The most interesting thing about Fox’s latest (and last?) X-Men adventure, Dark Phoenix, is that it is exactly what you’re probably expecting it to be, if you’ve been paying attention to the last few X-Movies. That same rockstar cast has been given another painfully thin and forgettable story to work with, all propped up by some pretty entertaining action set-pieces and the indefatigable can-do charm of Michael Fassbender. But hey — at least it’s a far better adaptation of the iconic “The Dark Phoenix Saga” comics arc than X-Men: The Last Stand was! Not that that’s saying much. I mean, this still isn’t a faithful adaptation by any means, and it misses all of the emotional nuance and galactic stakes that made it perhaps THE most definitive run in X-Men history, but at least it’s trying.
And that’s the problem, really. Because there was no point in trying. It had none of the pieces it needed to make that epic story of a beloved mutant breaking bad work in the first place. What made The Last Stand so frustrating was that two very good X-Men movies had already introduced us to Jean Grey, Cyclops, and the whole core team of mutant do-gooders. We were invested in their relationships, and we’d already caught key glimpses of Jean’s developing — and destabilizing — power set. That initial trilogy seemed like it was always building deliberately toward its retelling of “The Dark Phoenix Saga”, only to whiff it spectacularly in the end (by mixing in a tale of a mutant cure with a re-imagining of the Phoenix as a destructive alternate personality of Jean’s). Its failure was larger because it had everything it needed to succeed, and still didn’t.
By contrast, the introduction of Jean (Sophie Turner), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as the latest iterations of that core X-Men team only happened in the last movie, X-Men: Apocalypse — a movie that already had its hands full miscasting Oscar Isaac and utterly wasting the badass Psylocke to bother giving Jean much to do. Besides, for better or for worse this latest cycle of X-Men films — which began in 2011 with Matthew Vaughn’s fun and breezy left-fielder X-Men: First Class — has always been centered on the frenemy-ship of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto/Erik (Michael Fassbender). It’s tracked their uneasy alliances from the 1960s through the 1990s, when Dark Phoenix is ostensibly set. And through the decades, a host of familiar faces from the comics joined their respective causes. Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven has gotten far more attention as a hero than a villain in these films, while Nicholas Hoult’s Beast and (oddly enough) Evan Peters’s Quicksilver have been mainstays of the action for awhile now. There are plenty of stories to tell about the clashing ideologies of Professor X and Magneto and their respective teams of special people — stories that these films have mostly concerned themselves with already, when they aren’t busy ruining beloved villains (HOW DO YOU WASTE APOCALYPSE AND OSCAR ISAAC OMFG?!)— but “The Dark Phoenix Saga” isn’t one of them. Merely introducing Jean Grey as an aside one movie ago isn’t enough groundwork, and sadly Dark Phoenix isn’t able to play catch-up fast enough to pull this one off.
But I said this was a better adaptation than The Last Stand, and I meant it. It starts out promisingly enough, as Mystique leads Xavier’s merry band of mutants into space to save a NASA launch that was caught in, I dunno, a spacey electrical storm? As Nightcrawler and Quicksilver bamf and zoom their way around the shuttle, saving the crew, Jean attempts to hold the ship together telekinetically to buy them time — only to be overcome by the space cloud and knocked out. She should have died, but instead she wakes up feeling better than ever (and with power readings that are off the charts). It doesn’t take long for her power-up to exceed her control, however, and when it does the cracks start to show… on her face. And thats where the story — and the film — starts to go downhill. Jean is mad at Xavier because he kept secrets from her! Her friends are upset because she hurt them, but they also want to help her, or at least some of them do! Magneto turns her away, despite the fact that he’s literally running an island sanctuary for mutants! Oh yeah — The movie introduces FREAKIN’ GENOSHA but doesn’t bother to name it or do anything with it! Point is, Jean is out of control and isolated, and doesn’t understand what’s happening to her.
Enter a mysterious shapeshifting alien named Vuk, played by Jessica Chastain, who knows exactly what’s happening to Jean and wants a piece of it for… reasons? Vuk is neither a Shi’ar (the alien race Jean faces off against in “The Dark Phoenix Saga”) nor a Skrull (the alien race of shapeshifters last seen in Captain Marvel), but instead is a D’bari — the alien race Jean-as-Phoenix nearly wiped out when she ate their sun for a snack in the comics. It’s a nice nod to the source material, but is also somehow a completely wasted opportunity to inject the film with the kinds of grandiose stakes that made the comics arc an almost operatic experience. Honestly, “Wasted Opportunity” should be this movie’s subtitle. But even if Jean isn’t committing intergalactic genocide, the film still does explore the question of how badly our heroes can stray before they are irredeemable. What crimes can they commit and still come back? What do they have to sacrifice in order to be forgiven? What are the consequences of the most terrible acts imaginable?
Well, it doesn’t explore them so much as gesture at them lazily, but they’re there, you know? Just like the movie. It’s there. It exists. Isn’t that enough?
It all leads up to a tacked-on third act that is so obviously a product of hasty reshoots that I’d be hard-pressed to believe it wasn’t mandated by Disney as part of the merger (despite what the creative team may be saying). But look, it isn’t all bad. Dark Phoenix continues to lean on one of my favorite plot threads — “Is Charles Xavier Actually Kind Of A Pompous Asshole?” — effectively, and I still get a real visceral pleasure out of watching all various mutants fight with their special skillsets. In particular, Storm and Nightcrawler, and even Beast, have some fantastic dust-ups in the big climactic train fight, and Fassbender still Fassbenders the hell out of every scene he’s in. Chastain takes her nonsense part and luxuriates in it, and Ato Essandoh is a surprise delight as one of her her alien underlings. On the other hand, the film fails to deliver the requisite Quicksilver slo-mo sequence, and it is sorely missed. Cyclops is completely forgettable, or maybe he was just barely there — it’s hard to tell, really, on account of the forgettability I mentioned. And as for Jean? We just got a whole movie dedicated to her character, and I feel like I’m no more invested in her now than I was to start with. All of the themes — her being manipulated, controlled, overcome and finding herself again, and the intimidation and loyalty of her comrades — are muted somehow. With practically no groundwork and far lowered stakes, there isn’t much of a rise OR a fall for this Phoenix. And maybe that’s the lesson, really. Sure, the fanbase may remember these iconic comics arcs and want to see them on the big screen, but if you don’t have the tools to do them justice or the vision to alter them in fulfilling ways? Just don’t bother.
Let “The Dark Phoenix Saga” die already. And when it’s reborn — as it inevitably will be, under new corporate overlords — let’s hope it finally soars.
Header Image Source: Fox