Dark Phoenix, Again

How did we get here? For the second time the Dark Phoenix Saga has been adapted for the big screen and for the second time people do not like it. As of this writing, Dark Phoenix has been lambasted by reviewers (24% on Rotten Tomatoes), suffered a horrific opening day pull of $14 million, and has followed up with a record free fall of -83.2% — the biggest second week drop of any superhero blockbuster. I can’t say that I’m all that surprised though.

There were only seven other people in the theatre during the 7:10pm 3D showing my wife and I attended during opening weekend. This was only the second night of shows and a total of nine seats were filled in a 3D theatre that sits about four hundred. The only theatre around for about 100 miles. Ouch.

The online reception also seemed a bit frosty. Twitter’s general consensus was one of “who cares, this is all going to be rebooted by Disney for the MCU.” Online discussion boards and reddit have torn Dark Phoenix apart over everything from casting decisions to an awkward snippet of Mystique referencing the X-Women. There’s been a pretty negative vibe overall.

Of the X-Men mutuals I have online I’d say maybe one-in-five planned on seeing Dark Phoenix in theatres. The few who did seemed a bit polarized, with about half finding the film to be decent if somber and the other half feeling vindicated in their pre-release assumptions. I had expected to be in the latter camp.

As I said during a ComicsVerse podcast back in January 2018:

“I don’t want to be the fan that nitpicks these things but I just feel like the setup isn’t what it needs to be to adapt such a cherished piece of fiction, such an important piece of artwork. It’s not just about a movie being adapted and some moving parts having to be changed because it’s a different medium. I don’t think that the people producing this upcoming film have a strong understanding of the spirit of the characters or the overall themes of this story. And it’s really distressing for me, personally.”

In my mind there was no way Kinberg, the screenwriter behind the wretched X-Men: The Last Stand, wouldn’t botch Jean Grey’s most iconic arc a second time. And yet, Dark Phoenix is unquestionably not the catastrophe you’ve been led to believe by negative press and social media.

What If?: Dark Phoenix Was Grounded

It’s clear that 20th Century Fox got spooked by X-Men: Apocalypse’s reception. When Kinberg was cornered by ET during the Deadpool 2 premier he claimed Dark Phoenix would be “a little less operatic” and “more real and grounded.” This is hilarious when you think about the source material Kinberg was adapting.

The Dark Phoenix Saga is a comic book story arc running in Uncanny X-Men #129 – 138. It follows the tragic fall of Jean Grey while under the influence of the Hellfire Club and the atrocities she then commits as the ferocious Dark Phoenix. Now, you might think that it shouldn’t be hard for Fox to adapt nine comic book issues to the big screen but therein lies the challenge: the fall of Jean Grey doesn’t start in Uncanny #129. It started when she died amid a shuttle crash before rising from the depths of Jamaica Bay as The Phoenix in Uncanny #101.

That’s four whole years of interwoven, serialized storytelling. Four years of the Hellfire Club’s Mastermind psychologically tormenting Jean Grey with his illusions. Four years of her powers becoming more and more terrifying. Four years of an increasingly intense romance with Scott Summers. All to cram into a 114 minute film (including credits).

Oh, and a solid chunk of the saga takes place away from earth. That means spaceships, aliens, and cosmic entities are a must while still conforming to the ultra-realistic and drab 20th Century Fox aesthetics established by previous X-Men films. You have to hand it to Kinberg though, he really thought he could deliver authenticity.

“It’s much more loyal to the original comic than [X-Men: The Last Stand], which told the Dark Phoenix story,” Kinberg noted during the Deadpool 2 premier. “It’s a movie that involves extraterrestrial characters, which is not something that we’ve done in the X-Men franchise before, and is something that is a huge part of the Dark Phoenix Saga in the comics.”

So let’s talk spoilers. The only way I can be candide with what works and what doesn’t in this film is to highlight specific, spoilery moments. If you haven’t seen Dark Phoenix and do not wish to be spoiled — this is your off-ramp to the last paragraph for my final thoughts.

Cool? Cool.

It’s funny to me how we all just assumed Jessica Chastain would be playing the Shi’ar Empress Lilandra. That would make sense given how critical the character was in the comics. No sign of the Shi’ar Empire in this film though. Instead, “cosmic” means that the X-Men orbit earth for about fifteen minutes and extraterrestrial invaders come for Jean once she’s absorbed the Phoenix Force in the film’s first act. Chastain’s Vuk is the only named among the alien invaders whom she explains to be D’Bari.

The Demise of the D’Bari — Uncanny X-Men #135

At first I thought it was a nice nod to the comics to make the D’Bari the primary antagonists. In case you don’t know, the D’Bari are a race of broccoli people whose planet was obliterated when Jean ate a sun during the Dark Phoenix Saga. They even show the destruction of the planet in this film. It’s neat that these would be the aliens in pursuit of Jean, but they way the script uses them is all wrong.

The D’Bari shapeshift like Skrulls and are hard to kill but they die by the dozens against the X-Men. None of the D’Bari are characterized outside of Vuk, and when they all aren’t dressed like Men In Black extras they look like generic grey martians. Because they are so bland it feels like such a shame we have the D’Bari instead of a more compelling group like the Hellfire Club of First Class or the Shi’ar Empire.

Vuk, herself, is a poor man’s Mastermind. Her role is to turn Jean against the X-Men through pick-up artistry. There were moments where Vuk would slyly attack Jean’s vulnerability in a way that instantly reminded me of negging. According to The Art of Charm, “a neg is when you insult the girl you’re interested in as a way of knocking down her self-esteem. Then she’ll feel the need to win your approval so that she can feel good about herself again.” Every time Vuk interacts with Jean it just reeks of this creepy manipulation.  

Manipulation is core to the themes of Dark Phoenix, and while the shallow approach Chastain’s Vuk takes is unfulfilling, the many times Charles Xavier is rightfully confronted over his invasive and controlling nature are each satisfying in their own way. Mystique reminds him who really saves the day on the X-Men, Hank tells him to shove it, Magneto reminds him of all his prior screw-ups, and Jean has a breakthrough moment with him after telekinetically forcing him to walk up a flight of stairs. Cruelty aside, Dark Phoenix is elevated by the moments where Charles is put on blast for his decisions Each of the conflicts Xavier has are warranted and are no doubt elevated by MacAvoy’s superb acting chops.

I wish the same could be said for Michael Fassbender. Magneto and his “Genosha” could be removed from Dark Phoenix entirely without losing a single thing. Genosha is just a mutant camp and Eric is just an angry man. The same one we’ve already seen. That said, if Jean didn’t turn to him for help there’d be no way to pull him in for the predictable rampage in the final act.

There is yet another “you’re not really like this” moment between Magneto and Xavier, and it blows my mind that these X-Men films keep hitting this same tired story beat. Yes he is, Charles. Every goddamn movie has a Fatal Attractions fall to the dark side for Magneto and I’ve had it.

To the same token, Mystique had enough of Xavier’s shit before shuffling off this mortal coil. It was obvious that she was going to die if you had seen the trailers. Much less obvious that her performance both in and out of the blue makeup would be so heartfelt. Similarly, Sophie Turner takes her portrayal of Jean Grey up a few notches from X-Men: Apocalypse. I really liked the kind of eerie weird girl vibe she was tapping into and I think she deserves more credit than she has seen for her portrayal. Sadly, the shortcomings of Turner’s Phoenix are rooted more deeply in the film’s thin script and Kinberg’s directorial decisions.

At no point does Jean Grey ever try to get away from this alien stranger who knows a lot about her past and that firebird she just ate in space. You could argue that Jean wasn’t threatened by Vuk, but I just did not understand the decision to place Jean with Magneto or Vuk when the real plot goldmine is her relationship with Scott. Sadly, not once did I feel sold on the longevity or strength of Scott and Jean’s relationship. I waited on the edge of my seat for Scott to yell “JEAN!” but it didn’t happen once and that’s a shame.

Speaking of things that didn’t happen. Did Jean ever actually become the Dark Phoenix? She absorbed the Phoenix Force and had some meltdowns but outside of some elder abuse I don’t think Dark Phoenix sells Jean’s turn to the dark side. In the comics we had time to see slight changes in Jean’s appearance and behaviour before she snapped. You knew Jean had gone full tilt because she ate a fucking sun, destroying a solar system and instantly wiping out five billion D’Bari. In contrast, Dark Phoenix’s Jean Grey blows down a half-dozen trees and kills Mystique. That’s all it took for the government to create mutant internment camps.

The scale just doesn’t match, y’know?

Kinberg’s more grounded approach was likely the only practical way to pull of the story. It’s not like 20th Century Fox was going to throw hundreds of millions towards a space epic starring the Bryan Singer X-Men. What choice did Kinberg have but to condense, simplify, and try to take a better stab at what X-Men: The Last Stand attempted? For the most part I think he was successful.

No, Dark Phoenix is not a perfect adaptation of the Dark Phoenix Saga. It could never be, and the film excels when it focuses more on genuine character building than trying to be everything to everyone. It certainly helps that so many of the performances are solid, however, even some of the best portrayals aren’t given many lines to work with. Spectacular actors like Alexandra Shipp have so much to offer this film when they aren’t being steamrolled by the Magneto/Xavier dynamic. Such is (was) life in the Syngerverse.

I went into the theatre expecting to watch a catastrophe. What I got was unexpectedly pleasant. You can tell Kinberg was applying the lessons of the previous films even if the more grounded approach he took didn’t fit the scope of the story. Still, you’d probably enjoy Dark Phoenix more than it’s chilly reception would have you believe. If you’re still on the fence about watching Dark Phoenix I’d say it’s worth seeing if only for to close out the franchise. It’s better than Apocalypse or X3 and there are things it does which are genuinely interesting. Besides, Cyclops says the F-word. 

Thanks for taking the time to read this review of Dark Phoenix! I’d like to take a moment to give a specific shout out to my Patreon patrons:

For only $1/month you can stay up to date on my writing projects and help select topics for future longposts and editorials. Definitely check out my Patreon if you’re a fan of my writing.