Review: Dark Phoenix
It’s been nearly 20 years since X-Men was released and helped make way for the current proliferation of superhero films. To say that the series has had its ups and downs in that time is putting it lightly. There has been an Oscar-nominated masterpiece, a couple of colossal disasters, various prequels, reboots, and spin-offs, and a continuity so inconsistent that it’s best not to think about. And now, after almost two decades, the X-films as we know them have come to an end with Dark Phoenix.
This is the second attempt to adapt the influential and popular arc from the comics and, like the first, it seemed like they were rushing to get there. The young version of Jean Grey, played by Sophie Turner, was only introduced in X-Men: Apocalypse and there was virtually no time to develop her character in that, let’s call it… busy, movie. Plus, writer/producer Simon Kinberg making his directorial debut with a mega-budget blockbuster did nothing to curb skepticism of the film’s potential. So the fact that Dark Phoenix is more than simply better than the lowest points of the series but rather a solid and compelling film in its own right is, simply put, shocking.
Picking up a decade after Apocalypse, the film finds the X-Men as a bonafide superhero team embraced by the people in a way we have never seen before. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is attempting to maintain a delicate peace between humans and mutants by sending his X-Men, led by Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), on increasingly dangerous missions. The latest finds the team racing to space to rescue the crew of the space shuttle Endeavour, which has been damaged by what appears to be a solar flare. The cloud of cosmic energy overtakes Jean and she miraculously survives, absorbing its power, but as soon as they arrive back on Earth, it becomes clear she has changed. To avoid spoilers I won’t go much more into the plot than I already have, but Jean’s fusion with the “Phoenix force” causes her to become a being of pure rage and pain, and this movie does not shy away from showing the brutal and tragic consequences when those feelings and in turn, her powers, swell.
The first surprising thing about Dark Phoenix is the fact that this conclusive chapter scales back and tells an intimate story, focusing on the mentor/mentee relationship between Xavier and Jean, instead of going fully apocalyptic. The threat is still world ending but, for the most part, Kinberg is more interested in what that threat does to these characters and the film’s strongest moments come when it’s simply characters we’ve known for years having a conversation. While the quality of these films has varied greatly, one thing that has remained consistent is the largely serious tone of this universe (with the obvious exception of the Deadpool movies). That certainly remains true here as this is a very somber, yet ultimately optimistic, tale.
That’s not to say it’s a dull and boring affair, as this (even more surprisingly) has some of the best mutant action of the series—thanks not only to some creative uses of powers but by making the stakes of each sequence feel personal. There’s a mutant-on-mutant battle on a crowded New York street that is hard hitting and thrilling, and the train sequence teased in every ad is intense and exciting. Kinberg shows quite a bit of promise as a director, with an equally keen eye for character and spectacle. A clear inspiration of his directorial style is Christopher Nolan, though that feeling may be coming primarily from the epic Hans Zimmer score (which in retrospect may have done a lot of the heavy lifting in certain sequences), and the fact that frequent Nolan editor Lee Smith worked on the film. Either way, he brings more personality to the proceedings than certain others who have played in this sandbox and I’m intrigued to see more from him.
The primary joys from the recent run of films have come from the work of McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, and to an equal extent, Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult. Even in the lesser installments, the weight they bring to the roles and their chemistry have made us care about these characters. For me, these versions of Xavier and Magneto are every bit as memorable as Stewart and McKellen. So the fact their send-off doesn’t feel wasted is certainly a major reason why I enjoyed it so much.
Xavier in the comics is often, to be blunt, a manipulative asshole but we've never really seen that in the films to the extent we do here, and McAvoy plays the self-righteousness with expected skill. Sophie Turner does fantastic work as well, evidenced by the audience coming to care about this Jean’s journey despite the extremely limited development we’ve seen. As mentioned earlier, the heart of the film comes from their dynamic and they both do the lion’s share of selling it. That’s because some of the dialogue in these scenes, and throughout the film, is fairly obvious and on the nose. But I appreciated the story of redemption and forgiveness Kinberg was telling, so I was able to overlook some of the more groan worthy lines.
As has been the case with most of these films, the secondary characters end up falling to the wayside, which is a shame because the supporting cast is filled with talented actors. Tye Sheridan’s Cyclops, Alexandra Shipp’s Storm, Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Nightcrawler and others do their best and each get some scene stealing moments, but it would have been nice to get more of a true ensemble piece. And then there’s Jessica Chastain’s character. Chastain is one of today’s best working actors, but I have to wonder what drew her to this part. Similarly to Oscar Isaac in the last movie, she has to essentially bury her charisma to play this odd villain whose primary purpose is to dump exposition. She’s still Jessica Chastain, so she does it wonderfully, but it’s strange to say the least.
I went into this film expecting very little. So to say I was pleasantly surprised is a serious understatement. However, your mileage may vary. If you haven’t enjoyed these films in the past, Dark Phoenix will certainly not change your mind. When all is said and done, I am honestly going to miss this unwieldy series and its unique take on the superhero film. I left the theater feeling largely satisfied with where the movie leaves these characters and that’s the best outcome I could have hoped for.