Dark Phoenix offers neither smoke nor fire
To fully understand this movie, a tiny crash course in X-Men film history is helpful. Dark Phoenix is the seventh film in the main X-Men film franchise started in 2000, but only the third to be directed by someone other than human garbage bag Bryan Singer. This film serves as a sequel to 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse, trying to balance the focus between the characters introduced in that film and X-Men: First Class (2011). Like the third film in the franchise (2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand), Dark Phoenix also adapts Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s “The Dark Phoenix Saga” from 1980. It’s perhaps the marquee X-Men story, as iconic as anything that Marvel has ever put out. However, there are several reasons why revisiting this story was not a good idea for this film, and even more reasons as to how poor execution made a bad idea even worse.
Dark Phoenix takes place 10 years after the last film, and it does not want you to think about this being a period film or the fact that none of the characters have aged significantly. There’s no 1992 fashion to be found, and only the lack of smartphones indicates that writer/director Simon Kinberg remembered this is supposed to be a period film. It’s not the film’s biggest problem, but it basically feels like the film is sliding a giant curtain over things and shouting “pay no attention to the timeline!” at all times.
Anyway, at the beginning of the film, the X-Men are seen as heroes by the world, and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) even has an X-phone that connects directly to the president. When the space shuttle Endeavor gets hit by a strange cosmic phenomenon, the X-Men led by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) take to space to save them. In the process, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) absorbs this cosmic energy and is seemingly killed, only to be rescued and insists that she’s fine. But of course, she’s not. This cosmic energy has given/unlocked a new level of power for her telepathic/telekinetic abilities, and also broken down barriers in her mind placed there by Xavier to help her control her emotions. The team, including her boyfriend Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), tries to deal with this as an internal matter, but only manages to push her further afield. She seeks advice from Magneto (Michael Fassbender), now the leader of an island sanctuary for mutants, but is also rebuffed. Meanwhile she is sought after by a race of shapeshifting aliens who have been tracking this cosmic power, led by an alien who is never named in the film but has taken the form of Jessica Chastain in an awful-looking wig (Beast looks great, and Chastain's hair looks like it was bought at a Halloween pop-up store).
Flashbacks aside, most of this film is characters expositing, followed by an action scene, followed by more exposition. Wash, rinse, repeat. It is almost impressive that a film could be this swiftly paced and also feel like it has no momentum. The major problem with the film is that trying to introduce Jean Grey (yes, she was introduced in the previous film, but she barely had any characterization), fill in her backstory, give her power, and resolve the character’s arc and the plot is too much for a movie that comes in under two hours. We don’t see enough of her pre-Phoenix to understand at all the changes she is going through, and there’s not much after that to fill in why her character makes the decisions she does. I couldn’t tell you if Dark Phoenix is trying to say that Jean’s new powers are out of her control, she no longer relates to other humans, or if she is lashing out for some sort of revenge. The end of the comic book storyline is Jean reclaiming her humanity in a self-sacrifice, a tragic ending for a story that was the apparent death of a character who had been around for 20 years, and had a deep emotional connection to her fellow X-Men, especially Cyclops. This film barely makes me think their relationship extends beyond the fact that they go to the same school.
Exacerbating the issues with Jean Grey’s character is Sophie Turner having to do accent work. It’s not necessary to the character (like with Doctor Strange, it doesn’t matter if she is from England or not, there’s nothing essential to the story about her being born and raised in America), and her American accent is pretty good, but it’s an obstacle in letting her performance go as big as her character’s power or mining more depth out of the script. She’s a good actress, but the accent feels like it is keeping her restricted. There’s some stuff exploring how Xavier’s mission has twisted his focus and how trying to protect people we love from trauma stifles their emotional growth, but the film never really explores that as much as it suggests it. There aren’t really any arcs here, just characters disagreeing until they change their minds in a way that seems unprompted by anything that happens in the film. Even when the film nods in the direction of women breaking free of male authority, which it does with both Mystique and Jean at various points, it makes Captain Marvel look elegant by comparison.
There are some fun moments peppered throughout the film’s several action sequences, and compared to Apocalypse, this film does have characters that actually seem to interact with each other during their battles. But the dour, lifeless tone of the film is so pervasive that it undercuts all sense of joy. The fun thing about superheroes is all the cool or interesting things that superpowers can do, and this mostly just feels like a chore. No one seems to ever enjoy being a mutant. This has been a problem in much of this franchise, but when Iceman freezes Wolverine’s beer in X2 it was novel and fun because Wolverine is a lovable scamp. Here, when Cyclops holds cups out to Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and just says “rocks,” he seems rude and entitled. This is another small choice that illustrates the problem with this movie. If it can’t deliver on emotional stakes or melodrama it should at least be fun, but there’s very little of it here. The only thing I wholeheartedly liked in the film was the appearance of a classic X-character in the background of a party scene who looks like she stepped out of the page of a comic (even if the music she is making is also anachronistic for 1992).
The second act of the X-Men franchise, which started out with First Class–one of the best films in the genre for capturing the spirit of the comics–goes out with a dissatisfying whimper instead of a bang. There’s a lot to mine from these characters in terms of social commentary and melodrama. The best X-Men stories balance those two, and this one gives lip service to both for the sake of taking on the trappings of an iconic story without any understanding of what made it a classic in the first place.
Dark Phoenix opens in Philly theaters tomorrow evening.