Movie Review - X-Men: Dark Phoenix
You know, personally, I think most reviewers are just butt-hurt over the fact that Wolverine’s not in this one.
But, truth be told, people in general don’t like attending a funeral and if X-Men: Dark Phoenix is anything, it is a funeral, both for some of the characters within the film and for the Fox franchise that has run for 20 years. And that’s really the rub here: the film was touted by Fox as the triumphant close of an era and directly compared to Avengers: Endgame. But where Avengers: Endgame did have casualties by the time the end credits rolled, there was hope for the future (for both the characters and the film series). Conversely, again, Dark Phoenix is very much a funeral: the sacrifice of those characters that didn’t make it to the end credits is recognized, lessons are learned and then, well, everyone kind of looks at each other and moves on. We’ll discuss this more in a bit.
First, a brief blurb about the plot. In the wake of X-Men Apocalypse, mutants find themselves increasingly accepted and integrated into society and the X-Men find themselves viewed as heroes. There’s even a special X-Phone line connecting the President of the United States to Xavier’s School in the case of special emergencies that only the X-Men can handle. One such occasion finds the X-Men on an ill-advised mission to space in order to rescue a space shuttle from a rapidly approaching cloud of cosmic energy. [No…Reed Richards and company are not involved. – Ed.] The mission proves to be a success…but not without cost as Jean Grey appears to absorbed the cloud itself and is starting to see her powers become more and more amplified. As Jean struggles to adapt to what she is becoming, the X-Men work to keep her under control lest she ruin the tenuous relationship humanity and mutants have built. But an alien force has also arrived on Earth seeking the power Jean now has in a bid for galactic conquest. As she unravels, Jean will unearth secrets and lies and face the question raised by absolute power: is anyone or anything worth saving?
Next, let’s get to the criticisms that were, in my mind, justified. Right at the top of the list: flat out stating in the trailers that Mystique dies in the film. Ugh. Their reasoning? “We wanted viewers to know right up front the stakes of the film”. **cough**bullshit**cough**. No, no, no and no. Look, not only was X-Men: The Last Stand an adaptation of this classic X-Men storyline, but, well, anyone familiar with either that film [We’re using the term loosely here. – Ed.] or the classic story itself doesn’t need the stakes spelled out for them: THEY KNOW! Second, this move essentially ended up neutering the emotional impact of such an event. If you go into the film thinking ‘Oh, it’s Jennifer Lawrence, of course they’re not gonna kill her,’ and then THEY DO…holy shit…that puts doubt on ANYONE making it out alive. Those are stakes! What should have been a punch in the gut while you’re soaking in the atmosphere of the film ends up being a ‘meh, saw it coming,’ moment…in many ways making Mystique’s sacrifice all for naught. The second criticism I both agree and disagree with. Most reviews say that Jessica Chastain’s villain, Vuk of the D’Bari, is pretty weak sauce. I’ll agree that the role does not give this talented actress much to do and yeah, she is pretty much sleepwalking through the role…almost as if she had a checklist item to be in a superhero movie and…check…done…moving on. But…she’s not the ONLY villain of the piece. I think most reviewers missed that. We’ll go on more about that in a bit. Next, well, it’s almost like when writing the script for this film they kinda forgot almost completely about the events of the previous film, Apocalypse. You see, the only way the X-Men were able to defeat the antagonist of the prior film was for Jean to tap into the Phoenix Force already present within her. I mean, yeah, sure, they didn’t mention it by name…but it was pretty obvious that’s what it was. This film makes it out to seem like the cloud was said ‘Phoenix Force’ and as such was solely responsible for Jean’s condition throughout this current film. The sad thing is that it would have only taken just a sentence of exposition and, blam, problem solved: “It looks like radiation from the cloud is interacting with your powers” or some such. Easy-peasy. To be fair, other reviewers have noticed only a loose continuity between the X-Men films…and I can think of a couple instances where this has happened too…but in some ways, this fumble feels more significant than the errors of the past. Hell, it almost feels like if, say, the Russo Brothers had, at the beginning of Avengers: Endgame had said ‘Infinity Stones? What Infinity Stones?’ There’s also a minor quibble I had with the film’s handling of Nightcrawler. Both in the films and in the comics, a central part of Kurt’s character is that he’s deeply religious. Hell, in the comics he’s actually an ordained minister/priest/whatever. So, in the final battle, where we see Nightcrawler finally snap and start killing the aliens…then grinning about it…no. Just…no. Or…maybe so…given the rich history of hypocrisy inherent in religion in general…and certainly present in modern day “Christians”…but personally, just as a fan of the character, I cannot think of an instance where Nightcrawler would enjoy killing any living thing…much less revel in it. I dunno…I hate being one of those critics that screams “that’s not true to the character”…but yeah…that hit a sour note with me. There is one last problem/criticism that I’m going to hold on to until my final analysis…so let’s put a pin in this for now.
All that being said, the film is not as bad as the critics would have you believe…and I think part of that is, again, as I opened with…nobody likes going to a funeral. This film is a tragedy and, in some ways, I still don’t think that audiences are quite ready comic book movies that take this kind of somber turn. Take the last two Avengers movies for example. Sure, Infinity War ended on a downer note, our heroes defeated, many of them snapped out of existence along with the other 50% of life throughout the universe, and our villain, the nihilistic Thanos, retires triumphant in what he has accomplished. But that film, much like The Empire Strikes Back, can be allowed its dark turn knowing that a final act where we may yet see our heroes rebound and emerge with a last ditch effort to right what was made wrong is on the way. Given the Fox/Disney merger, everyone knew that this was the last hurrah for the X-Men films as we knew them before the characters re-emerge this time as a part of the ever popular and ever growing MCU and, following on the heels of the oft-mentioned Avengers: Endgame, audiences and critics were lulled into thinking that this film would be similar.
No. Not even close.
Let’s revisit that criticism levied at Jessica Chastain’s character, that she was a weak villain. First, complements to Kinberg for finding a way to combine the Shi’ar and the Hellfire Club from the original comics into these D’Bari. But the big thing is that calling Vuk a weak villain is unfair, because there are no shortage of villains here. Take Jean, as she becomes more and more consumed by her own power and spirals downward into villainous ground. With the secrets and lies at the core of the X-Men coming to ground in this story, so too can Charles Xavier be perceived as a villain of the piece. The X-Men’s perennial villain, Magneto, also makes an appearance and as such can also take on that role at times. The only difference between Chastain’s Vuk and the others listed above is that the other three manage to either atone for their sins or pay the ultimate price to set them right. Chastain’s character is simply in it for the power. Setting her aside though, it’s these other three characters that provide the film some depth and as such, make this tragedy effective. Xavier has done some really shitty things to Jean, all in the name of the “Greater Good”…and we all know how that usually goes, the road to hell being paved with such things. We find Magneto in this film yet again in a peaceful place…and yet again we find that “doing what needs to be done” once again pulls him back into his darker tendencies but, and this is one thing that the X-Men films have always done well with the character, not without very good and very sympathetic reasons. Wow…looking back on that sentence, it occurs to me just how often these films have pulled that trick…with both McKellen and Fassbender in the role...yet it still works. Each one of these characters’ threads would lead to tragedy on their own, but interwoven together, well, the tapestry leads to where all tragedies must find themselves, in endings and in death. The execution, unfortunately is uneven: running the gamut of enthralling with Fassbender’s final turn as Magneto to the serviceable with Jean’s descent. This variance might simply be due to the fact that this is director Simon Kinberg’s first time in the center seat though. While some might see this as a fault within the narrative, the fact is that in all honesty…there really isn’t a hero or protagonist here. Well, I suppose you could argue that either Mystique or Beast could fill those roles, but Mystique is killed early on and Beast’s screen time is pretty limited. But given the whole point of a tragedy, there doesn’t really need to be a ‘hero’ per se…or at least a character that is untainted for the audience to cheer for. Here, as with most tragedies, everyone is tainted in some way and as such…that tainting leads to their falls.
That might not be a fault in my eyes when it comes to this film (in stark contrast with most of the reviews out there for this film), however, this DOES illustrate a problem the X-Men films have had for some time: the lack of any characters with depth that aren’t named Wolverine. Sure, the films since First Class have done a good job of adding dimension to both Xavier and Magneto, due in no small part to the talents of both McAvoy and Fassbender respectively, but the fact that none of the other X-Men in this film get anything in the way of three-dimensional treatment is a shame. Especially Cyclops. Sure, I’ll admit, I’m biased, Cyclops has always been my favorite X-Man…but if you were ever going to get the chance to make him shine…broaden his appeal to audiences…Dark Phoenix would be your shot. Because he WOULD serve as the untainted hero the audience could pull for. He could serve as your POV character, much the way Logan had in the bulk of the series…after all, it’s his loved one that is falling from grace and being consumed by this power. It’s his surrogate father and creator of the ideal he serves that has also created the secrets and lies that threaten to not only drag his beloved into madness but through her power threaten the world as well. This is a rich vein to mine drama from and could’ve provided a heart to the film but ends up being completely overlooked by the filmmakers. Sadly, all we end up getting that hints at but never fully utilizes this is Tye Sherridan’s Scott occasionally shouting an impassioned plea before the next round of fighting starts. And, in retrospect, hell, he would’ve been better served if he just yelled ‘MORTAL KOMBAAAAAAAT!’ and been done with it. [Followed by some awesome 90s techno, of course. – Ed.]
X-Men: Dark Phoenix is being sold as a triumphant close to the series in much the same way as Avengers: Endgame…and it simply isn’t that. At all. The film is a tragedy, plain and simple. Avengers ends in triumph while Dark Phoenix is a funeral. And while it has some faults…as well as highlighting a long-standing problem with the franchise, it doesn’t deserve the critical slaughtering it’s receiving…and it CERTAINLY doesn’t deserved to be derided by some critics saying the previous attempt at this storyline, X-Men: The Last Stand, was better. It wasn’t. Not by a long shot. Sure, it doesn’t compare to Avengers, and no, it doesn’t really approach the heights reached by the better films in the franchise, but all in all, it does provide a refreshing, albeit downbeat, alternative to the standard comic book movie formula that is, sadly, starting to become all too prevalent these days and is certainly worth checking out.