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Dark Phoenix rises, and it isn't so bad

I find myself utterly flummoxed by the enormous negative reaction and dismal critic rating for Dark Phoenix, which was not nearly as bad as its reviews.

First, I want to declare my least popular opinion: I really don't care what happened in the comics. Don't get me wrong - I love comics, I used to have a pull list of my own before they became ludicrously expensive, I've read the Dark Phoenix saga in the original Chris Claremont.

But in my not-so-humble opinion, a movie adaptation needs to be able to stand on its own in its new medium, and that means changes. Some of those changes are good - I mean, have you ever read the novels on which Sleeping With the Enemy or The Hunt For Red October were based? Sometimes they take the source material and run it through a Cuisinart, but as Stephen King himself has said, the book is right there on the shelf. They can't change a word. (And he would know, given what Hollywood has done to some of his work.)

The Dark Phoenix story is not just the issues collected in the trade. It is also 30-odd issues leading up to it, with multiple storylines threaded in and out. As such, it is tricky to encapsulate the story in a single movie, as those behind the annoying X-3: The Last Stand discovered. And as the creators of Dark Phonenix have now discovered.

Really: Could a single movie include Mastermind, and the Hellfire Club, and the Lady Grey backstory, and the D'bari AND The Shi'ar in space, plus the Skree and Krulls and don't forget Uatu the Watcher... More importantly, would we want them to do so? I mean, it took 22 movies to build up to Avengers: Endgame, and by the time we got rolling in Infinity War, you were either in or you were lost. 

Both X3 and Dark Phoenix had another problem: A key character is missing. In X3, James Marsden couldn't hang around to play Cyclops through the Phoenix saga because he had to run off and be the real hero of Superman Returns. (A similar issue distracted Bryan Singer, who left the franchise he launched in order to resurrect Superman.)

In Dark Phoenix, the X-Critters are attempting to complete their biggest saga without Wolverine, who was neatly dispatched in the darkly emotional (and a tad dreary) Logan last year. 20th Century Fox chose not to recast Wolverine, as they are handing the X-Baton off to Disney, and allowed the character to simply disappear from Dark Phoenix. Maybe that's because it would be somewhat creepy for 51-year-old Hugh Jackman to spend a movie longing after a 20-something Sophie Turner. That only flies in Hollywood.

There have been far too many moments in the X-Men series where men stand around debating what to do about a woman, usually Jean. This was nicely dispensed by having the leader of the D'bari take the form of a human woman, so that the ultimate battle is between Jean and Vuk (Jessica Chastain) instead of Xavier and Magneto and Wolverine and Cyclops and even Mastermind deciding what should be done with her. This is a nice twist, and allegedly made to distinguish it from Captain Marvel. It was instantly derided as "trying to join the current trend of powerful women," because after dozens and dozens of superhero stories starring and largely focused on men, three women-led films are just crazytalk.

Unfortunately, the D'bari are the weak point of the film. Chastain practically speaks in a monotone, perhaps to indicate she is an alien intelligence translated into English, but it's a poor acting choice because we fail to feel any sense of menace from her. When she speaks of rebuilding the D'bari empire on Earth, she might as well be ordering a pizza. And her minions are practically faceless, certainly with no personalities whatsoever. They're just a convenient foil for the X-Folk.

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

PhoenixAnother complaint: the movie spends a great deal of time blaming Xavier for placing barriers in Jean's mind, protecting her from the memory of causing her mother's death and her father's decision to surrender her to Xavier. This is a slight variation from both the comics and X3, in which Xavier placed the barriers to keep Dark Phoenix from taking over Jean's mind.

However, the movie goes to a ridiculous extent blaming Xavier for everything that happens, and it feels unsupported by the story. Xavier didn't create the power of the Phoenix or cause Jean to become Dark Phoenix. He did not call the D'bari to Earth or hinder anyone's ability to fight them. His decision to protect Jean from grief and trauma is ethically questionable, to be sure, but it is hardly responsible for all the mayhem that follows.

In addition, Mystique (an under-used Jennifer Lawrence with one blue foot out the door) spends a long speech haranguing Xavier for making the X-Men poster children for mutants. When James McAvoy snaps back that he prefers medals and speeches to being hunted to extinction, he's speaking for the rest of us, wondering where Mystique has been for the last few movies when they were an inch from being rounded up into concentration camps. Mutants holding the right to live as themselves in public has been her cause all along, and it rings false when they have achieved it and she complains about Xavier's methods.

The movie cannot make up its mind whether Xavier is right or wrong in his choices, making him well-intentioned and kind and not directly responsible for any of the badness... and yet forced to take full responsibility by everyone else, including himself. In the end, you find yourself blinking in disbelief and rooting for Xavier to slap someone silly and sentence them to go watch the last five movies again.

END SPOILERS

Extra credit should go to Sophie Turner, who studied mental illnesses in preparation for playing a Jean both drawn to and repelled by her new powers as Dark Phoenix; and to McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Xavier and Magneto, reprising their roles one more time with nuanced and skillful performances (plus or minus the writing of their characters). No one thought anyone could take over the roles created so well by Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, and these two have done a terrific job.

Nicholas Hoult does a capable job as Beast, emoting through untold layers of makeup and special effects, while Tye Sheridan and Alexandra Shipp are simply there as Cyclops and Storm, neither impressing nor failing as their characters. Evan Peters returns as Quicksilver, though criminally underused and muted from his terrific appearance in Days of Future Past. (Blink and you miss it: Chris Claremont is in the awards ceremony toward the beginning.) 

In the end, Dark Phoenix is not the best of the X-Men franchise and it doesn't really feel like the finale of the series, though it is unfair to compare it to Endgame even in that respect. But it is hardly the disaster that the critics and many fans have painted it. It makes more sense than Apocalypse and is far more entertaining than The Wolverine, but neither is it the delight of X-2 or Days of Future Past. Its dialogue was not nearly as clunky as X1 and the story was not so dreary as Logan. 

It is practically inevitable that the series (which was already quasi-rebooted with the First Class crew) will be rebooted again under the Disney umbrella. Swear all you want at the Mouse, but these days, just about everything they take over ends up vastly improved. I look forward to seeing what they will do with the X-Folk, with the minor regret that we may not see McAvoy and Fassbender at the chess board again. 

 

Elizabeth Donald is a freelance journalist, editor, author, photographer, grad student and instructor, as well as the editor of CultureGeek. In her spare time, she has no spare time. Find out more at donaldmedia.com.

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