‘Dark Phoenix’ Struggles to Rise
Warning: minor spoilers ahead!
The final installment of the X-Men franchise, Dark Phoenix, follows the backstory of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and how she evolved to become one of the most powerful mutants in the X-Men family. Fans have wondered how this most recent film of the series would play out, since it is the last of the franchise for 20th Century Fox before its recent merger with Disney. It has been a much-loved story by many since the first X-Men film debuted in 2000. Our heroes in these stories are referred to as “mutants”, appealing to the inner misfit of viewers who have come to develop an emotional attachment to the storyline and characters over the years. Fans have nervously waited for this last installment, curious how the story would conclude now that the franchise in its current incarnation is ending.
In his feature film directorial debut, Simon Kinberg took on directing duties following Bryan Singer, who did not return for the last installment of the series. Singer helmed all but one of the previous X-Men movies and was initially set to be a producer for Dark Phoenix. However, in the aftermath of his firing from Bohemian Rhapsody, Singer was no longer associated with the project. Kinberg also wrote Dark Phoenix and was no stranger to the mutants’ story, as he helped write and produce several of the previous X-Men movies. Understanding the struggle the mutants have with being different than their peers, Kinberg’s focus of the story was Jean Grey’s complicated relationship with her powers and her own inner emotional turmoil.
The story opens with the team on a rescue mission to space. During the rescue attempt, Jean is hit with a mysterious cosmic force that nearly kills her. Already possessing telepathic and telekinetic abilities, she soon discovers that this cosmic force has expanded her powers exponentially. These powers, however, are not always used for good. Jean learns the consequences of her abilities when she is unable to harness her anger and emotional pain. After a long buried traumatic memory resurfaces, her fellow X-Men bear the brunt of those dark consequences. This starts a spiral of anger, blame, and fights among each other. Meanwhile, an alien race connected to the cosmic force from the rescue mission comes looking for Jean in hopes of harnessing her power. The team must decide how they’re going to save humanity from this other-worldly force, as well as Jean’s unpredictable powers.
The story followed some of the usual themes of an X-Men movie, such as feeling like an outcast, learning to harness unusual powers, and managing the intense emotions that come with living with such a unique circumstance. While these themes have been what draws the viewer into the mutants’ storylines in previous movies, these threads seemed to fall flat in this latest installment. These concepts seem intriguing in theory, yet many scenes felt spoon-fed to the viewer. The dialog felt too on the nose, leaving little room for subtext and not allowing themes to evolve organically for viewers to discover on their own.
The evolution of character arcs also struggled to find its footing. It was not clear if Jean’s evil was because she struggled to integrate that part of her psyche or if the power from the cosmic force was causing her behavior. Other characters’ reactions to Jean’s circumstances also felt forced and too obviously placed as a catalyst for conflict. A choice made by Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) plays a role in Jean’s circumstances. The team’s anger at Professor X feels too over the top and the arc of their feelings toward both him and Jean were too quick to be believable. Even Magneto (Michael Fassbender), whose rage is known in previous movies for being volatile and unpredictable, felt like an overreaction.
Though the story felt too forced, the actors did what they could to move the story along. McAvoy and Fassbender returned to play young versions of Charles (Professor X) and Eric (Magneto). Although, if you’ve been a fan of the movies from the beginning, there is still a feeling of nostalgia for the original Professor X and Magneto, played by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. It was obvious that McAvoy and Fassbender were the seasoned vets and their presence did more to carry the movie than much of the rest of the cast. It is unfortunate that Professor X and Magneto did not have more scenes together because the complicated dynamic of their friendship has been an intriguing thread throughout the movies.
Jennifer Lawrence also returned as Raven/Mystique, though her presence and role in the story did not have much clarity. Lawrence is also a seasoned vet and her performance was fine, but her presence in the movie seemed placed more for star power and the sake of box office numbers than for playing a role in moving the story along.
The overall tone of the movie was also different than previous films. It did not FEEL like an X-Men movie. It had a more serious and less intense overall feel. This new vibe may have worked, however, had the story been crafted differently. It is also worth considering that the long run of superhero movies we’ve had over the last twenty years, culminating with the immense hype of Avengers: Endgame, has set the bar so high that even a spectacularly written and directed Dark Phoenix may have felt anticlimactic. If you’ve been an X-Men fan from the beginning, though, it is still worth seeing — even if it is just to simply be a part of the end of an era.
Now that the X-Men story is property of Disney, who also owns the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the future of the franchise is unknown. Many speculate if X-Men will eventually be incorporated into the MCU and reboot the mutant’s storyline and, in turn, bring MCU-level success with it. Perhaps that would breath new life into the origins of the Dark Phoenix and give Jean Grey a story that is more satisfying for long time fans of these much-loved mutants.