Those were among some of the key questions outlining Marvel’s original Dark Phoenix saga, which I read as a teenager with the glee and eagerness of a nerdy schoolboy starved for the impossible. The plight of poor Jean, who fell from space in a shuttle and emerged from New York harbor reborn as the child of light, represented the pinnacle of that in a narrative where it was easy to lose sight of individual motives, agendas or general story progressions. The Phoenix didn’t just offer a new facet in the mutant identity, it applied a dramatic intensity that transcended the medium’s window of sight. But her capacity to save life, to absorb all the misdeeds of an empire that threatened to unravel the universe, was too great a gift for a single person to wield, and inevitably that power ran wild and unrestrained in a climax that had devastating ramifications. Rewrites and retcons aside, the original arc of Jean Grey’s tragedy is rarely away from the lips of anyone who talks about great stories in comic books.
You know that, I know that, and everyone sitting in the dark watching “Dark Phoenix” knows that, but those who made this movie are directing it as if all their knowledge was supplied by a single pass-through of cliff-notes on Wikipedia summary screen. What results is a thoughtless and mechanical descent into nonsense, with nothing standing at the center other than a myriad of conflicting arcs and questionable motives. Even poor Sophie Turner, who is asked to embody the title being, seems lost in a haze created by the screenplay, which reduces her to two primary behaviors: looking concerned and frightened, or projecting venomous gazes like a predator closing in on fresh kills. Some movies might get away with such one-note approaches if they were surrounded by something notable, but Simon Kinberg’s movie lacks a basic sense of scope, and peoples’ motives flip so consistently that one wonders if the Phoenix wiping out the whole cast wouldn’t just be an act of mercy.
The scene is set for this early on, when the X-Men are summoned by the U.S. government to aid in the rescue of astronauts. Their spacecraft has been rendered useless after encountering a solar disturbance above Earth’s orbit, and what they see upon arrival is ship left in shambles by a strange fiery energy spotted in the periphery. The moment is set for one of the X-Men to teleport and recover the survivors back to the safety of their ship, before it is realized that the shuttle captain is floating aimlessly underneath the spacecraft. Jean believes she can hold the approaching flare at bay long enough to allow that one last rescue, but her attempt concludes with the body of energy passing right through her, where it is absorbed on contact. Frightening, you think? Her peers think so too, especially after she awakens from the ordeal with no sign of injury or lasting trauma. Only much later, without warning, do they realize that she was exposed to something that amplifies her mutant abilities well above the trajectory of control, and that in turn leads to a scene where an attempt to talk her down from a fit of anger has devastating ramifications for the nervous ensemble.
Meanwhile, a ridiculous subplot – one shamelessly rewritten from the original source, mind you – involves the possession of a human character played by Jessica Chastain, by an alien being from a distant star system that had previously been destroyed by the celestial beast inhabiting Jean’s body. She has brought along a cluster of surviving peers to siphon the energy away from the mutant and rebuild their destroyed civilization, but of course that would require darker plans: namely the destruction of humanity in order to use the Earth as their new habitat. None of the core cast realize this until long after a division of mutants has slotted them into an obligatory feud: half want to protect Jean in order to save her from her impending insanity, and the other half (including once close friends) want to murder her (not for safety, mind you, but out of plain old revenge). This all stands on a precipice of a device that forces Xavier to consider the way he has nurtured Jean all these past years: by burying terrible secrets from her knowledge. Has this proven to be a final catalyst for amplifying her need to cause chaos? Or was he doing the right thing by hiding her away from traumas that would otherwise destroy her emotional well-being?
There are attempts to get into Jean’s mind to understand this struggle, but the screenplay (also penned by Kinberg) only digs so deep; to go anywhere beyond a one-note observation would reduce his opportunity to fill the screen with ambitious visuals and cutting-edge special effects. They are done well, to be sure. One sequence, involving an ambitious chase aboard a train at night when the X-Men must decide on killing Jean or protecting her from the alien beings who have come to collect her, is staged with the gusto of the greater action set pieces in the MCU films. But we can only accept them on their own, outside of their foundations, because nothing is formulated well enough around them to position it all in a relevant story. They exist without plausible contexts. Jean’s presence, meanwhile, gradually erodes from an identity of insecurities into one of passive existence, and the final act does little with her other than make her a central set piece in a parade of action and violence that refuses to involve her. Maybe that’s the dichotomy of making your film’s title character someone as dangerous as the Dark Phoenix; with one flick of a wrist, all of this would otherwise be over.
Who are we supposed to root for here: poor conflicted Jean, the aliens, or the people caught in the middle of what seems like a brewing battle for the cosmos? The movie wants to be too much for too many. And that’s as audacious a claim as any you could make about any movie in this franchise, especially after events of previous installments involving mutant extinction (“The Last Stand”), impending collapses of civilization (“Apocalypse”), rewrites in time travel (“Days of Future Past”) and the tragic death of a supposedly-immortal hero (“Logan”). Perhaps it’s fitting this all is winding down now after two decades of audacious productions, in a moment that plays like a funeral march for characters that no longer have purpose in the very genre they helped establish. If the first “X-Men” movie awakened something in us that was starved for this experience, “Dark Phoenix” forces it over the edge and into the abyss of ambivalence.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Action/Adventure (US); 2019; Rated PG-13; Running Time: 113 Minutes
James McAvoy: Charles Xavier
Michael Fassbender: Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto
Jennifer Lawrence: Raven/Mystique
Nicholas Hoult: Hank McCoy/Beast
Sophie Turner: Jean Grey/Phoenix
Tye Sheridan: Scott Summers/Cyclops
Produced by Daniel Auclair, Todd Hallowell, Simon Kinberg, Stan Lee, Kathleen McGill, Josh McLaglen, Hutch Parker and Lauren Shuler Donner; Directed and written by Simon Kinberg; based on the story by John Byrne, Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum