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Josh Reviews Dark Phoenix

I still remember how thrilled and excited I was when I saw the final shot of Bryan Singer’s X2 back in 2003.  Jean Grey had sacrificed herself to save the X-Men in the battle at Alkali Lake, and in that final, blink-and-you-missed-it shot, we saw a hint of flame rising from underneath the waters.  That shot was an announcement to all the comic book fans out there that the X-Men movie franchise was about to take on perhaps the greatest of all the X-Men storylines from the comic books: The Dark Phoenix Saga by Chris Claremont and John Byrne.  That storyline played out over the course of many months in the monthly X-Men comic-books back in 1980.  I walked out of the theatre after seeing X2 out of my mind with excitement for seeing this extraordinary story play out on screen.  And then, well… we all know what happened.  Bryan Singer decided to make Superman Returns and Fox hired Brett Ratner to make the terrible third X-Men movie, X-Men: The Last Stand, that took the epic Dark Phoenix Saga and turned it into a subplot in a film telling a story about a potential “cure” for mutants (an idea taken from Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men run from 2004).  I thought that film’s bungling of The Dark Phoenix Saga ruined any chance we had of seeing that story successfully told in a movie.  So I was surprised and pleased when the news was announced, two years ago, that Simon Kinberg (who has been a writer and producer involved with the X-Men film franchise for years) would be giving the story another go, featuring the First Class-era cast of younger X-Men characters.  After all this time, would we finally be getting the film adaptation that The Dark Phoenix Saga deserved…?

Well, sigh.  No.

Dark Phoenix isn’t nearly as bad as I’d feared from the lackluster trailers and repeated delays to the film’s release.  It actually has a lot going for it.  I really enjoy this cast, and in particular it’s a delight to see James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender back for one more go-round as Professor X and Magneto.  The film wisely sets Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey as its main focus, and I appreciated Simon Kinberg’s oft-stated goal to focus on intimate character scenes over CGI spectacle.  There are a number of dramatic moments between characters that are very effective, and the film does have a decent amount of exciting action.

But.

Sigh.

Shockingly, the film winds up making a number of the same mistakes that 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand did.

Most importantly, I was quite surprised to discover that Dark Phoenix is really barely more faithful to the original comic book story than The Last Stand was!  I can’t imagine why you’d take the greatest X-Men story ever told and not actually use any of the original story!!  And especially coming after The Last Stand — why on earth would you tell this story a second time if not to give us a more faithful retelling??  It boggles my mind.  Here’s a telling example: this movie is called Dark Phoenix and purports to depict the Dark Phoenix Saga, and yet for all the times that Jean uses her powers, we never see the iconic Phoenix effect (the flaming bird shaped manifestation of her powers, so iconic from the original comic books) until the very, very end.  Instead, they turned the event in space in which Jean gets her powers into this weird purpleish swirly cosmic thing, and then whenever she uses her powers we see these weird vein-like cracks in Jean’s skin.  (Heck, they don’t even call Jean the Phoenix except for one quick line, as an aside, in which Scott says that the mutant kids have given Jean that nickname.  It’s like someone realized after making this movie, wow, we don’t even call Jean Phoenix in our Dark Phoenix movie, so we’d better slip that in there.)  I just don’t understand.  If you’re not going to talk about the Phoenix or show the Phoenix force or the Phoenix effect — if you’re embarrassed by the source material for some reason — then why make this movie??  I feel like I feel after seeing the terrible Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, in which they told the Galactus story (one of the very best FF stories from the comic books) without actually including Galactus.

The film also crucially misunderstands the Phoenix force, just as The Last Stand did.  Both films present the Phoenix force as something that takes control of Jean.  Both films become, at times, a mind-control story, in which our heroic Jean gets zombified under the control of this external force.  While later comic books have retconned the Phoenix Saga to develop the Phoenix as an independent entity, that really wasn’t the way that Chris Claremont’s original stories from the seventies and eighties went.  In those stories, the radiation from a solar flare enhanced the powers already within Jean.  I always saw this as a story about how ultimate power corrupts absolutely.  It’s not so much that Jean is controlled by an outside force/entity; it’s more that when she has the power to do literally anything, she starts to lose hold of her humanity and any sort of grasp of right and wrong on a human scale.

I was pleased that the film clearly sets Jean Grey as the main character, and that the film does its best to follow Jean through this story.  But despite some great moments, and all of the lip-service I have read in the press about how character-focused this film is, I found that it did not successfully develop Jean as a character going on this journey.  It’s all very superficial.  Jean loses control, bad things happen, Jean is sad/fearful.  Rinse, wash, repeat.  We didn’t get deep enough into Jean or any of the other characters.  (There’s a subplot about how Professor X secretly erased some traumas from young Jean’s mind; Hank brutally turns on Charles when he discovers this, and at the end of the film there’s what’s supposed to be a climactic moment in which Charles tearfully admits that he’s the villain.  But the film doesn’t come close to earning that moment.  I didn’t think what Charles did was so horrible.  It might have been a mistake, but even so it’s an understandable and defensible one.  So I didn’t buy the scenes of Hank’s anger towards Charles nor his climactic “I am the villain” announcement.  They either needed to go further with having Charles have actually done some truly terrible stuff, OR actually dug deeper into the both-sides-might-be-right philosophical debate, like Captain America: Civil War did.)  Getting back to Jean, this story should have been a slow slide into the loss of her self, but Jean jumped very early on (at the party scene after the space rescue) into paranoid/violent mode and she pretty much stayed there for the rest of the film.

The film also should have been a slow build-up to larger and larger-scale stakes and more cosmic action.  (The comic book storyline famously climaxed with a huge fight on the moon involving an alien race, the Shi’ar.)  Curiously, the film takes the opposite approach.  We start in space (with a scene that is probably the best action set-piece of the entire film), and everything after that feels small-scale.  I’ve heard that the film originally ended in space, but that the ending was reshot to have a more character-focused finale.  Wow, if this was the better ending I can’t imagine what they had before.  That this adaptation of the epic Dark Phoenix Saga ends in a fight on a train feels way too small-scale for this story.  I don’t know what was/wasn’t in the original ending, but that the climax of the film doesn’t take place in space feels like a big mistake to me.

The whole story feels rushed to me.  I’ve read that this story was originally supposed to have been told in two movies, and that would have been a better idea.  Because what’s happened is that the filmmakers have forgotten that there are actually two parts to the Phoenix Saga.  There’s the Phoenix Saga (which played out over multiple issues in the late seventies, illustrated by Dave Cockrum) in which Jean’s powers are unlocked and she repeatedly saves the team… and then later the Dark Phoenix Saga, in which Jean begins to lose control over her enormous powers and wreaks havoc, before she eventually sacrifices herself to save her friends.  Both parts of the story are important!!  It’s important that Jean’s Phoenix powers don’t turn her evil overnight.  At first, her powers are a blessing and a huge help to the X-Men.  It’s only gradually that things begin to unravel.  The film loses much of the power of this story by having everything go down over the course of a few bad days.

Jessica Chastain is a terrific actress, but she is completely lost and failed by the movie (just as the great Oscar Isaac was in 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse).  After her character is transformed by an alien in her first scene, Ms. Chastain plays the rest of the movie in a flat, boring, evil monotone.  By the end of the movie, I didn’t know this character’s name (I looked it up: it’s Vuk) or what she wanted.  (Somehow she wanted to take control of the Phoenix force which no one calls the Phoenix force?  But if Jean Grey, a hugely powerful mutant, couldn’t control the Phoenix power, how could this alien?)  Why on earth did they replace the Shi’ar from the original comics with this generic group of aliens?  (Yes, yes, I know that the D’Bari actually did appear in the original Dark Phoenix Saga in the comics, when the Phoenix destroyed their sun — but while that event was hugely important, the D’Bari themselves were not.)  Why didn’t they have Ms. Chastain playing Lilandra (the Empress of the Shi’ar who featured in the original comics’ climax)?  OR have her playing Emma Frost from the Hellfire Club?  (The Hellfire Club’s manipulations of Jean in the comics was a huge event in the middle of the story that started the chain of events that led to her losing control of her powers.)  I know Emma wasn’t the leader of Hellfire in that era, she came later, but I wouldn’t have minded the movie’s using her if that meant the Hellfire Club stuff could have been included.  They could even have just gender-swapped the character of Mastermind, who was the Hellfire villain from the original Dark Phoenix Saga.  Any of that could have worked and been much better than what we got!  This movie needed a terrific villain, not these generic aliens.

Trying to determine where/how this film fits into the continuity of the previous X-Men films is a fool’s errand.  The movie franchise did the impossible when 2014’s Days of Future Past erased the mistakes of the previous bad films, resetting the timeline and, finally, giving the characters, and the franchise, a happy ending.  Then they made 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse, which seemed to me to have all sorts of contradictions to the previously-established timeline.  Dark Phoenix has similar problems.  The end of Days of Future Past showed us Logan returning to the X-Mansion to find Jean Grey and Cyclops (both of whom had been killed off in The Last Stand) both alive and happy.  So… how can Jean have died at the end of this movie?  (Or did she die at the end?  More on this in a moment.)  Even worse: Dark Phoenix totally ignores the entire climax of the previous film, X-Men: Apocalypse, in which Professor X stopped trying to get Jean to hold in her powers and instead encouraged her to release them in order to defeat Apocalypse — which we see Jean do, as the Phoenix Effect bursts forth from her body!  Did the filmmakers just hope we’d all forgotten about that?  Jean had the Phoenix powers within her all along, according to Apocalypse, which was set in 1983.  And yet, in Dark Phoenix, set in 1992, all that has been ignored and Jean only gets her Phoenix powers (which, remember, the film mostly chooses not to call that) from the space anomaly.  Can you see why this is frustrating??

(Speaking of the film’s setting.  I commented in my review of Apocalypse that it was ridiculous that the film was set ten years after Days of Future Past, because the characters were all basically in the same place and the actors hadn’t aged.  We have the same problem here.  Dark Phoenix is set TEN YEARS after Apocalypse, and yet Scott and Jean and Storm and Nightcrawler are all still kids!  Charles and Magneto and Hank should all be THIRTY years older than they were in X-Men: First Class.  It’s absurd!  This crazy convention of having each of the First Class-era films take place a decade after the previous one is a huge mistake.)

Then there’s the ending.  Why is The Dark Phoenix Saga so well-remembered, four decades after those original comic books were made?  Because of the power of the ending, and Jean Grey’s self-sacrifice to save her friends.  And yet, the film doesn’t go there.  Again I ask, why adapt this story if you don’t really want to tell it?  I’m not entirely clear on what happens at the end of the film, but I’d assumed that Jean ceased to exist because she was consumed by her expanding powers.  That’s much less dramatic than the self-sacrifice of the original comics.  It’s a weak way to kill off Jean without the gut-punch power of the original ending.  But maybe the film didn’t even kill her off at all?  Was that last shot of the Phoenix in the sky meant to suggest that Jean isn’t dead, but rather hanging out with her enormous superpowers out in space??  I am confused — and I am shocked that the film’s ending is so muddled that I don’t even know what happened.

Sigh.

I hate that I’m whaling on this film so much.  I really did enjoy most of the experience of watching it in the theatre!  I liked a lot of the individual pieces.  I like this cast, and I liked getting to see them on this adventure.  There were a number of nice character moments.  I liked seeing the progression of Hank and Raven’s relationship.  I loved the look of the X-Men costumes (sadly only seen, for the most part, early in the film) that were inspired by Frank Quitely’s designs from his New X-Men run with Grant Morrison.  I loved the space rescue early in the film.  I liked seeing Professor X being happy and accepted — even being feted by the President! — as we see mutants accepted as never before, a new status quo for this film series.  I liked seeing Genosha (though, curiously, the name of Magneto’s island refuge for mutants was never mentioned onscreen).  I liked Erik’s “whose blood is that?” tense exchange with Jean.  I liked seeing Erik bring out his old Magneto helmet for the first time.  I liked the fight in the New York City street, and while I stand by my criticism of the film’s final train sequence as being way too small scale, I did enjoy that tense, close-quarters combat sequence.

So there was a lot of good in this film!  I suspect that if you’d never read the original comic books, you’d probably think a lot more highly of this film than I do.  I also think I’d have thought a lot more highly of Dark Phoenix had this been the film we’d gotten back in 2006 instead of The Last Stand.  But here in 2019, I’ve seen so many far-better super-hero films, films that are far more faithful to the source material than what we have here.

Other thoughts:

* Why isn’t X-Men in the title of this movie?  Is this another example of what I’ve written about above, of this film being embarrassed by its source material?  That sort of thing really rubs me the wrong way.  (It’s like the Enterprise TV show not having Star Trek in the title.)  What I actually think happened here was that Logan made a lot of money and didn’t have X-Men in the title, so they decided to emulate that here.  I think it was a mistake.

* I was so happy to see Dazzler in the movie!!  I wish she’d had an actual line of dialogue, but that’s OK.  I loved they even gave us the classic Dazzler face-painted look!  Fantastic.

* Why doesn’t anyone in the film bother to investigate the spatial phenomena that so obviously wasn’t a solar flare?

* I wish they hadn’t written Quicksilver out of the story so quickly.  True, he doesn’t factor into the original story, but he’s been one of the best aspect of these recent X-Men films.

* Exactly what sorts of super-powers did the D’Bari have?  They seem to have varying levels of invulnerability throughout the film.

It’s sad to me that this is the end of Fox’s X-Men film franchise.  What a frustrating franchise this has been for the past two decades!!  There have been thrilling highs and terrible lows.  I loved the first two films, directed by Bryan Singer.  2000’s X-Men was the first truly great new superhero film I ever saw.  (I was born a year before Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, so while I have always loved those first two Superman films, they were always “old” movies to me.)  I’ve rewatched that first X-Men film many times over the years, and I think it holds up very well.  When it was first released, I thought X2 was even better; for many years, I considered it one of the best superhero movies ever made.  I don’t think it’s held up as well as the first film (and it’s weakened in hindsight because the story it began was never properly finished), but it’s still enjoyable to watch.  2006’s The Last Stand is weak, and the franchise floundered for a while after that.  They shifted into prequel territory (almost always a mistake) with the horrible X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009 and the surprisingly good X-Men: First Class in 2011.  2013’s The Wolverine was a far stronger Wolvie solo movie, and 2014’s Days of Future Past brought the series full-circle and gave it a proper ending, something I’d never dreamed possible.  I wish they’d stopped there.

Now that Fox has been purchased by Disney, Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios have regained control of the X-Men.  I am excited for these characters to be rebooted and, someday, introduced into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  I suspect it’ll be a while before that happens, but I hope and expect that Marvel will, at last, show these characters and this franchise the love and care they deserve.  It’d be exciting to see what could be done with a steady hand guiding this franchise, rather than the start-and-stop unevenness of Fox’s stewardship.  As always, I hope for the best.  For now, Dark Phoenix is, sadly, mediocre at best.  Ordinarily I’d say this type of misfire is for the true fans only, but actually, I think the serious comic book fans would be as frustrated as I was.  I think the causal fan will get more enjoyment from this one.

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