In looking over my thoughts on Apocalypse, the previous X-Men movie, I made a point of singling out Sophie Turner’s performance as Jean Grey as being one of the many reasons the film was so aggressively underwhelming. Well I’m here to report that Turner has certainly gotten more commanding as an actor in Dark Phoenix; it’s everyone else who underwhelms this time around. That includes some true acting powerhouses who are clearly working off that final contract-bound requirement to show up at all, collecting their checks on the way out of this now-completed franchise (at least with this cast).
For comic book readers, The Dark Phoenix Saga marks peak storytelling from Chris Claremont, John Bryne and Dave Cockrum; it’s such a legendary storyline that 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand already covered pieces of it, but never really dove in head first the way Dark Phoenix does. Adapted and directed by frequent X-Men writer/producer Simon Kinberg, making his directing debut here, this latest work opens with the X-Men called in by the president to rescue a Space Shuttle crew whose craft has lost power due to a strange floating energy goop—known as the Phoenix Force in the comics. During the rescue, the energy invades Jean’s body and leaves her floating in space. Somehow she survives and even feels great once she wakes up, making the X-Men national heroes for a fleeting moment, rather than societal pariahs. It becomes clear rather quickly that Jean’s psychic powers have been enhanced to such a degree that even team leader Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) can’t figure out what has happened to her.
Not only have Jean’s abilities as a mind reader grown, but her power to move things with her mind have become dangerous, and whenever she loses her temper or feels threatened, even by those who care about her the most, the Phoenix inside her lashes out in the most destructive ways. Adding fuel to her (literal) fire, an alien race who have been tracking the Phoenix Force and can take the form of humans (but aren’t Skrulls, because that would be copyright infringement) and are led by a character played by Jessica Chastain, are pushing Jean to use her new powers so that they may steal them from her and become the most powerful beings in the universe.
While Jean presents a clear and present danger to both mutants and non-mutants alike (her new powers quickly erase the goodwill felt toward mutants after the rescue), there are those in the X-Men who want to try to save her rather than destroy her, including her best buddy Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and her boyfriend Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), while others are a bit on the fence. Rounding out the X-cast are returning stars Nicholas Hoult (Beast), Evan Peters (who gets remarkably little screentime here as Quicksilver), Alexandra Shipp (Storm) and Kodi Smit-McPhee (Nightcrawler). Also weaving his influence throughout the story is Michael Fassbender’s Magneto, who is now leading a community of mutants on land given to them by the U.S. government. After a brief but explosive encounter with the newly corrupted Jean, he leads the charge to destroy her.
So much to unpack here. In a pre-credits sequence, we see Jean as a child (Summer Fontana) cause a car crash that seemingly kills her parents, all because she wanted to change the radio station, implying that these negative energies existed in her long before the Phoenix Force entered her life. And while it’s never said that the Phoenix powers have made Jean evil, her actions make it clear that they have made her dangerous, as well as more powerful. There really doesn’t seem to be a defined reason why Jean turns on her friends other than it serves to push the plot forward. It doesn’t help that very few of the actors (Fassbender and McAvoy excluded) don’t really seem to want to be there. While it’s not as jumbled as Apocalypse, Dark Phoenix still feels fractured and choppy at times, which is especially surprising and disappointing given how beautifully structured the source material’s story is. Jean is meant to be a tortured, torn soul for much of this film, fighting the darkness inside her. But as much improved as Turner is here in her second turn as Jean Grey, she still doesn’t quite pull off the two sides of her character’s heart and mind.
The film reveals Xavier as a great manipulator, and it’s right to do so, while Magneto actually seems to have his shit together and a clear focus when it comes to doing what is necessary to deal with this global threat. I will literally watch Chastain in anything; I think she’s one of the finest acting talents working today. But even I’ll admit she’s just flat-out bad in Dark Phoenix. She just stands around looking vaguely menacing in designer clothes, and occasionally she waves her hands around and things move or shoot out of them. Why those alien characters are even in this movie is beyond me; is the Dark Phoenix threat not enough for this film?
Dark Phoenix also falls victim to a trope that far too many hero stories do, especially lately, but maybe they always have and it’s just started to bother me. This idea that any member of the X-Men (namely the lovesick Cyclops) would put the life of one of their members (Jean) over the entire planet is preposterous, and anyone who would do that, I would consider one of the bad guys. It doesn’t come across as romantic or heroic; it’s selfish and life endangering. And while I’m sure there are people like this in the world, the decision doesn’t even feel real or honest to the kinds of heroes these characters have been for the last 20 years. Thanks to these most recent two X-Men films, I can safely say I won’t miss this team in its current incarnation.
Considering how perfectly a film like Avengers: Endgame closed out that chapter of the Marvel universe, in many ways, Dark Phoenix didn’t stand a chance. It still could have been another solid X-Men title. As it stands, only those who have been along for the ride this long and want to see it close out need attend; it feels more like a mercy killing than a satisfying send off.
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