Simon Kinberg (writer & director), Mauro Fiore (cinematographer)
James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Jessica Chastain (cast)
June 7, 2019
Some plot spoilers follow.
The X-Men films have spent years apologizing for their despised third installment, X-Men: The Last Stand, which among its sins turned The Dark Phoenix Saga—the most beloved X-Men story of all time—into a tacky little b-plot in its own movie. The prequel/sequel X-Men: Days of Future Past used time travel to erase The Last Stand from existence and resurrect Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and Cyclops (James Marsden), the film’s biggest casualties. The next sequel, X-Men: Apocalypse, featured the younger Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) walking out of a theater to deliver the burn, “The third one is always the worst.”
And finally, finally, we have Dark Phoenix, writer-director Simon Kinberg’s retelling of Jean Grey’s corruption by cosmic power. For Kinberg, who co-wrote The Last Stand, this is an attempt to, in Quantum Leap terms to “put right what once went wrong.” So Dark Phoenix arrives in theaters carrying an enormous psychic weight—not only is it trying to do justice to a classic story, a story the audience has already seen filmed once before, but it finds itself, after Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox, to be the last installment in a film franchise that’s lasted nearly twenty years. (Yes, we still have The New Mutants, but I remain unconvinced it won’t end up in the same underground bunker as Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four.) Unsurprisingly, many critics and viewers have been approaching Dark Phoenix like it’s a bird with a broken wing. I hope the film finds its audience, because Dark Phoenix not only succeeds as a character study of Jean Grey, but is at its core a pure X-Men film.
Dark Phoenix brings the X-Men to 1992. Acting as superpowered EMTs in matching X-jackets, they’re followed by adoring fans carrying signs and action figures. (I imagine the 1990s animated series exists here too, even if we don’t see it.) Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) has an X-Phone connected to the President’s desk, but his pomposity hides a genuine fear that humans will turn on mutants again the second they’re no longer useful to them. During an invigorating space rescue sequence, Jean is exposed to a strange solar flare, which is actually an ancient cosmic force connected to the spark of life itself. Jean’s powers and emotions are suddenly amplified, hurting her loved ones and revealing buried traumas. As The House That Xavier Built crumbles, Jean can either save the X-Men or destroy them.
The film’s most shining grace is that it understands this is Jean’s story, beginning and ending with her. Sophie Turner perfectly embodies Jean’s passion and rage. Dark Phoenix’s most striking visuals are the fiery cracks that appear on her skin as her power literally burns her up from within. We follow Jean through the shock, anger, and horror of her transformation, but unlike a different high-profile Sophie Turner project this year, the story resists sliding into the quicksand of depicting her as another chick driven crazy by power. (In fact, it explicitly rejects calling her “broken.”) Jean’s greatest driving force, ultimately, is her intense love for her friends and a willingness to make any sacrifice to protect them, so when Jean finally cuts loose and shows us what Dark Phoenix can do, it’s a thrill. There are missed opportunities where the movie should go bigger, bolder, harder—Kinberg should have just said “fuck it” and pushed for an R rating—but Jean’s arc is gripping.
And more than any other film in the series, Dark Phoenix nails the importance of the X-Men as a found family. The Xavier Institute is depicted as a haven for outsiders and children who have been abandoned by their families or society at large. (Xavier’s patriarchal streak makes it an imperfect refuge, but the character would have been intensely boring if he’d been a saint.) A bonfire party with Dazzler is one of the most X-Men-y things the X-Men could do, and there’s a touching scene where Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) comforts a younger student and tells her that Jean is still their friend and they’ll try to help her. When Jean feels that she’s lost her home, we feel that fear with her, especially when she searches for guidance at Genosha, the mutant community run by Magneto (Michael Fassbender). For characters who are outsiders, the “other,” or the walking metaphor of your choice, it’s important to see them carving out spaces for themselves in the world, protecting and fighting for each other. No X-Man is an island.
One of Dark Phoenix’s biggest surprises is the introduction of the D’Bari, the race of plantlike aliens famously annihilated by Dark Phoenix in the comics. The film provides an interesting role reversal. Here, they’re invaders intending to steal the Phoenix Force for themselves. They’re an obscure choice for villains, especially after Oscar Isaac’s cyan scenery-chewing in Apocalypse, but I got a kick out of seeing the aliens known as “Asparagus people” on message boards re-imagined as Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style pod people. (Their dinner party-crashing arrival on Earth could have easily been the opening to a Blumhouse horror flick.) Though her appearance here may be a blow to everyone who fancast her as Jean Grey in the MCU reboot, the blonde, bloodless Jessica Chastain makes an intriguing foil for Turner, cold and inhuman where Jean is literally burning with emotion.
Dark Phoenix would not be a Fox X-Men film if it didn’t make some truly bonkers choices, however. Jennifer Lawrence is so eager to leave the movie that even her blue makeup as Mystique seems unfinished. A fan-favorite character is benched in the first act, taking a dangling plot thread with them. It turns a heavy hitter from the comics like Selene (Kota Eberhardt) into a disposable extra. And in true X-Men movie fashion, it squanders Alexandra Shipp’s Storm, and the fact that Selene and Storm are both women of color points to a failing of the series that rightfully should follow it to its grave.
As the final installment in the film series, Dark Phoenix is more of an epilogue than an Endgame. The psychological intimacy is welcome after the cartoonish Apocalypse. What happens after the X-Men have “won,” when there are no more supervillains in capes and helmets? The heroes are forced to look inward: Mystique thinks about life outside the team, Xavier confronts a mistake from his past, Magneto moves on in his mutant commune, and Jean, most explosively, must regain her sense of self when her powers reopen old wounds. The ultimate victory isn’t even about superhero fights or aliens, but that Xavier and Magneto, the warring characters who have been the heart and spine of these movies for two decades, finally want the same thing.
I’ll miss the Fox X-Men movies. 2000’s X-Men reinvigorated my love for the characters and comics, and I probably would not be writing about comics today in 2019 without them. It’s a complicated affection to be sure, given their wild swings in quality and the knowledge that the primary visionary of the franchise is an alleged sexual predator. I understand the impatience bubbling over on Twitter for the MCU to put a bullet in the franchise’s brain already and re-animate the corpse, really, even though it sometimes feels like a toxic football rivalry. It’s very possible the MCU will faithfully re-create the X-Men right off the page, but, as I side-eye MCU’s Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver over here, maybe they won’t.
I admire the big risks and departures the Fox movies took. The violent and elegiac Logan. Deadpool 2’s Yukio and Negasonic Teenage Warhead as the first same-sex couple in a superhero movie. The “Time in a Bottle” sequence in Days of Future Past, which is the coolest and most fun a superpower has ever looked. Dark Phoenix’s final thoughts on death and rebirth prove to be very fitting. The X-Men are dead. Long live the X-Men.