Dark Phoenix

June 7, 2019
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Review by William Connor Devlin

  • It's difficult to imagine nowadays, but there was a time when superhero films had to make an effort to sell themselves to an audience. Studios genuinely didn't know if people would be willing to buy into all the fantastical and often strange inner workings of comic book storytelling. After 1997's disastrously bad Batman & Robin sank like an anchor with both critics and audiences, the genre seemed dead in the water until 2000, when 20th Century Fox released X-Men with much timidity. But the film, stripped-down and simple, was a huge hit and proved that, if done right, comic books could work on the big screen. The rest is history. Now, you can't go to a megaplex without seeing some big comic book adaptation on the marquee. With the release of Dark Phoenix, it's interesting to look back and see not only what this franchise has become in 19 years, but how it changed the landscape and also refused to change with the times. What was once an innovative, solidly satisfying group of admirably cerebral blockbusters eventually feel into disrepair, the victim of studio meddling at its worst.

    Let's back up a little. Context and history are very important, not just for Dark Phoenix, but in the X-Men mythos at large. Besides, if Dark Phoenix is truly the end of Fox's X-Men saga, the series deserves some sort of coda, not least because it's a franchise that's been important to me for the majority of my life. But also... the film series has been unfortunately unrepresented on this site, outside of a great write-up on X-Men: First Class by Robert Heckert. Out of every comic book franchise, why were the X-Men the ones who first caught on with audiences? The answer is twofold. Firstly, there's a wide array of superpowers at play, and the team dynamic presented filmmakers with an opportunity to show off multiple dazzling effects working in tandem with one another. But I suspect that first reason is mostly surface level – things you have to put in a trailer to sell the film to a reluctant audience member. The second reason the X-Men franchise initially caught fire with audiences is because it's thematically rich, exploring marginalized and at-risk communities who are questioned, ostracized, and feared by the public at large. Unlike most superheroes, the X-Men are burdened greatly by their powers. It is not a gift, but a curse, an unfortunate embodiment of what makes them both different and undesirable in a society that would prefer homogeny. There's an alluring appeal to a story where the "heroes" are simply ordinary people who are forced to contend with that which makes them extraordinary. Not to mention that it's very easy to relate with a group of people who feel like they're on the fringe. In a day and age where most superheroes are seen as "perfection," lacking a sense of humanity and an interior state, the X-Men feel surprisingly human despite their many strange qualities.

    Each of the films essentially explores the same thematic material, sometimes through different lens and with the context of history behind it. Professor Charles Xavier, lovingly dubbed Professor X by his students, is an unfussy hero who fights not only for mutant-kind, but for the hope that one day there won't be the need for distinction and that there will no longer be any lines in the sand. The character represents a proactive hope that, through diplomacy and coexistence, the world will accept mutant-kind. In a not-uncommon turn for the genre, the franchise's main villain, Erik Lensherr (AKA Magneto), shares a similar goal with Professor X, albeit his methods are entirely antagonistic. Whereas Prof. X fosters hope, Magneto believes that submission and absolution are the only way mutant-kind will ever have a place amongst humanity. What makes Magneto a deeply fascinating and often empathetic villain is his backstory, where he was placed into the Auschwitz concentration camp as a teenager. Separated from his parents, Magneto first displays his mutant powers of being able to manipulate metal, which further ostracizes him within the concentration camp. Still marked with a number on his forearm, an older Magneto understands what it means to be treated as an outlier in society's eyes, and believes that it's time for the fortunes to be reversed. When developing the two characters, the writers fashioned Professor X as a Martin Luther King Jr.-style activist, with Magneto acting as a foil based on Malcolm X.

    Furthering this fascinating dynamic, which always serves as the central conflict in each X-Men film (always asking not whether or not the mutants will be accepted, but how they'll be accepted and then on what terms), is the fact that Professor X and Magneto share a deep friendship between one another. They are on opposing sides, but still have a deep affection for one another even if they cannot see eye-to-eye. While the dynamic is clear but not entirely explored in X-Men, where the characters are wonderfully played by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan in some of the most inspired casting ever, it is crucial to Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class. That film explores the fateful meeting between Charles (James McAvoy) and Erik (Michael Fassbender), both as something hopeful and positive, and later as something that creates a massive rift between not only the two friends, but mutant-kind in general. The later installments (Days of Future PastApocalypse, and Dark Phoenix) lean quite heavily on this character relationship, sometimes to good results, and sometimes to repetitive effect. But the central message is clear: there can never be true unity unless the whole of mutant-kind stands together.

    Dark Phoenix_Still 3

    What also made the majority of the X-Men films incredibly noteworthy was their penchant for delivering trenchant social commentary about representation, segregation, sexuality, and even race. While the films could often be a bit thunderous in their delivery, there are still seldom few works of superhero media that have the same amount of social consciousness as the X-Men franchise. Later installments would also use different decades in time to further these thematic explorations; for example, First Class utilizes the Cuban Missile Crisis and misogyny in the work force, and Days of Future Past has a prominent plot point that surrounds JFK's assassination and even delves into a misplaced sense of nationalism at the expense of a particular faction of American citizens. There's a scene in X2: X-Men United (not only the best of the franchise, but still a seminal work of superhero cinema) where Bobby Drake (Shawn Ashmore) awkwardly tells his parents that he's a mutant, and the scene purposefully recalls a coming out scenario, something quite audacious for a mainstream blockbuster to tackle, and in 2003 no less. On a more visceral, emotional level, the films explore the longing many of the mutants have to just fit in amongst society. Rogue (Anna Paquin) cannot make physical contact with another human, lest she accidentally harm them. This compromises her burgeoning relationship with Bobby, because she's afraid that they'll never be truly together if they cannot make physical contact. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) in X-Men: First Class shares a similar woe. Despite being a shapeshifter, Mystique's natural form is blue and calloused, and she laments how nobody will ever accept her because she's seen as monstrous.

    While the franchise was always built on an incredibly strong thematic bedrock, its own success at the box office began to get in its way. After X2 confirmed the type of sprawl and depth superhero media could attain on the big screen, the cat was out of the bag. Things could only get bigger, but not to great results, as X2's sequel, X-Men: The Last Stand killed off most of the goodwill from the first two entries, excising the franchise's character work in favor of high-octane action. X-Men Origins: Wolverine followed and exploited a popular character to negative effect, feeling more like a video game than a film. By the time First Class course-corrected, operating both as a reboot and a prequel, there was another problem: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. All of a sudden, here was a connected universe that managed to pull off the kind of large-scale narrative the X-Men films were known for, but had the added benefit of more buildup. It wasn't really until 2012's The Avengers that the MCU really took off and proved that its vision of an interconnected series of films was something lucrative indeed. Soon, the DC films followed suit in their attempts to have their own linked universe, although that slew of films has only just become interesting, mostly because it's jettisoned the singular vision of gloom, doom, and dark photography that Zak Snyder erroneously established (something that's for the best).

    But what about the poor X-Men franchise? They went from being the godfather of the genre to the black sheep fairly quickly after The Avengers' massive success. 2014's X-Men: Days of Future Past mostly sidestepped a noticeable slump, simply by working as both a sequel to 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand (retroactively reworking that film's lame ending) and a confirmed reboot with the First Class cast. But by this point, something was painstakingly clear: the continuity was a total mess. There are many things to fault Marvel Studios for, but their chronology is relatively solid. By this point for the X-Men franchise, people had started to form the idea of what modern superhero cinema should be, and it wasn't what Fox was trying do.

    Admittedly, that the franchise continued to remain singular and not jump headlong into some kind of universe was pretty admirable. Even though 2016's X-Men: Apocalypse was a bit of a critical disappointment, the film still operated as something that could both be viewed as another installment to a long running franchise and as a film that worked alone on its own merits (and it has plenty of those, this reviewer thinks). But the box office is the indicator of success in the eyes of the studio, and the X-Men weren't catching fire despite top tier talent and some solid thematic storytelling. Spin-offs like Deadpool and its sequel, plus standalone films like Logan, were successful, but the mainline story with the titular team stopped capturing the audience's attention like it once did. In some ways, Fox has nobody to blame but themselves. The films began to have increasingly rushed filming schedules, often meaning scripts would be incomplete as the cameras first rolled. There were too many cooks in the kitchen. Thinking they were cauterizing some kind of wound, all Fox was really doing was slowly killing the franchise. And that makes me feel a great swell of pity, because the superhero genre is about to lose the last of its idiosyncratic film series. Disney's Marvel Studios will have just about succeeded in homogenizing the sub-genre.

    One last diversion before I finally delve into Dark Phoenix. It's important to clarify what the series' true swan song is, and the selection works both in terms of continuity (by this series' whack standards, of course) and thematic potency. The film in question is 2017's Logan, the third film centered around the popular Wolverine character and the final time Hugh Jackman donned the claws required for the role. The film itself is about endings, failure, and the fragility but importance of hope. In James Mangold's 2013 film The Wolverine, the second installment of the spin-off Wolverine franchise, there's a lot of foreboding to eventual death. Everything must die, and what even the greatest warriors hope for is an honorable death. But since that film was merely a middle chapter and saddled with studio interference, it wouldn't be until the R-rated Logan where Mangold would make good on his promise of exploring death. And in Logan, death is just about everywhere.

    Set far after the events of any film in either continuity, the film is mostly about a failed nation (making it an excellent modern melodrama), one that both Professor X and Magneto feared for. Neither succeeded, and one of them, Professor X, must live in a world born out of his own failures. The youngest generation is hunted and mistreated. And the old guard, Logan being one of the last remaining players, must face both their failures of the past and the importance of bringing hope for the future. The film is the perfect swan song for the franchise because it's an unforgiving but surprisingly emotional culmination of both the inherent fear of failing to unite mutant-kind with the rest of humanity, and how the hope for a better world prevails within the next generation. The film is even a bit self-reflexive, with the X-Men's victories told as comic book stories, in attempt to make all their success into pop culture fiction. Yes, the film is often brutally violent, but that feels oddly reflective of the direction our own society is going. And that makes sense, because melodramas are all about defining nationalism. Logan is both the end of the road for the franchise, but also acts as a vicious warning for the direction many social issues are headed. That's what the franchise was born out of, and this all feels apropos.

    So, here we are at 2019's Dark Phoenix (no X-Men subtitle this time, for some reason), which has been given the unfair burden of having to act as the franchise's swan song when Logan just does it much better. With Fox acquired by Disney, and with confirmation that the X-Men will eventually be integrated into the MCU, this will be the last time we see this creative team work with this cast. But the problem is that Dark Phoenix isn't a particularly satisfying swan song simply because it was never meant to be one. For all intents and purposes, Fox went ahead with Dark Phoenix as if it would be just another chapter in the saga. In some ways, that's why this particular outing feels hollow when it should be cathartic, and in another way, it's an unfortunate way for a flagship franchise to go out. Not with a bang. No, it just... sort of smolders. Granted, the film itself is hardly as bad as its harsh critical reception might suggest, which is something I'll attempt to elaborate upon, but things should've ended on better terms for the X-Men.

    This is the franchise's second attempt at adapting writer Chris Claremont's legendary Dark Phoenix comic book run, which was both incredibly operatic in tone and excitingly cosmic in scale. Neither live action adaptation has managed to capture either of those qualities. The first go-through was with X-Men: The Last Stand, more or less sandwiched into an otherwise decent story about the search for a mutant cure, and its presence only served to complicate the plot without really adding to it. The writer of that script, Simon Kinberg, who also directed Dark Phoenix, has attempted the story again, going for a different, more intimate approach. But the truth is, even this new adaptation still doesn't do the original story justice, and its failings are entirely different. It's a better film than The Last Stand, but not by much.

    Set in 1992, almost nine years after Apocalypse (and you wouldn't know, since the X-Men all have amazing skin care routines and don't age a day), the X-Men have become somewhat of a national sensation. They're seen as heroes, and even the President of the United States has a special X-phone that he uses to directly call Professor X whenever the need arises. All the success has made Professor X a little arrogant and more willing to take wild risks, which rubs Mystique the wrong way, since she worries about the wellbeing of the younger members of the X-Men, including Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). After the X-Men go into space to save several astronauts, Jean is struck by a cosmic blast of energy and her powers are suddenly amplified. With great power comes great angst, and Jean finds it nearly impossible to control her new abilities. While both the X-Men and Magneto try to figure out if they should help or kill Jean to save the world at large, a group of shapeshifting aliens led by Vuk (Chastain, channeling Tilda Swinton for sure) arrive on earth to take Jean's powers for themselves.

    There's really not much to the plot. After the overstuffed nature of Apocalypse, that's not necessarily a bad thing at all. In fact, the streamlined nature of Dark Phoenix often recalls the first X-Men film, which was more concerned with telling a complete story than trying to set up millions of chess pieces for the franchise to move later. We don't get superhero films this straightforward anymore, which might be another reason why Dark Phoenix feels so alien to audiences right now. But at the same time, the film's plot feels both simple and also incredibly claustrophobic. Kinberg's script hits all the necessary beats in broad strokes, but what happens in between the big moments often feels clumsily put together. The story is meant to invoke some sort of moral revolution within the X-Men. The only way that was going to work would be if we knew these versions of the characters more. Kinberg doesn't devote much time to developing them outside of what we know from our perception of pop culture, and that's incredibly frustrating. By the time Dark Phoenix comes to an end, it feels incredibly hollow. It should've been deeply cathartic.

    What happened? Two things, I suspect, and both having everything to do with how Kinberg chose to tackle Dark Phoenix this time around. The whole Phoenix mythos from the comics is a deeply strange one, and the film avoids just about every opportunity to embrace the weirdness and alien elements of that story despite the fact it still features a crop of shapeshifting aliens (who are ill-defined and hardly ever appear in their true form). Kinberg's script shows a timidity to embrace the campiness of the premise, which isn't inherently a bad thing! For a story that's hinged on broad, melodramatic emotions, making everything rise to that level could've made Dark Phoenix stand out from, say, Captain Marvel in some pretty unique ways. Instead, the film unfortunately feels like a bit of a retread of that film – although it's actually a bit better, mostly by virtue of being legibly shot and a whole 15 minutes shorter.

    The other problem with this adaptation is Kinberg's decision to make the story more intimate. In and of itself, that isn't a bad thing at all, but as I said before, it would definitely require more strongly defined characters than we ultimately received. For a while in the first hour, it does feel like the film is much more interested in exploring morality and character dynamics than trying to concoct big, catastrophic action set pieces. In one fantastic line, Professor X sorrowfully tells Mystique, "All it takes is one bad day for them to see us as the enemy again." Even though the X-Men are accepted by society, it's an acceptance born out of necessity, and an incredibly fragile one at that. It doesn't take a psychic like Jean Grey to realize that at some point over the course of the film, this trust between humans and mutants will be broken. But it's a great sentiment, and one the story could've explored in greater depth. Since the mutants break off into two factions – with one group wanting to rescue Jean and the other wanting to put her down before she hurts anybody else – the film might've achieved its aim to be something a bit more interior if it had been more focused on exploring what that fragile societal acceptance had meant to the mutants. Alas, for all the story's desires to be introspective, they all come across as simply good intentions.

    Dark Phoenix_Still #1

    One of the story's biggest problems is Jean Grey herself. The idea of a fellow X-Men becoming the villain of the piece through a crisis of self is an incredibly appealing one, but Jean Grey was barely established in the overcrowded X-Men: Apocalypse, and so we don't have much to go off here. As her emotions reach a fever pitch, the film fails to give us a deeper insight into to who she is. Her descent into something volatile and dangerous doesn't feel as precipitous simply because we hardly know her. That being said, Sophie Turner puts in the work. On Game of Thrones, Turner's acting became sharper as the seasons went on, and when her Sansa Stark was given more to do than being just an object, Turner's performances became stronger. She's definitely a burgeoning actress who is still mastering her craft, but there's something there, particularly in the way she can reveal so much emotionally with stoicism. But at the moment, she's really only able to be as good as the script allows her to be. For all her brooding, and all the sharp, close up angles on her beautiful face, Turner can't quite translate everything into something emotionally resonant.

    The rest of the acting remains relatively strong. This series has always had one of the best casts of any superhero films, even if not everybody is utilized as well as they could be. James McAvoy mines new territory with Professor X, showing him as more fallible than ever before. In his desire for hope, Professor X makes decisions that ultimately backfire, such as attempting to block Jean's traumatic memories from her past. It's meddlesome and ultimately hurts Jean, and the film never lets him get away with it, but McAvoy does a great job making the character's actions and motivations still feel empathetic and understandable. Then there's Michael Fassbender, who is just on a level nobody else can rise to. An actor of great physicality, it's a delight to watch how Fassbender uses small, subtle movements to make big, bold statements with his Magneto, who remains Machiavellian as always. Nicholas Hoult is even able to steal a few moments, though he remains mostly underutilized, and Jennifer Lawrence is fine (if not especially memorable) in a more contained, smaller role than you'd expect. The rest of the younger X-Men are embodied by talented actors, but they're seldom given much to do. Alexandra Shipp's Storm maybe has all of eight lines, while Kodi Smit-McPhee's Nightcrawler only gets to express himself in an action set piece.

    Jessica Chastain's doing some interesting things as Vuk, who leads the D'Bari alien race in their quest to... take over the world? Yeah, it doesn't fit. In fact, the film would've been better off without an extra external threat because it only serves to clutter the canvas. One area where the film is a bit worse off than Captain Marvel is its depiction of the shapeshifting alien race. In Captain Marvel, they were allegorical for immigrants seeking a new safe haven, not violent in their intentions but definitely scared and desperate. Here, the D'Bari have a similar problem in that their world was destroyed by the Phoenix force that is now inside Jean. But Vuk's goal is to reclaim that force and use it to decimate earth so her people can live here. It's boilerplate alien invasion stuff. And given the film's extensive reshoots for Act Three, the aliens aren't giving much to do other than goofily look like humans who outmaneuver the government on a train before getting knocked around by the X-Men. These films have always struggled with the notion that they need some sort of external antagonist outside of their thematically-driven ones, and so Vuk's presence isn't entirely surprising, but it's mostly a waste of a very good actress.

    Kinberg makes his directorial debut here, and it's very competent... and that's all it is. Nothing is egregiously bad, aside from Hans Zimmer's ill-fitting score, nor is anything particularly memorable. The shot compositions are overly simple, and the dour tone might be attributed to Kinberg's difficulty in trying to wrangle energy from his cast given his lack of experience behind the camera. But one good thing is that Kinberg elects to go practical whenever possible, which means we're treated to some very great sets and action set pieces along the way. That's a rarity for superhero films nowadays. While I wouldn't say any of the action scenes are standouts, they're entirely legible and physical in a way Marvel Studio's haven't been in a decade. The final fight aboard a speeding train nicely shows off the menagerie of superpowers the X-Men have at their disposal while always maintaining a sense of spatial awareness so that you're not lost, and the opening space mission is pretty solid, too.

    What works really well, and what makes Dark Phoenix a stronger film than something like Captain Marvel, is the way it tackles a sense of female empowerment in a male-dominated world and genre. Carol Danvers' extreme, cosmic powers were an expression of wish fulfillment, a cheap and easy way to shift the patriarchy without really going for something challenging. But with Jean and the Phoenix force that inhabits her, that expression of power feels a bit more complex and substantial. There's a sense of responsibility and morality that comes with Jean's expanded ability. People around Jean are hurt by her failure to contend with it in a proper way. But the film expresses that the root of Jean's problems with her powers are not the result of her human emotions, but the unfortunate suppression and codification that comes within a society that tries to keep particular groups and genders in a specified place. In other words, the film tackles the toppling of the patriarchy with feminist ideals that not only feel genuine, but slightly Freudian in their conception and execution. Never mind that there's some strong Christian allegories to be found here. When Jean is inhabited by the Phoenix force, her body is in a position similar to someone who has been put up on the cross. The force inside her is alien, but it exists alongside Jean herself, meaning she is both human and something else altogether. Never mind that the mythical phoenix is a creature known for burning to death and resurrecting itself from the ashes (something that eventually happens to Jean in the comics series, and is teased here). This is hardly the first time the franchise has explored religion in tandem with its superhero antics, as X2 featured Catholicism thanks to its affecting take on Nightcrawler.

    And so here we are, at the end of the road. Dark Phoenix has been forced to become the end of a franchise that's managed to survive far longer than it should've in a world that has bizarrely shifted its tastes from substance to mindless entertainment. It truly feels like audiences are outright rejecting films that are anything but lightweight, consequence-free affairs, and that's a real shame. The relative failures of a film like Dark Phoenix still make it a much more inherently interesting film than even Marvel's most middling installments. Clumsy though it is, the film's still trying for something deeply thematic and relevant, and would rather utilize emotion and ideas than candy-color visuals and whip-smart bathos. It seeks to tell a singular story, and it's been forced to carry the burden of burying the franchise along with it. The more I think about Dark Phoenix, the more I like it. Perhaps it's time for the X-Men to go dormant for a little bit. That's not a bad idea. But the thought of them being resurrected by Disney's Marvel, of all companies, definitely gives me reason to worry. This franchise remains important for the genre some 19 years later and it's a shame to see it flame out like this. But I suspect, as I always have, that these films will have a better shelf life than most of the other superhero films out right now. After all, a phoenix always rises from the ashes, reborn anew.

  • Release Date
    June 7, 2019
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