The film soars when we emotionally engage with Turner’s version of Jean.
- The Story is Not The Last Stand. I mentioned above, but it bears repeating: this movie is not The Last Stand. It’s better. Despite some character missteps, it is a much more personal film.
Famke Jansen’s Jean was an overlooked character who suddenly goes into fire-breathing villain mode. This version shows a Jean who feels increasingly pressed into bad choices by bad circumstances, who struggles on the way down and then manages to redeem herself. Along the way we have a battle for the soul of the X-Men, as everyone is forced to assess their reasons for being in this fight. It’s a lot deeper than advertised.
- The Little Things. It may seem like faint praise, but I found X-Men: Dark Phoenix to be satisfying on a basic level. The pace flows. It mixes its action and philosophical rumination well. The visuals are crisp and bright, and the CG feels well implemented. Even when I disliked a character’s reason for doing something, I knew what that reason was. There’s really no hand-waiving or ass-pulling going on. As a popcorn, summer blockbuster, it worked for me.
How Bad Is…X-Men: Dark Phoenix?
Not very bad. Good in places, actually. I liked its ideas better than X-Men Apocalypse. It doesn’t have that film’s visual energy (or Quicksilver sequence, grumble grumble) but it does have some good set-pieces. X-Men: Dark Phoenix’s emotional stakes are higher and better served. I miss the deep feeling of time and place that the other films offered, but liked the plot better here.
Dark Phoenix isn’t the worst of the X-Men films, nor of the reboots (First Class really did nothing for me). It had a muddled messaging campaign and came at a bad time for FOX and any super team not named The Avengers. If you like Days Future Past or Apocalypse, you’ll probably like Dark Phoenix.