Bad buzz about Dark Phoenix has been bandied about online for months. The word was that this twelfth film in the X-Men movie franchise might be as troubled as most of DC’s entries in the superhero film world. Well, there are plenty of shortcomings in the story, and it’s not a top-tier X-Men film like X-Men 2, Days of Future Past, Deadpool, or Logan, but Dark Phoenix nonetheless remains an intriguing and affecting film, particularly in its curt commentary on power and parenting. Indeed, the most fascinating part of this film is how it paints Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) as an overzealous caretaker, stifling the gifted mutants attending his school.
That becomes a huge problem as his prize pupils are growing up and itching to think for themselves. Xavier clashes with Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) as both try to step out of his shadow. With Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), it will become even worse when she returns from a space mission more powerful and dangerous than her teacher. The crux of the plotting is in how Jean struggles with her new prowess, a metaphor for adulthood if there ever was one, but the best parts of the movie lie in how badly Xavier reacts to it all.
Professor X has always been a malevolent father figure, but this time he’s turned into something of a maleficent one, smothering his charges and deciding for them what they can and cannot handle. He’s worked awfully hard to enable the mutant population to be seen by regular human beings as allies so he’s unwilling to give up such control of the narrative. Thus, to keep in everyone’s good favor, he loans out his X-Men to the bidding of the President of the United States whenever they’re needed to manage this catastrophe or that. The aforementioned space mission finds the X-Men racing to save a stranded NASA shuttlecraft from being devoured by a cosmic cloud.
Mystique thinks the assignment is far dangerous, and Jean hesitates too, but Xavier pushes them forward. Then, when the rescue results in Jean getting zapped by the cloud and killed, the stage is set for revolt. Miraculously, Jean acts like a ‘phoenix, rising from the ashes,’ but she returns to earth empowered and emboldened by her DNA being juiced by the alien entity. Now she can not only read bends but she can bend any and all matter to her will. She can even fly. And now, when she becomes frustrated or angry, she loses control of her powers, turning her into a weapon of mass destruction.
Jean has always been a remote character in the series, somewhere between reserved and icy in her style and demeanor, and Turner’s take on the role is even chillier than that of Famke Janssen. Turner seems to have a permanent ‘resting vindictive face’ while playing Jean, and her glare seems to be as much a clear and present danger as her superpowers. She’s had it with Xavier telling her what to do, not to mention the patriarchy of institutions and the military, and good luck to anyone who stands in her spreading her wings.
But even though Jean’s the title character, Xavier has the more interesting character arc here. He’s the one whose must change his behavior and recognize how his need for control in all X-Men matters has prevented Jean and others from, ahem, evolving. It’s an interesting shift for one of the most beloved of franchise characters, but watching him sweat and worry as Jean grows stronger in her resistance is the most compelling part of this film.
Indeed, it is intriguing material, but also exceeding dark and depressing at times. The film is much more in the league of Logan, 2017’s revisionist take on Wolverine, then the standard time-travel fare that’s marked a lot of the X-Men movies. In this sobering story, beloved characters die, Xavier gets shamefully caught in a host of lies, and there are precious few laughs to lighten the load. (Evan Peters’ Quicksilver is given scant to do and his rapscallion ways are sorely missed.) The heaviness reaches its zenith in a train battle towards the end where people start shooting others point-blank in the face with their automatic weapons. Such gunplay may be fun in the cartoonish John Wick movies, but here, it’s so vicious as to come off wholly unseemly.
Magneto (Michael Fassbender) shows up midway through the proceedings and he’s always fun, though there’s not enough of his wit or charm. The other X-Men are fun when they appear, but like Quicksilver, they’re not given nearly enough to do. Instead, the chief supporting part goes to Jessica Chastain in an absolutely thankless role as an alien desirous of co-opting Jean’s cosmic powers. The visitor from another planet disguises itself in the form of a bleached blonde suburbanite in expensive heels. Those shoes make little sense when the alien must battle the X-Men amongst piles of debris and twisted metal. (I’m sure somewhere, Bryce Dallas Howard is smiling.)
Faring better is McAvoy, plumbing similar darker depths of character as he did in Split and Glass. The Scottish actor never pulls his punches, allowing all of the prickly ego of Xavier to be placed front and center, even if it may repel the audience. Turner, in her star turn, displaces a similar steeliness as she projected as Sansa in eight seasons of Game of Thrones, but she never quite captures the vulnerability needed to make us empathize fully with Jean. Then again, neither did Janssen.
Director Simon Kinberg and his co-screenwriters Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum make mistakes in pacing, and the film seems truncated at times, suggesting that some tinkering was done in the editing room as a reaction to less-than-stellar screenings. Still, kudos to the filmmakers for avoiding the silliness that started to seep into the franchise with X-Men: Apocalypse. Dark Phoenix tries harder, succeeds at being serious, and capably mines timely issues of feminism as it slyly slams the ‘male savior complex’ and Xavier’s constant ‘mansplaining.’
This film may not be as fun as Wolverine’s claws, but Jean’s ‘woke’ rage does pack a wallop.
Check out the trailer below: