Talking Movies: X-Men: Dark Phoenix

Talking Movies
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Released: June 2019
Director: Simon Kinberg
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget: $200 million
Stars: James McAvoy, Sophie Turner, Jessica Chastain, Tye Sheridan, Nicholas Hoult, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence

Plot:
Ten years after the events of X-Men: Apocalypse (Singer, 2016), the X-Men have become celebrated superheroes. After answering a distress call from NASA, Jean Grey (Turner) is exposed to cosmic energies that send her powers rampant. With their teammate confused, conflicted, and being corrupted, the X-Men find their loyalties and friendships tested as they race to keep Jean from harming others with her newfound powers.

Background:
The X-Men franchise (Various, 2000 to present) has had a tumultuous history in recent years; after X-Men (Singer, 2000) helped audiences to take superheroes films seriously and popularise the genre as a money-making endeavour, the series has taken a bit of a downturn since 20th Century Fox decided to produce a series of films stupidly marketed as prequels that were actually soft reboots that have done nothing but screw up the franchise’s continuity and timeline with each instalment. X-Men: Apocalypse is largely regarded as being a disappointment, despite making a load of money at the box office, and, in the years since its release, 20th Century Fox has been acquired by Disney, meaning that the X-Men will soon be integrated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in some way, shape, or form. However, X-Men: Dark Phoenix, was already in production before this purchase, meaning that this is the last gasp for this franchise in its current form.

The Review:
Considering that Disney will one day bring the X-Men into the MCU, Dark Phoenix seems largely redundant; the timeline and continuity of the films, and this franchise, is too messed up to sustain itself much less be integrated into the MCU without a complete recast and reboot, meaning that it really doesn’t matter how good, or bad, this film is, what it does, or how it ends.

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A cosmic force corrupts Jean’s powers.

As a result, there’s a distinct lack of agency and investment when watching Dark Phoenix and all you can really hope for is that it does a better job of adapting the much-lauded Dark Phoenix Saga (Claremont, Bryne, et al, 1976 to 1977) than X-Men: The Last Stand (Ratner, 2006). The answer is that it does, in some ways, and doesn’t in other ways; for example, making the Phoenix a dark, suppressed aspect of Jean Grey’s (Famke Janssen) personality was actually a much neater, relatable way of realising the character in the grounded, semi-realistic context of the first X-Men movies. Dark Phoenix, however, uses the space element by having Jean bombarded with a destructive cosmic force that simply enhances her powers to dangerous levels.

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Vuk seeks to obtain or control to Phoenix Force.

If this is more comic accurate then I guess that’s fine but Dark Phoenix also introduces a bunch of shapeshifting aliens, the D’Bari, who come to Earth seeking to obtain or control the cosmic force. Their primary agent, Vuk (Chastain), manages to help twist Jean against her team mates to facilitate her turn into the titular Dark Phoenix but there’s something off-putting about aliens suddenly and so awkwardly being thrust into this franchise that I found a little jarring. I think the D’Bari could have just as easily been a radical group of Mutants who see Jean as their saviour or they could even been replaced completely by Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Fassbender) and his Brotherhood of Mutants, similar to how Magneto (Ian McKellen) helped to corrupt Jean in The Last Stand.

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The X-Men are decked out in matching, comic-accurate costumes.

There are some other questionable choices at work here as well; for example, at the end of X-Men: Apocalypse, the X-Men were decked out in some very swanky, mid-nineties comics-accurate costumes that they have promptly ditched in favour of uniform suits to help emphasise that they are a team to the media and society, while these are also comic accurate, it’s a shame we never got to see Scott Summers/Cyclops (Sheridan) rocking that outfit from the end of X-Men: Apocalypse.

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Once again, we’re forced to question Xavier’s morality.

Also, Professor Charles Xavier (McAvoy) undergoes a bit of an odd character twist in this movie; despite apparently reuniting with Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) in X-Men: Apocalypse, Moira is nowhere to be seen and, instead, Xavier is basking in the adulation of the media and the relationship he has with the US government (which includes a hot line directly to the Oval Office and public commendations from the President (Brian d’Arcy James)). This changes Xavier’s entire motivations from the preservation of Mutantkind and the protection of humanity to an ego trip and skews his entire drive to forming the X-Men into wanting fame and respect, which is very jarring and out of character.

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Grief forges some unlikely alliances.

At the same time, Xavier is also portrayed as being less than noble due to tampering with Jean’s mind, which raises the ire of Hank McCoy/Beast (Hoult) so much that he brands Xavier a monster and joins forces with Magneto. Yet, Xavier’s tampering is nowhere near the level seen in The Last Stand and you would think that one of his closest friends and allies, who stuck with him through addiction and the deaths of their team mates, would see that he was just trying to protect Jean. Instead, both Hank and Jean turn to Magneto in their time of need, which is a very odd way to push the character into the plot.

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Still waiting to see Magneto start his “war”…

Magneto has formed a community of Mutants of the island of Genosha and has no desire to be involved in the outside world any more. Personally, I am glad that Dark Phoenix is the end of this series of movies as I am so sick of seeing each of these films jump forward another ten years and find yet another preposterous way of neutering Magneto; at the end of X-Men: First Class (Singer, 2011), Magneto had evolved into a fully-costumed version of the character who was actively recruiting Mutants for his Brotherhood and seeking to attack humanity but, in X-Men: Days of Future Past (ibid, 2014) he was in jail and portrayed as an anti-hero who was trying to protect Mutants until the end when he became a fully-costumed version of the character seeking to attack humanity. Then, in X-Men: Apocalypse, he inexplicably had a family and had retired from his “war” until he became a fully-costumed version of the character seeking to attack humanity…and then redeemed himself at the end and now, once again, he’s back to simply being another dark shade of grey in a film largely comprised of characters who are struggling between good and evil.

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The X-Men lagely exist to follow Xavier’s orders.

As for the other X-Men, Sheridan actually has a decent amount to do as Cyclops but every quickly takes a backseat as Xavier leads the X-Men into battle to try and save Jean. He, like Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Ororo Munroe/Storm (Alexandra Shipp) simply follows Xavier’s leads and orders without question and each of them are simply…there…because they are X-Men. Cyclops gets a bit more to do given that he’s emotionally and physically involved with Jean but, once again, this adaptation of the Dark Phoenix Saga is less about Scott and Jean’s relationship than it really should be.

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Sophie Turner is absolutely stunning…

Luckily, as I mentioned before, Sophie Turner is absolutely gorgeous; she portrays Jean’s conflict and emotion very well, seems to relish the opportunity to do more and showcase more range, and is absolutely stunning. I live for the day when she and Amber Heard can be onscreen together; I may actually die! Given that the main plot of the movie revolves around Jean struggling with her increasingly out of control powers, X-Men: Dark Phoenix is more about characters and deconstruction their relationships than it is about action sequences. Jean’s powers and abilities increase and become more destructive as the film goes on, which makes her a real threat to the other characters, and there is a pretty good action scene that takes place on a train but the film is more about the emotional rollercoaster of Jean’s turn and struggle with her morality.

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The X-Men are joined by a plank of bland wood pretending to be an actress…

Unfortunately, given that we know that this is the last film for this interpretations of these characters, it’s difficult to care about that, especially as Jean was only introduced in the last X-Men movie and it’s hard to be that invested in her sudden emotional struggle when she’s not a very well fleshed out character. Hell, we’ve followed Xavier, Magneto, Beast, and Raven Darkhölme/Mystique (Lawrence) this whole time and it’s hard to really be that invested in them as they undergo exactly the same character arcs in each movie, never age despite being in their sixties at this point, and have some questionable character arcs in this movie that basically make them either bland (in the case of Mystique), completely different (Xavier), or one-note (Magneto) despite strong performances by McAvoy and Fassbender.

The Nitty-Gritty:
If you’ve watched the trailers for this movie, you may have guessed that Jean kills Mystique in this film and, honestly, I could not be happier about that. I am not a fan of Jennifer Lawrence and her performance as Mystique leaves a lot to be desired, especially in this film, where she basically sleepwalks through every scene she’s in. I really don’t like Mystique being the field leader of the X-Men and every line she says is so stilted and forced that it’s a pain to watch. Luckily, though, she tried to appeal to Jean’s good nature and, unable to control her new powers, jeans blasts her away and impales her on some debris, finally ridding us of the character once and for all.

I mean, obviously that completely destroys the timeline, but the X-Men timeline is completely fucked at this point anyway.

Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters) is back and now part of the X-Men team but, as always, he’s basically there for one slow-motion action sequence before he is blasted by Jean and hospitalised for the entire movie until the epilogue because, as always, his super-speed would allow him to end things to quickly and, rather than try and use the character in a decent way or tie up the lingering plot thread regarding his parentage, lazy writing took precedence and he was relegated to little more than a cameo.

As mentioned, Xavier tampers with Jean’s mind a bit in this movie; this time, he blocks out traumatic memories of when she caused her parents’ car to flip and accidentally killed her mother. The cosmic forces causes some of these memories tor eturn and she flips out, turning against Xavier almost instantly despite the truth being that her father was afraid of her and Xavier took her in to raise as his own in a protected environment, which you would think she would know simply by virtue of being….raised by Xavier in a protected environment. Instead, Beast, grieving for Mystique, rages at Xavier for his actions, Jean tries to kill him, and Magneto treats Xavier as the “real bad guy” simply because he tried to spare a young girl from relieving a traumatic memory.

Jean going to Genosha is such a weird scene; she has no reason to really go there and asking Magneto how he stopped killing is a pretty flimsy reason to go. She’s literally there just so the X-Men cane find out where she is and also go and all get captured by the government; it would have made much more sense to have Magneto take Vuk’s place and offer Jean sanctuary, only to turn on her in the same way once he realised/found out that she killed Mystique. Beast teaming up with Magneto was equally weird, given their history, but I guess makes a bit of sense given that he knows Magneto will want Jean dead after she killed Mystique, though the X-Men turned on and fought against each other pretty quickly and easily when you think about it.

Similar to The Last Stand, the actual Dark Phoenix stuff ends up being quite lacklustre and rushed; again, since we haven’t really been following Jean’s story for that long, it’s hard to be that invested in her turn to the dark side. I really think these movies would have benefitted from being complete, obvious reboots set entirely in the mid-sixties to late-seventies rather than bouncing forward ten years each time to desperately try and chase the first X-Men movie despite obviously not being a precursor to the film any more. In the end, Jean comes to her senses and sacrifices herself to destroy Vuk, which seems like a hollow sacrifice and a move made simply because the Dark Phoenix Saga always ends with Jean dying. This also screws up the timeline as we already saw Jean alive and well in the Good Future at the end of X-Men: Days of Future Past but, again, nobody cares about continuity in these movies anyway.

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In Summary:
X-Men: Dark Phoenix is…okay. It’s not the worst X-Men movie ever made but, as a final swansong for these characters and this cast, it’s very mediocre and feels more like a by-the-numbers sequel rather than a conclusive finale. It was better than I thought it would be but far from the epic saga the source material deserves, and that’s coming from someone who views the Dark Phoenix Saga as an overrated story that didn’t need another adaptation.

ThumbsMeh

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