Movies

Review: Dark Phoenix

The X-Men saga comes to an exhausted conclusion.

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There are several things wrong with Dark Phoenix. I'm tempted to say everything is wrong with it, except that the picture is largely in focus and the credits appear to be correctly spelled. Other than that, though…

If Disney really wanted to throw $200-million up on the screen and flick a match at it, it would make sense that they would hire Simon Kinberg to direct this movie. Kinberg has labored long in the X-Men vineyards, as both writer and producer. In fact, he cowrote X-Men: The Last Stand, the widely reviled (but not unprofitable) 2006 entry in the series. That movie attempted to incorporate within its tumult the tale of Jean Grey, the Dark Phoenix, a hallowed story arc in the Marvel comics universe. Kinberg has since admitted that the script he coauthored (with Zak Penn) failed in this regard. So when it was decided to take another whack at the Phoenix story, who better to bring in to write it—all on his own this time—than Simon Kinberg? And who better to direct the movie than, again, Simon Kinberg—a man who has never directed any sort of movie before, let alone one of the big galumphing blockbuster variety.

Here we have the result of those unfortunate decisions. The picture has a sometimes cheesy look—at one point there's an exterior sequence, situated on a suburban street, that might have been shot somewhere just off the New Jersey Turnpike, so lacking is the setting in any sort of visual interest. We're also treated, yet again, to the sight of an angry super-mutant towering up into the air with a menacing scowl, preparing to rain down havoc on the lesser characters gibbering away below. And while we're long past the point where complaining about an over-reliance on digital effects in these movies will be greeted with anything but mockery, there can be no ignoring the mistily unconvincing CGI with which this film is so generously endowed. (There's one strong action sequence toward the end, set on a train, but it's hard not to think of Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer while you're watching it.)

The actors are fine, but their characters, after 19 years of wearing out their welcome, seem as weary as we are. (They may soon be getting some overdue R&R now that Disney, which owns Marvel, has also engulfed Fox—which owned the X-Men, along with the pitiful Fantastic Four—and will presumably be stirring its newly acquired mutants into Marvel's well-established MCU.) Peacenik Professor Xavier (James McAvoy), still serenely gliding around in his wheelchair, is now so tight with once-hostile humanity that he has a hotline to the U.S. president installed in his office. (When something goes wrong out in space, Xavier rallies his forces and then tells NASA, "Not to worry, Mission Control, help is on the way.") Meanwhile, Xavier's brooding frenemy Eric Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) has moved his rival Brotherhood of Mutants to a commune in the woods, along with his kooky Magneto helmet, which he keeps tucked away in a box.

Back at Xavier's mutant school in upstate New York, we find a new generation of young oddballs thronging the halls—something the OG X-Men are noticing, too. In fact, one of them, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), has decided it's time to move on and she wants Hank McCoy—her furry blue squeeze, Beast—to come with her. The familiar contingent of other super-folk is also on hand—snowy-haired weathergirl Storm (Alexandra Ship), super-speedy Quicksilver (Evan Peters), blue-tailed teleportist Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and laser-eyed Cyclops (Tye Sheridan). But these ancillary X-Men are given little to do. This is, after all, a movie purportedly about Jean Grey (Sophie Turner, of Game of Thrones), the telekinetic telepath known, in her more dangerous moods, as Dark Phoenix.

Jean's backstory is sketched in quickly. (One good thing to be said for this picture: it clocks in at less than two hours.) At the beginning, in 1975, we witness the catastrophe that deprived little Jean of her parents and led her into the sheltering arms of Professor Xavier. Years later, in 1992, when Xavier dispatches the X gang on that aforementioned space mission (the real-life U.S. Space Shuttle Endeavour is being besieged by a fierce CGI force of some sort), Jean is chosen to board the distressed ship and stabilize it. Unfortunately, she is attacked by the intergalactic entity, which sets up shop in her mind, to chaotic effect. (One of the main characters will not be bouncing back from a violent encounter with this Dark Phoenix manifestation of Jean's personality.)

Jean's unhinged behavior soon draws the attention of a detachment of wandering aliens whose homeworld has been destroyed by the same "Phoenix Force" that is afflicting Jean. The leader of this group is an icy character called (in the credits, at least) Vuk, played by Jessica Chastain in white hair and white eyebrows. (She seems primed for some serious Edgar Winter cosplay.) Despite her deep-space origin, Vuk has a sadistic dislike of the weak and the hobbled that has an unpleasantly terrestrial familiarity. Badmouthing Xavier, whom Jean holds in such affectionate regard, Vuk asks, "Are you a scared little girl who answers to a man in a chair? Or are you the most powerful person on the planet?" Subsequently confronting Xavier himself, Vuk tells him, "She's not your little girl anymore." (If I may slip into spoiler territory for a moment, there follows here a scene of such baffling and repellent sadism—with Vuk using her mind to lift Xavier to his useless feet and fling him around in a transport of pain—that it defies understanding. There's no payback for this later in the film, and there'll be no sequel in which to address it, and it's hard to imagine an explanation for this scene's inclusion in the movie that wouldn't be entirely insufficient.)

There are in addition some inane girl-power flourishes (in a script written by a man). These reach a peak in an exchange between Xavier and an angry Mystique, who's tee'd off that the professor has turned into a fame whore and no longer does any of the hard work of guarding the world. "The women are always saving the men around here," she says. "You might wanna think about changing the name to 'X-Women.'"

In significant ways, the story here is as much about Xavier as it is about Jean Grey. Burdened with bad makeup (Turner's heavily penciled eyebrows have a presence all their own), Jean makes her way through the story only rarely displaying the turbulent emotions that are said to trigger the Dark Phoenix. (Kinberg is clearly not an actor's director.) Xavier, on the other hand, is taken to task at length for his long-ago protective behavior toward Jean (as he saw it), which is now being reevaluated as manipulative and sexist. For a movie that's set back in the '90s, this one feels clangingly up-to-date.

NEXT: Brickbat: Justice Delayed

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  1. X-Men could have been a really, legitimately good franchise in the right hands. There are some really interesting and complex characters there beyond just Wolverine, Magneto, and Xavier, but for some reason one movie after another completely ignores them. The underlying premise of a conflict between mutants and normal humans could also have been explored in so, so much more interesting and challenging ways if any studio actually wanted to take the time and the risk to do so.

    Instead the whole franchise was pretty much wasted for almost 20 years, with the best movies still being merely good (with the exception of Logan, which was very good but also only loosely connected to the rest of the stories).

    1. The whole X-Men franchise in comics has at its core an unsubtle ‘racism is bad, hmmm-kay?’ message that sprouts melodramatic bullshit like damp bread sprouts mold. I don’t disagree, mind. Racism is dumb. And I think the core issue could be (and occasionally HAS been) spun into interesting stories. But on the whole the ‘persecuted mutants’ stories have been overwrought and tiresome.

      And then there’s Dark Phoenix. Like most ‘death of a hero’ stories in comics, they didn’t have the guts to stick to it. Jean Grey came back. Which makes it a cheap fake-out, something along the lines of the ‘Death of Superman’ bilge. The films should have resolutely left it the f*ck alone.

      I don’t expect much from superhero films. I’m not ‘comics are for little kids’; I read them too. But I’m not going to pretend that they are Great Cinema. OTOH, a lot of what passes for Great Cinema strikes me as unoriginal, philosophically trite (especially those films that have the opposite reputation), and every bit as disposable as the latest Transformers movie. An awful lot of Great Art is really (when you get right down to it) GOOD Art that some puff-guts has decided to praise to the skies as a way of enhancing HIS reputation.

      The X-Men films haven’t been as awful as a lot of tripe that gets raved about, but they haven’t does all that well by us either. That DARK PHOENIX is pedestrian at best is disappointing…but hardly all that surprising.

      1. “The whole X-Men franchise in comics has at its core an unsubtle ‘racism is bad, hmmm-kay?’ message”

        But it at least had a bit of complexity, in that the evil mutants represented the reality that the minority could, in turn, become racist themselves; They weren’t guaranteed to be the good guys just by virtue of being oppressed.

        So, they’re actually more subtle than modern politics.

        1. The whole ‘what if a Holocaust survivor was given the power of a god’ aspect to Magneto always fascinated me. Some people are just not that into forgiveness.

          1. If my family died in the concentration camps, I’d find it a little hard to forgive the Germans. And when I found out that the US and UK knew about the camps long before the mass killings began, I’d find it impossible to forgive them either.

            Magneto may be a villain, but he’s honest about it. While Xavier is a villain too but thinks he’s acting on good intentions.

            1. Magneto was supposed to be a villain? I always thought of him as an anti-hero. Most of the time, the humans deserved the shit he gave them. I guess ‘the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants’ should have been a clue.

              1. Magneto was originally a more generic villain, the holocaust survivor fighting percieved oppressors got added in later (though still a long time ago). As it greatly enhanced the character it became one of his chief characteristics, but his beginnings are still rooted in straight up villainy not being an anti-hero.

        2. If anyone wanted to deal with it seriously, there is a lot of story you could tell surrounding the question of what to do if a small subset of individuals had more power at their fingertips than an entire nuclear-armed nation, as some of mutants do. You have individual rights on one hand and the pretty real risk of total annihilation or subjugation on the other. That’s a scenario that should even give libertarians pause.

          1. The first rule for dealing with unreasonably powerful people is: Don’t piss them off if you can avoid it. Don’t torture them. Don’t throw them in prison for fear of their _possible_ future crimes. Don’t kill, torture, or imprison their friends and relatives without a good reason. Do everything within reason to keep the peace.

            Rule 2: If you HAVE to move against them, move to win PERMANENTLY in one strike. Don’t hurt them but leave them alive, don’t throw them in a prison that they can easily escape from. If you can’t kill them instantly, it’s stupid to make an enemy of them.

      2. The original Dark Phoenix saga is a great libertarian story, as it was about absolute power corrupting absolutely. Hollywood seems to be unable to grasp that you don’t have to be insane or possessed to kill billions of people (she ate a star in a populated system while in DP mode) when you are so powerful that other sentient beings are as significant as the bacteria on your skin. We need more good stories about how vast power differentials limit a person’s ability to empathize. There are a lot of people who simply don’t believe how bad things are in North Korea (Dennis Rodman?) because they lack the imagination to comprehend.

        I can’t imagine the movie includes the original Shi’ar trial by combat, which was pure awesome in the comic, and the eventual realization by Jean Grey that the only person powerful enough to kill her was herself was pretty deep for a comic book in the early 80’s. Why they have fucked up the story not once, but twice now, is beyond me.

        I quit collecting in the mid-80’s, so I never got into the retconning of the Phoenix saga, which means my childhood memories are still of the good original storyline.

        1. Holding out for the Beyonder to be the next big villain in the MCU when they fold the FF and X-Men into it. His omnipotence and inability to empathize with normal beings are core elements.

      3. In Marvel’s defense, there’s every reason to believe the intended to kill Phoenix forever. The Death of Superman was always a publicity gimmick.

        I’d compare it more to the time DC set up a 1-800 phone poll on whether or not to kill off Robin (the 2nd one, Jason Todd, who also ended up coming back from the dead).

        1. It’s difficult to kill off a popular character. Way back in 1893, Conan Doyle became so tired of writing Sherlock Holmes mysteries that he had Holmes and arch-criminal Moriarty wrestle and fall to their deaths at the Reichenbach Falls. But pressure from readers and editors eventually forced him to retcon this story as Moriarty falling, and Holmes faking his own death to go undercover and track down the last of Moriarty’s gang.

    2. with the exception of Logan, which was very good but also only loosely connected to the rest of the stories).

      I really liked Logan.

      1. yes me too. several times i’ve watched it.

  2. As a kid who absolutely loved comics, I grew up with some pretty awful portrayals on the screen, big and small (mostly TV). For example, there was a Captain America where Cap wore a motorcycle helmet and fought crime based on plots that would make a 6-year-old dismiss the show as baby stuff.

    Things got better for a while, starting with Tim Burton’s two Batman films and Sam Raimi’s Spider Man. Then we got the MCU.

    Now, however, it’s come full circle, right back to cringingly bad (gee thanks, Disney and Zach Snyder). I’d almost rather see a return to the attitude of “comics are for little kids” than the super-woke third-rate I mean third-wave feminist agitprop that we’re starting to be subjected to.

  3. i know they had to make them younger but i liked Famke Janssen

    1. You mean Fapke Janssen?

  4. I heard this movie was woke AF.

    1. You might wanna think about changing the name to ‘X-Women.’

      I don’t know, sounds pretty transphobic to me.

  5. I was never a comic book nerd, and I am apparently one of the few humans who enjoyed The Last Stand for the most part. I get that the true fans didn’t like a lot of stuff, and killing off main characters is always touchy, and the plot made absolutely no sense, but still, I liked the spectacle and poignancy of it.

    The one with Nixon was great, but the one after that was offensively bad to me. Bad CGI differs only from a cartoon in that it’s being dishonest about itself.

    1. I liked The Last Stand as well. The franchise will benefit from being subsumed into the MCU and Disney’s relative quality control.

    2. i liked The Last Stand too.

    3. I initially disliked “The Last Stand” because it killed a ton of characters in really pathetic ways, which closed off a lot of future story possibilities. But then “Days of Future Past” came out and undid all the stupid deaths with time travel.

      Now I can just sit back and enjoy all the fun action in “The Last Stand.” I can ignore the damage it did to the franchise’s future, knowing that it will all be repaired later.

      I’m apparently one of the only people who like “Apocalypse.” It used its 80s setting well and had lots of bright, colorful, larger than life characters. I don’t care if some of the CGI was subpar, at least it was cool to look at.

      I actually wish “Dark Phoenix” had followed “Apocalypse’s” example. There is less conspicuous CGI on screen, but that’s because everything is drab and colorless.

  6. You guys need to check out the Punisher and especially Luke Cage cycles on Netflix before Disney takes them away. Alfre Woodard is so ffing good.

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