The Dark Phoenix Saga has always been a cosmic force in the room of the X-Men. It's this gigantic, epic, far-reaching storyline that has the superhero team face off against one of their own, but it hasn't aged particularly well, whether due to all the retcons or the fact that Jean Grey, who becomes the aforementioned Phoenix, is reduced to a plot object rather than an actual character. It's a story that creators want so badly to adapt — to move and to shape into something more modern — but it's too large and too complex. That force is going to go where it wants, dammit.
Most people know the Dark Phoenix Saga from X-Men: Last Stand, the third in the original X-Men trilogy, but that's a loose adaptation at best — utilizing the concept of the Phoenix to create an alternate personality for Jean and having her destroy both the X-Men and the world around them. However, it's a hot, bloated mess that reduces Jean to a cypher.
All of this is to say that it makes sense that Fox would attempt to do the story justice in Dark Phoenix, what is set to be the final movie in the long-running X-Men franchise as we know it. In theory, this should be Fox's swan song: an adaptation of one of the biggest storylines in X-Men history. Director and writer Simon Kinberg, who's credited with a bunch of these movies starting with Last Stand, had a lot of obstacles in his way: the legacy of Last Stand, the weak reception to Apocalypse, and the sexist undertones of the Phoenix Saga itself.
It's a shame then that Dark Phoenix isn't going to live up to those expectations. The movie is packed with an excellent cast and manages to be a more action-packed spectacle than past X-Men movies (looking at you, Apocalypse), but it's bogged down by the weight of an attempted modernization of the Dark Phoenix Saga and half-baked ideas. It's a big, empty husk of a movie that does a disservice to not only the X-Men as a whole but to its audience, who either wanted that satisfying adaptation or just a decent superhero flick.
Dark Phoenix's biggest failing is its foundation. From the marketing and the title, you'd expect the movie to be about, you know, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). But it was never about her. Instead, it was about Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). It's funny, especially considering the movie isn't called Dark Xavier.
Dark Phoenix is mostly about Charles Xavier, which is funny, considering the movie isn't called Dark Xavier.
Don't feel bad that you fell for that slight-of-hand. The movie's first act features Jean enough, so it's easy to believe that maybe this movie would be about her. It opens up with a narration by her about destiny and a tragic car ride with her parents where her powers go haywire, causing it to crash. She ends up in Charles' care because her parents were killed (more on this later). We cut to the present-day (1992) where Charles is sending the X-Men on a mission to save some astronauts from a solar flare. Like the comics, this is where Jean picks up the Phoenix force and her evolution ensues.
Jean goes through a character evolution of sorts. She's of course going through a physical and metaphysical transformation into the Phoenix while also trying to figure out her place in a world that doesn't accept her. More important for the movie here, though, is Xavier's character evolution from the egomaniacal leader of a PR-led, believed superhero team into a man who understands the true meaning of family, which occurs after all of his mistakes and ignorance come back to bite him. You see, he lied to Jean about her parents dying. Her father is in fact alive and he hates her for killing her mother and being uncontrollable. Jean is incensed about the lie, and her powers go haywire, leading her to fight with the X-Men. The consequences of this small battle mean Jean has to run to Magneto (Michael Fassbender) for answers, but it mostly means that all the good will Xavier built with humans vanishes. This failure to protect Jean and his team is a symbol of his mistakes that he spends the rest of the movie trying to fix.
But why does any of this matter? This is a Dark Phoenix movie. Jean Grey should be the main character. Her struggles and conflicts should form the core of the story and fights like this should be about her. Instead, Kinberg wastes this scene and all others by making it about the men in these women's lives rather than the women themselves.
This becomes a huge problem with Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) as well as Jean, who gets an anti-climactic send off as one of Jean's accidental victims. Her legacy and her impact isn't presented on her terms, but through the lens of men (mainly Eric/Magneto and Hank. Xavier could barely be bothered). When Hank leaves Xavier to save Jean his own way, he keeps repeating that "this is what Raven would've wanted" but considering Mystique wanted to leave the X-Men in the beginning of the movie, that line of logic is wanting.
You get to see Jean's transformation, but after a certain point, she loses all agency to be there with it.
Unfortunately, Jean's story plays out in the same way, although on a much larger scale. While she spends the movie confronting with her newfound powers and hopping around from Xavier to Magneto to Jessica Chastain's villain in order to figure out what they all mean, the camera constantly goes back to the X-Men and specifically, Xavier. We are left in many instances to assume what Jean is going through, but it all ends up explained to the audience by Xavier. It's a disservice to the character, who has spent most of her comics history as a powerful object rather than a person, but also to anybody in the audience who who wanted to see her be Jean Grey. Physically you get to see this transformation (and the visual effects do look incredible, especially in the final sequence), but after a certain point in the movie, she loses all agency to be there with it.
Beyond issues with Jean herself is Chastain's villain, named on IMDb as Vuk, but the name is only mentioned once throughout the movie. She and her alien race, called the D'bari, are Z-list characters in the Marvel universe, mostly known for having their home planet destroyed by Dark Phoenix. Her and her partners' motivations here are basic, as they hope to use the force inside Jean to replenish their species by destroying the Earth. It doesn't exactly matter though, since the D'bari only exist as faceless, overpowered baddies that the X-Men have to fight in the climax. It's almost not worth mentioning.
All of these elements, plus a lot of half-utilized political allegories that go nowhere, make Dark Phoenix a movie full of little substance. A thread about the U.S. government opening internment camps for mutants that offer a "clear and present danger" is opened and never closed, minus a scene where the X-Men are taken away on a train to said internment camp. The Holocaust imagery is obvious, but ultimately means nothing in the context of the movie. Even more laughable is a thread about Jean Grey learning to accept her emotions that comes to fruition at the end, but is barely set up enough to be an acceptable payoff.
The only thread that manages to get properly setup and to pay off in a satisfactory fashion is Xavier's story, which, again, shouldn't matter here at all. It's telling that in a movie based on a story that is known for its sexist treatment of the main character, it still manages to not be about said main character and about the men in her life.
Dark Phoenix has a lot of ideas. You can see it in how they introduce all those political allegories or in how they try and make a point about women and emotions with Jean. However, none of it lands. The movie tries to overcome its source material by both paying tribute to it and trying to update it for a modern, more mainstream audience, but it fails. Beyond a few visual setpieces and some genuinely great performances from Sophie Turner as Jean Grey and Nick Hoult as Hank/Beast, the movie is for nobody. It's not for comic book fans, it's not for X-Men fans, and it's not for superhero fans.
If this is how the X-Men franchise is set to end, then good riddance.
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