Rage Against – X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX (2019)

Dark Phoenix is not quite the coda to the X-Men franchise that you might have expected going in.

For quite some time now, general feeling among a large swathe of the movie going audience invested in comic book cinema has been the belief that Dark Phoenix would be a significant let down. Despite the critical successes, even taking into account their flaws, of X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past, X-Men: Apocalypse was a strong case of diminishing returns (critically and financially as it turns out) which took a lot of air out of the X-Men balloon when it came to enthusiasm for the next generation of the franchise – having established new versions of Jean Grey, Cyclops, Storm etc… to help presumably carry the X-Men saga into a new era. With Bryan Singer no longer involved in the production due to the allegations against him, and long-term writer Simon Kinberg making his directorial debut, plus the usual report of reshoots of the final act and the film’s release being pushed back over half a year, the omens for Dark Phoenix outdoing Apocalypse and providing a satisfying end to this iteration of the saga were low. Perhaps the biggest surprise about Dark Phoenix, in which case, is that it *is* a better film than Apocalypse and just about accomplishes what it sets out to do.

Let me state this clearly for the record: Dark Phoenix is not a great X-Men film, or comic-book movie in general. When up against the heights of the medium, be it the Marvel Cinematic Universe at its peak or The Dark Knight trilogy, Dark Phoenix cannot compete. It is at times noisy. It can be unintentionally funny in how overwrought the central story finds itself. It suffers from some of the worst villains in the entirety of comic book cinema. It ignores elements of its own continuity and numerous character arcs for expediency. Plus it lacks a great deal of depth when it comes to the underpinnings geopolitical and social aspects that made the X-Men films more than just effects-driven spectacles. It focuses so tightly on one character journey in particular that much of the saga’s entertaining subtext is rejected. Yet despite all of this, it is not incoherent. It is a better adaptation of ‘The Dark Phoenix Saga’, the 1980 comic story from Chris Claremont and John Byrne, than X-Men: The Last Stand gave us. It does manage to give key characters Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr, as well as Jean Grey of course, dramatic through-lines which tether to the core narrative in a satisfying way.

And, perhaps as best it could, Dark Phoenix gives a level of closure to the X-Men franchise that we can probably live with.

While Dark Phoenix almost certainly won’t be the last time we ever see the X-Men on a cinema screen, this is definitively the end for the longest running superhero franchise outside of the MCU.

Disney’s purchase of 20th Century Fox, who long held the cinematic rights to most of the X-Men characters (except Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, oddly, hence why we’ve seen two incarnations of the latter in the last few years), means that Marvel Studios now have these characters—and the definition of mutant—available to use in the MCU going forward. My hunch is that Kevin Feige will wait a few years and allow for some distance between this franchise and the MCU but we will see these characters drip-fed into the ongoing, post-Avengers: Endgame era of the connected Marvel framework with all new actors (Storm in a Black Panther sequel anyone?). Much as Dark Phoenix concludes this iteration of the X-Men saga with young new actors in these roles, are Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan or Alexandra Shipp going to become the biggest new things in Hollywood? The jury is out. Feige may want to start from scratch.

Which given Dark Phoenix may be appropriate and, in many ways, for the best. Though you could make more X-Men films with this cast and in this universe, Kinberg does provide a satisfactory level of closure here. You can leave the relationship between Charles and Erik in a perpetual state of ideological chess. Mystique ended her story in perhaps the only way she ever could have done. And by the conclusion of the film, the X-Men as a unit and a concept are firmly established. In some respects, without the broader promise of a wider universe and bigger stakes as you may find in the MCU, it has nowhere to go that doesn’t repeat what came before. This version of the X-Men is played out by the end of Dark Phoenix, not entirely in an unsatisfactory way either. Everything about Dark Phoenix is logical and as a result, of course, predictable. There is enjoyment in seeing Jean’s story play out in this way but it makes for few surprises.

Some may counter that in suggesting Mystique’s demise serves as the key ‘shock’ of the film but anyone who has watched even remotely a few films in this genre would have seen her death at the hand of Jean, even if unintentionally, coming – both at the moment she voices to Hank ‘Beast’ McCoy her desire to move on from the X-Men life after clashing with Charles over his methods, and even before by the end of Apocalypse once she becomes the key leader of the X-Men team. That film saw the character live up to the folk hero myth that had built up around her during and between First Class and Days of Future Past, particularly through Ororo ‘Storm’ Monroe (this is forgotten, mind you, come Dark Phoenix), but ultimately Raven Darkholme had committed too much murder and wrought too much damage as a villain before learning the error of her ways to be truly redeemed and exist as a pure hero. Mystique being the ultimate cost of Jean’s corruption by the Phoenix power is a clear, logical conclusion to her long-running character arc.

It also does allow for the most interesting character arc in Dark Phoenix – that of Professor Charles Xavier. He got a bit lost in the crowded shuffle during Apocalypse, a film more interested in whether Erik Lensherr was capable of redemption (it ultimately decides, yes he is), but Dark Phoenix redresses the balance to add some welcome shades of grey—pun intended—to Charles’ motivation. The Last Stand suggested that Charles’ control of Jean Grey over the years had worked to partially compromise her and Dark Phoenix very much develops that idea. Charles not only hid Jean’s rejection by her grief-stricken, fearful father as a child, but has subsequently exerted a psychological hold over the students at his school under the guise of protecting and nurturing them. “I had to keep her stable. I protected her” he suggests to Raven, who counters. “From the truth? There’s another word for that”. Beast later outwardly blames Charles for Raven’s death and while everyone is hurting, his actions and their consequences undoubtedly play a part.

You sense James McAvoy enjoys the process here of somewhat darkening Charles’ motivations, aligning him more in the grey area alongside Erik. This is a man we have seen overcome by ego and hubris before – he was cocky in First Class, and later self-absorbed and loathing in DOFP, so it is refreshing to see Xavier depicted as a flawed human being as opposed to the all-seeing, wise Professor and mentor he became as Patrick Stewart’s incarnation. By degrees, Erik in Dark Phoenix is leading a simple, agrarian life with fellow mutants on a government-approved island – he has put Magneto in a box and while he has rejected humanity, he is no longer intent on destroying them. Happily, Erik at no point in Dark Phoenix turns to the dark side, even when he must adopt the Magneto helm once more to help take down Jean – even anger at Raven’s death doesn’t fuel the kind of vengeance he felt in First Class. He is a character who has matured and grow, as has Charles. They end this franchise the two most successfully developed and complex creations the X-Men saga has ever given us.

It helps that our principle villain is being manipulated by the kind of forces we have not yet seen in the X-Men franchise but who certainly fit in the broader Marvel universe – insidious refugees from the destroyed D’Bari alien species looking to exploit a source of ultimate power to restore their race. You sense the X-Men saga would not have been brave enough to have alien villains before the MCU normalised the fusion between the superhero movie and science-fiction film – even though aliens invade Earth every five minutes in the earliest Marvel comics and teams such as the X-Men constantly have to battle them and send them packing. The D’Bari are not remotely interesting, and purely work as a construct to exploit Jean’s power, but they do serve to unite the two mutant ideologies against a common enemy in a way none of the previous films, not even Apocalypse, have ever done. Aliens are an external threat which allow Magneto, of all people, to almost become a hero, and it is quite satisfying to see.

One thing Kinberg never truly explores as a result is quite why Jean Grey becomes the power-infused demonic figure she ends up. From the off, the film is at pains to point out that Jean is ‘special’, and even the original X-Men trilogy suggested repeatedly that Jean was the most powerful mutant Professor X had ever encountered. Jessica Chastain’s chief D’Bari villain Vuk (a wraith-like refugee who comes off like a poor man’s witch rather than well developed antagonist) suggests that Jean’s power has always affected her. “You feel like you don’t belong here. You don’t. They can’t begin to comprehend what you are”. Yet the cause of Jean’s transformation is expressly stated to be a powerful cosmic phenomenon, a force which can both take away and give life (Vuk shows Jean how she can become a one-woman Project: Genesis from The Wrath of Khan at one point), even though she has always apparently had some Phoenix-like darkness lurking inside – we even saw her display it in Apocalypse as the end of level boss power up. Was Jean always capable of this transformation or did the space entity give her these abilities?

The Phoenix storyline, ultimately, is all about Jean’s own internal grief and rage, externalising as a fiery, vengeful force. Where it comes from is, in many respects, incidental – it is *why* it manifests. The film doesn’t explain why it chose Jean (not even if it was some kind of eternal cosmic destiny) but it does at least unpick the personal reasons why the Phoenix exists inside, more so than The Last Stand had chance to do – the death of one parent and the emotional rejection of another amplifies the internal pain that always existed in Jean, before Vuk manipulates those emotions for her own gain as an enabler in the classic trope of the mysterious, benevolent stranger with all the answers who Jean turns to after everyone who does love her refuses to understand who or what she is. Classic teenage angst, even if Jean is technically supposed to be in her mid-late 20’s by 1992 (though worrying about how old these characters are compared to how they look is the last thing we should be doing in this franchise!). It is decently portrayed by Turner, even if in the end she does little but glare, look angry and make lots of telekinetic hand gestures.

More interesting is the idea that Dark Phoenix’s internal rage reflects the #MeToo era. Chastain, who has avoided roles in major blockbusters and comic-book movies previously, was drawn to Dark Phoenix because it forefronts and focuses on female characters – Mystique in part, Jean of course, and by association Vuk. Chastain is a vocal and prominent proponent of the movement to draw attention to abuse and while Jean is not affected in this direct way, her repressed anger is certainly down to the decision making of older white men controlling her life choices and her agency. Jean’s rage may be alien-influenced but it reflects a deeper, darker internal anger emerging in Hollywood strongly through empowering female representation. Mystique even at one point rails at Charles about the gender biased name of the entire franchise. “And by the way, the women are always saving the men around here. You might wanna think about changing the name to X-Women”. Take the recent Captain Marvel movie, which presents Brie Larson as an all-powerful woman asserting agency against the controlling male force in her life. “I’ve been fighting with one hand tied behind my back. What happens when I’m finally set free?” she asks. This is what Vuk wants for Jean, to assert her agency against a world of control – to set her free.

Hollywood may not have been ready for that story in 2006 when The Last Stand suggested the Phoenix was the inner manifestation of Jean’s heightened mental powers, one that needed to be subjugated by the blade of the man she loved – Wolverine (another man asserting control over the situation, after she literally obliterated X to destroy his control). Dark Phoenix handles this differently, particularly given how Jean is ultimately manipulated by a far from altruistic female figure (if not an actual *woman* as such). The Phoenix here represents sacrifice but also freedom, a way of Jean outgrowing the control and transforming into something greater, something more cosmic – albeit in a different way to how Carol Danvers re-transforms into Captain Marvel. Jean’s choice also ties into how Dark Phoenix seems reticent about the idea of the X-Men being labelled as ‘superheroes’, in a way the MCU often does not. That franchise embraces Tony Stark declaring “I am Iron Man” but Kinberg seems suspicious of it.

By 1992, the X-Men are fully formed in the public consciousness, as they often were in the initial Marvel comics (where superheroes are frequently judged and questioned by the populous as to their effectiveness). Charles Xavier positively laps up the attention of a heroes’ parade after their space-bound mission to rescue NASA astronauts which kickstarts the film – indeed they resemble the Thunderbirds as much as X-Men during this sequence. He has some level of an ego trip at action figures, attending celebratory dinners, even a direct X-line to the President of the United States – things that would have been unthinkable in the days of First Class or Days of Future Past with Magneto dropping a stadium on the White House lawn. Mutants have become superheroes by the early 1990’s, even if Xavier openly rejects the term. The X-Men spend decades across these four films manifesting through geopolitical trouble and strife to the point they have gone from being the enemy to, almost, the saviours protecting mankind.

Apocalypse scaled back the underlying geopolitical aspects of the 1980’s behind the X-Men and Dark Phoenix largely does the same, but there is the interesting notion that perhaps the 1992 setting, and the ‘peace in their time’ between humans and mutants, reflects the so-called ‘End of History’ as written about by historian Francis Fukuyama; the idea that the end of the Cold War in 1991 presented the 20th century ideology of division between East and West as over, and we stood at the beginning of a new history whereby our entire geopolitical construct would change. The year after the Soviet Union fell, humans and mutants have resolved a conflict—and a fearful American anxiety about the ‘Other’ that the humans represented—which undulated beneath every film since First Class and arguably before. Charles is prepared to put up with their depiction as superheroes to maintain the delicate, post-Cold War peace they find themselves in, one he is desperate to hold onto even as Magneto is ready to tear the world apart to stop Jean. “We do this here now? They’ll see us as monsters. Violent freaks fighting on the streets of New York.”

Dark Phoenix seems embarrassed at the idea of the X-Men being categorised as traditional superheroes. Xavier may have a hotline to the White House but that feels more about his prestige than Bruce Wayne having a direct line to Commissioner Gordon in the Batman series was about the superhero theatrics. Apocalypse may have established ‘the next generation’ of X-Men but Jean Grey turns inward and becomes the antagonist, Mystique the mentor figure dies, Beast turns against his oldest friend Charles as a result, and Quicksilver is sidelined (probably because he would be too handy for Charles to have around, but this does mean the entire sub-plot of being Magneto’s son gets zero payoff). Though the MCU deconstructs the idea of the Avengers in various films, the X-Men franchise never seems to want to embrace the concept of mutants—that representation of the ‘Other’—becoming heroes in their own right. They are destined to be flawed, mistrusted, subjugated and misjudged.

Perhaps this is appropriate for the X-Men, a series built on allegory and symbolism of the mutants being any kind of representative minority – be it Jewish Holocaust survivors, African-Americans, the LGBT community, you name it. Dark Phoenix as a coda to the first twenty years of the X-Men on the big screen, through two knotty time periods and trilogies which backed into the idea of a unified cinematic universe as the landscape of comic-book cinema fluctuated around them, works as well as can be expected. For many, the X-Men saga would have gone on for one or two films too long. Dark Phoenix’s poor box office showing in its opening weekend–and what appears to be a troubled production now being actively questioned by those who produced it–suggests, despite the MCU’s record breaking success proving the superhero genre has no sign of slowing down, the X-Men saga may for now have had its day. Yet this is a perfectly solid, if uninspiring and predictable conclusion to one of cinema’s game-changing, ambitious franchises.

Like any good Phoenix, the X-Men will one day rise from the flames. You can count on it.

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Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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