Duartion: 114 minutes
It’s the final installment in the X-Men tetralogy of prequels possibly marking the end of the franchise that began 19 years ago in the current form as we know it. While the jury is still out, industry insiders continue to speculate on the integration of X-Men back into the current universe of Marvel Studios which was split up across competing production houses before owner, Disney merged with Twentieth Century Fox.
Did they miss a beat with the setup of this scene? Could the mixed reviews from the recent “feminist” driven and diversified incarnations of Star Wars led to this area being a no-go zone to explore? Corporate restructures and politics aside, whether you enjoyed it or not, it was the movie that had to tie up loose ends of the prequels that began in 2011 and there are some inconsistent hits and misses with the shift of focus moving away from core characters Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Professor X (James McEvoy), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Beast (Nicholas Hault). The story revolves around Sophie Turner’s rendition of Jean (ex Sansa from Game of Thrones) who appeared in a supporting role in the last film.
Written by industry legend Chris Claremont and illustrated by artist John Byrne in 1980, the story in many ways represents the ultimate X-Men tale: Jean Grey is transformed into a force that not even her mutant family can comprehend. She becomes an outsider among outsiders, a being beyond the reach of even those closest to her.
“The Dark Phoenix saga is one of the most beloved of the X-Men series in its long lineage, primarily because it’s not a story where you have heroes and villains, black and white,” says Screenplay Writer, Director and Producer, Simon Kinberg.
“X-Men: Dark Phoenix was an opportunity to do something unique and more specific in ways that previous movies haven’t really had the opportunity to be,” said Director, Hutch Parker. “This film is a much more thorough investigation and much truer to Jean as a character. This feels very different, with a different tone and a different sense of cinematic style that is appropriately suited to the story we’re telling.”
When X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX opens, it’s 1992. The X-Men, now widely beloved superheroes who enjoy celebrity status, are called upon by the U.S. government to save imperiled astronauts whose mission has gone horribly wrong. Over the objections of Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), the team climbs into the X-Jet and heads out on a life- threatening rescue mission.
Among the stars, a mysterious cosmic entity targets Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), overwhelming her body and, at first, appearing to claim her life. When she does awaken, Jean initially feels strong, recharged. But back on Earth, she begins to realize that she’s attained powers beyond her understanding, or her control.
As she uncovers long-held secrets about her past—truths kept from her by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy)—she becomes increasingly destructive, lashing out at those closest to her in paroxysms of anger and despair. “What happens with Jean when she comes back from space is that she has a power she can’t control inside of her, and it’s escalating and intensifying everything inside Jean, which can unleash or liberate aspects of her personality,” Kinberg says. “That’s power, emotion and rage, and that’s passion.”
Desperate to help Jean regain her equilibrium, Raven reaches out to her as a mentor and friend. But Jean turns her fury on Raven, killing her. That shocking event rips apart the X-Men—some of the mutants insist that they must go to any lengths to save their friend, while others believe they need to stop her before any more lives are lost.
“What was most intriguing to me and why this story has spoken to so many people is that on a very human level, it’s about someone you love starting to unravel psychologically,” Kinberg says. “What happens when people lose themselves in real life is that their loved ones hold on and want to help or save them. Sometimes you get dragged down with them and there are others who, at a certain point, give up on them. This movie is about that question of, when do you let go and give up on someone you love.”
It was more than three years ago that Kinberg began to contemplate the idea of tackling a definitive version of the Dark Phoenix saga. At that point, production on 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse was nearing completion—that film told a disaster story writ large with elaborate set pieces and eye-popping special effects, which left less time for exploring the ever-evolving relationships among the mutants. When considering what adventure could logically follow in the wake of such a massive blockbuster style of film, Kinberg wanted a complete change of pace.
“I missed some of the more intimate character work of the other X-Men films,” he says. “I wanted to do something more grounded. Now was the time for a female-led superhero movie, and the DARK PHOENIX story is the most powerful female-led storyline in X-Men history,” Kinberg says. Additionally, Kinberg sought to craft an adventure that would offer a much more nuanced depiction of good and evil appropriate to our turbulent times. He wanted to emphasize the duality that can exist within the same person, the darkness and the light.
“We’ve gotten to a place where audiences are ready for a disruptive, radical story where a good guy goes bad, where a hero loses control and becomes destructive, even homicidal,” Kinberg says. “Comics, and even comic book moves, tend to tread in good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains. When the hero does something villainous or when a good guy does something bad, it’s shocking. You’re not sure what you’re rooting for.
“Right now, we’re living in a world that is a little upside-down politically and socially,” he continues. “Everything’s not as binary as it used to be. There’s not a lot of unity. Everybody feels like they’re splitting apart. A story about a character who is herself splitting apart, and as a result of that, is splitting apart the family of the X-Men, it felt very relevant.”
Months before he began writing the screenplay in earnest, Kinberg met with actress Sophie Turner to discuss his ambitious plans for the superhero drama. Turner had played Jean before in X-Men: Apocalypse, but X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX would require a different kind of commitment from the Game of Thrones star.
“I told her that her character essentially becomes schizophrenic, starts to lose her identity and ultimately it coalesces into two identities, which is Jean, who’s getting smaller and weaker, and Phoenix, who’s becoming stronger and stronger,” Kinberg says. “I told her she was going to have to play the trauma of losing her mind and killing people that she loves, and every possible color on the emotional spectrum.”
From the outset, Turner was excited by the opportunities afforded by the storyline and was eager to tackle the central role in the new film. “It was daunting,” says Turner. “Simon really wanted to put the story and Jean’s journey at the forefront because so often in superhero movies the real arcs and the stories can get lost behind the big, fabulous stunts.”
“The thing about the Jean Grey/Dark Phoenix story is that she’s not a villain, but she’s not a superhero who’s going to save the world and everything’s fine,” Turner adds. “She’s one of the few characters that’s very tormented and broken. There’s a realism to her, it’s painful and her experiences remind you of mental illness. It’s not too fantastical for people to comprehend. There’s no black or white with her, it’s a very gray area. It’s a struggle that’s very true to a lot of people and that’s why people love her.”
After Kinberg and Turner’s initial meeting, Kinberg began sending the actress research material to prepare her character. “I went home and found a ton of YouTube clips and other documents to send her about schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder to get her to start thinking intellectually about it before thinking about it emotionally,” says Kinberg. “She devoured it all and came back at me with a bunch of questions and ideas almost instantaneously.”
Their ongoing dialogue influenced Kinberg as he completed various drafts of the script. As he worked, another important story point emerged that called into question Charles Xavier’s role as the leader of the X-Men and the inadvertent catalyst behind Jean’s transformation. When the film opens, Charles is relishing his privileged status as the leader of the mutants—something he enjoys, Raven rightly points out, even though he’s rarely the one on the frontlines.
“There were a lot of things that I wanted to explore that we’ve never explored in these movies before—like Charles creating a superhero team called the X-Men, named after himself,” Kinberg says. “He’s a guy who lives in a mansion, who doesn’t leave that mansion and throws a whole lot of other people in harm’s way, many of them who are quite young. I wanted to examine that and problematize that. There’s an ego attached to that and a very patriarchal, paternalistic quality to it. We live in an age now where that doesn’t go without notice, and it has gone without notice for decades of the comic book and for now two decades of the movies.”
“Charles in this movie, he starts to believe his own hype,” said James McAvoy. “He’s on the cover of Time magazine. He is very much the public face of the X-Men—he’s congratulated for all their work. He’s the guy on the red carpets, shaking hands with presidents. He is very much like a father who loves his children and believes that they are capable of anything. That all sounds positive, but the downside of it is that, if they don’t achieve everything, if they fall short of the very lofty expectations the world and Charles has put on his team, he feels that somehow reflects badly on him.”
How does it stack up to the rest of the films in the series?
Dark Phoenix lacked the original finesse of First Class that saved the franchise from a reboot, kept the story going and refreshed the X-Men story’s outlook. The script was tight, the storyline well thought out and every sequence providing a thrilling moment building up to the next. A touching scene between Mystique and Beast in Dark Phoenix reminded us they are the final two survivors of the first class was a great use of history but not explored enough throughout the series, as the current movie played on that dynamic which seemed to be non-existent in the films preceding it.
Days of Future Past tied in the casts of the original movies and prequels with some clever time-jumping, and if the roller coaster of emotion and thrills needed to end the show with a bang it should have been an answer to this film, as this was the turning point where the franchise lost its edge.
Each new film focused on character development like we saw with Mystique who took charge in the professor’s absence, and exciting new characters introduced in the previous film like Quicksilver for instance in Apocalyse, but the payoff in the final film was a disappointment.
Through Michael Fassbender’s delivery of redeeming qualities in playing Magneto and the sass Jennifer Lawrence’s brought to Mystique, the performance of James McEvoy complements the complicated backstory of these characters who we originally saw at odds in 2000. James McEvoy’s performance has enabled us to see a more emotional side of Professor X and despite his prominence in all movies, somehow Patrick Stewart seems to still own the role.
Each movie moves forward a decade and the prequels have now caught up with the original story that opened the franchise. Much of the script relies on the emotional investment in relationships with characters played by different actors almost two decades ago. The shift in focus to the Jean character was never a core player in the prequel story and seems somewhat divisive in an attempt to capitalise on the recent ending and popularity of Game of Thrones. Many of the characters we invested in merely relegated to supporting status if not, glorified extras, and not even the spectacular fight sequences and cinematic prowess in visual effects was enough to alleviate an indifference to this standalone story of a new character taking screentime away from key characters we were looking to say goodbye while their fates were undecided. There are also some continuity issues with the script in terms of settings introduced and minor characters being killed off that we just didn’t care enough about to sympathise with. However, there were some tender moments with callbacks to earlier movies that surfaced every now again, more so in the ending.
If this were a ratings review site, it would be a 3 out of 5, but it’s not.
Cover Image: Sophie Turner — the immortal Sansa Stark from ‘Game of Thrones’ — showing enormous potential as Jean Grey in Dark Phoenix.’ (Twentieth Century Fox)