The journey of Marvel Comics’ X-Men onscreen has not been a smooth one. With timelines and canon all but skewered across varying casts and interpretations, Fox finally lay their heroes to bed as the Disney merger is secured. With Dark Phoenix, writer/director Simon Kinberg looks to retell Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s iconic Dark Phoenix Saga once more after a widely criticised attempt in 2006 with X-Men: The Last Stand.
In the final instalment of a nearly 20 year Fox franchise, Kinberg makes his directorial debut, but he is no stranger to the source material. Having written the screenplay for both The Last Stand, X-Men: Days of Future Past and being a producer on First Class, he knows these beloved characters better than most. Sophie Turner returns to the role of Jean Grey/Phoenix, and she does so with fresh confidence. First stepping into the role in X-Men: Apocalypse, she was timid and often outshone by stars the likes of James McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence. But here she owns every moment.
Dark Phoenix is very much Jean’s story. When the team mission to save astronauts from a supposed solar flare, she encounters the cosmic Phoenix Force and, to everyone’s surprise, survives without so much as a scar. Upon their return to the school, they are greeted by crowds of applause, and a message of gratitude from the president himself. However, Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) isn’t convinced they should have risked lives. Whilst Charles is busy accepting medals from the president, she questions whether his ego is encouraging him to take risks he isn’t at the fore of.
Now grappling with the internal conflict of her own power and that of the Phoenix, Jean discovers that Charles made ‘adjustments’ to her mind as a child and has been hiding a huge secret from her. It will be no spoiler to those who have seen the trailer that Raven has a fateful encounter with Jean as she struggles to control her new enhanced abilities. The death is sudden and more violent than expected. It could be argued as an example of ‘fridging’ (wherein a female character is killed to give motivation or plot to a male counterpart), in the way that both Hank/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Erik/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) are prompted to enact revenge on Jean, convinced that she is only a danger to the rest of the team and humanity. However, being that Raven is no small role, and having followed her journey since 2011 in First Class, her death feels necessary and significant. There has to be a real loss to prove the threat of the Phoenix and the stakes the team is facing.
The X-Men have always been a skillfully crafted microcosm for society’s prejudice. And here it doesn’t feel quite as prevalent, but men downplaying or repressing a woman’s abilities in their supposed best interest is a noticeable comparison. McAvoy gives his heart to his performance, as he always does, and brings fallibility to Charles – the benevolent leader we’ve grown up in admiration of. He becomes a man who does not want to lose everything he has built, and one who cannot admit when he is wrong. Even Erik is sick of the ‘perfect principle’ charade, dismissing his attempts to stand in his way, “You’re always sorry Charles, and there is always a speech.”
Kinberg having endeavoured to use as many practical effects as possible after the ill-received CGI spectacle of Apocalypse, the action in Dark Phoenix is grounded, well-choreographed and often exhilarating – with some memorable set-pieces, including a train being lifted off its tracks and a battle between Jean and Erik for control over a helicopter. Hans Zimmer’s score is also suitably rumbling underneath the growing angst and anxiety of Jean and her battle with her mind, however, there is no callback to the beloved X-Men theme from the original trilogy or Henry Jackman’s catchy stamp on First Class.
Dark Phoenix is not perfect. Once again, Storm, Cyclops, and Nightcrawler are mere background characters. Some of the most important X-Men are given no characterisation whatsoever, so it’s hard to complain about poor performances when they are given little to nothing to work with. Returning favourites, McAvoy, Fassbender, Hoult and Lawrence all give the usual fantastic performances; though Lawrence seems less than interested. But with the rocky production history including multiple changes of release date and months of reshoots, who can blame her?
Jessica Chastain’s antagonist, as far as one can remember, still remains unnamed. Shrouded in mystery, she followed the Phoenix force across space in order to gain control of its power. She encourages Jean to unleash its full potential, explaining how ‘men in chairs with little minds’ have kept her down. She is an enigmatic addition, and alters the course of Jean’s fate in some ways, but somehow still feels unnecessary. Chastain is great, but the film may not have been much different without her. However, even without the prompt of an unknown alien, Jean becomes a woman who is done letting men tell her who she is, and the journey to understanding what is important to her is a well-paced and confident one. Many fans have had their faith shaken in recent years, but Dark Phoenix is a loving, if imperfect, farewell to nearly 20 years of Charles and the X-Men.
by Millicent Thomas
Millicent Thomas is a proud Mancunian studying Film & Publishing at Bath Spa University. She has written freelance for Little White Lies, Dazed, SciFiNow, and more. Her favourite films include Logan, Columbus, and Spy-Kids. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter and Letterboxd at @millicentonfilm