‘Dark Phoenix’ is the perfect example of why any other superhero movie that isn’t continuously chuckling at itself or at the characters even while battling or superhero films not produced to a set template are just doomed to fail at the writing board itself, and that is through no doing of their own. Call it serious bias, or call it plain brainwashing. It appalls me as a reviewer that a completely mediocre movie like ‘Captain Marvel’ that didn’t have a single exhilarating moment for me sits at a mind-numbingly high 78%, and ‘X-Men: Dark Phoenix’ could only manage a meager 21%. I by no means say that the latter is a knock out of the park: it is in fact quite flawed at places and mostly humorless, something that I could appreciate given the tone of the film but at the same time realize to be something that would affect general cinema-going audiences. Despite these flaws, and attack me for it if you might, it is better than half of the MCU movies out there that didn’t make me twitch an eye for anything going on the screen. ‘Infinity War’ and ‘Endgame’ do not belong in this ballpark of films and were rather excellent in my opinion, so I’d voluntarily keep them out of this discussion, but if you are tired of browsing the internet reading dour reviews of the latest and final Fox X-Men film from the saga that has by now sporadically spawned over two decades, know that you should give it a chance. Piece of advice though: don’t expect every superhero movie to be an MCU flick, which is what’s inevitably supposed to happen as Disney CEO Bob Iger announced the studio’s ambitious plans to merge the X-Men with the MCU. Without the variety, I don’t know where we’d be.
Personally, I have been a fan of the X-Men franchise and films from the first one that came out at the start of the millennium. For me, as I have mentioned in a ton of articles before, X-Men seemed like the perfect balance between the light and funny offerings of the MCU and the dark and intensely heavy outings of the erstwhile DCEU. It is also woefully remarkable how just the theme of the X-Men as characters is painfully resonant in today’s times too: that humans despise and ultimately depose of something that they can’t fathom and discriminate not just among themselves, but against anything that is not them, is what drives the stories of these mutants above regular superhero drivel. I have been a serious DC fan all my life and will continue to be one, but X-Men is one cherished Marvel property that I have grabbed a fair bit of copies of on pulp. Back to the film, admittedly so, ‘Dark Phoenix’ tips a bit over to the darker side here, and while yet again, I don’t have a problem with it seeing as though it held my attention for all its 104 minute runtime, I can see why the “critics” would have a problem with it. God forbid a movie about super-powered mutated beings tackle some serious themes without a forced joke. The comparisons can go on and on, but that still wouldn’t decipher as to why clearly a disconnect exists in between the professionals and the thousands of movie goers that resonate with me here. Now being a fan, I would have wanted to see the characters, only now looking to being completely developed, progress in this universe and explore their powers and the family they have been a part of since the beginning. However, if the end seems a little abrupt to you, it’s because it was, ushered in involuntarily on account of billions in commerce between Fox and Disney, things that you and I have little control over. However, this is the film that we are left with, and since it isn’t half as bad as people are making it out to be, I will continue my crusade in the sections that follow. Read on.
Let us agree on one thing, this franchise, fledgling as it may be, can easily be looked at in its post reboot and pre reboot phase, the reboot being ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’. While I thought that was a fairly consistently entertaining film all through, not without its set of problems though, what it essentially allowed the makers to do was to completely and willfully ignore the events of the films they knew they goofed up in. If I were to make a list of those, ‘The Last Stand’ and ‘Origins’ would most definitely top that, and I might not be too wrong in saying that it was the events of these two that the X-Men timeline sought to wipe, while at the same time bringing in a number of younger mutants to replace an entire seasoned generation. Needless to say, Fox and the franchise tried to take full advantage of that and even seemed to be going in the right direction, before they quickly came crashing down with ‘Apocalypse’ which was standard in every sense that the word embodies. I am told that even ‘Logan’ somehow ties up into the rebooted universe into the future, but I’d rather think of it as a standalone western swansong for Wolverine and Hugh Jackman. Coming back to this film, Simon Kinberg, who has written every X-Men film since and including ‘The Last Stand’ and a frequent collaborator of Bryan Singer’s felt that the Dark Phoenix saga that they partially adapted in ‘The Last Stand’ was not dealt with in a very just manner, given the iconic storyline that it is in the X-Men comics canon, with virtually every media form having presented it until now. Following Singer’s departure from the franchise, Kinberg took up directing for the next X-Men film and ‘Dark Phoenix’ is now a faithful adaptation of the same iconic storyline in its own, taking place in the rebooted X-Men universe. Safe to say, the movie might be many things for many different people, but I am happy to report that the premise and the proceedings stay more or less faithful to the source material this time around, and no unnecessary story arcs are crammed in for the sake of it. While this may not be the perfect farewell most of us may have hoped for, comic book accuracy is one box the makers carefully tick. Onwards to the plot now.
The film generically opens with a flashback sequence from Jean Grey’s childhood, staged in 1975, wherein a young Jean currently unaware of her powers, unknowingly and unintentionally causes an accident while travelling with her parents in a car that presumably kills both of them. Now orphaned, Jean awaits her fate to be “taken in” by somebody, while Professor Xavier comes to her aid, and fully aware of her capabilities, offers to take her in and train and hone her at the Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.
Back to the present timeline for the X-Men set in 1992 after the events of ‘Apocalypse’ that outed the X-Men as super-powered beings that the planet needed, they are shown to have a very positive relationship with the humans, who now seem to laud the X-Men as heroes. There is even the dedicated POTUS to Professor X hotline that they use in case of emergencies, and one such emergency strikes when the Endeavour space shuttle sends a distress signal back on Earth after reportedly being hit by a solar flare. The X-Men are called to task and quickly respond to the call with the team under Raven’s leadership, including Cyclops, Jean, Beast, Nightcrawler, Storm and yet again a scene-stealing Quicksilver, but criminally underutilized in only two sequences, sans a song, and that to me is blasphemy especially given what magic he created in the two sequences respectively from ‘Days of Future Past’ and ‘Apocalypse’. Charles stays back in the Cerebro to communicate with them and the control station remotely. The X-Men are able to save all of the astronauts, but not until it is too late for Jean alone being hit by what is presumably the solar flare. After a blinding explosion, she survives seemingly having absorbed the flare itself, and returns home, where they are all hailed as heroes, while Charles is even felicitated. Friction develops between Charles and Raven, as the latter calls out Charles’ ego on putting the entire team and the mission in mortal danger over saving the life of one astronaut, just as Charles to presses that the peace they have attained with humans is fragile and just a misdoing away from being undone again.
Meanwhile, Jean’s behavior grows increasingly strange as a result of the activity in space, while here telepathic abilities seem to grow more powerful. It is revealed that Charles had modified and buried the memory of her parent’s accident and several others in an attempt to spare her the pain and rage growing up and to protect her, while Jean in her overpowered form is able to take over both Cerebro and Charles. She learns that her biological father was still alive and had chosen to give her up to Charles following the accident and citing of her that she couldn’t be handled or contained. She holds Charles responsible for her current state, and her Phoenix persona continues to take over her. Just as the X-Men arrive to take her home, she ends up attacking a handful of policemen and killing Raven in a fit of rage that wasn’t entirely her doing, before flying away. The grieving X-Men have a falling out as Hank McCoy (Beast) blames the Professor for Raven’s death by tapping into Jean’s mind and leaves.
Coming to the primary antagonists of the film, the D’Bari are an alien race of shapeshifters that inconspicuously arrive on Earth and assume the identities of a few humans, quickly learning their language to meld in. They are on the look out for the “Phoenix Force”, the cosmic entity that has housed itself inside Jean. It is later revealed that the solar flare is indeed the “Phoenix Force” and that the D’Bari watched the entire incident of the force being absorbed by Jean rather than killing her, after the force destroyed their home planet making them galactic refugees. A hurting Jean then seeks refuge with Magneto and his group of mutants called the Brotherhood, but she is denied after she attacks the U.S. Military forces tasked with taking her down, with Magneto still oblivious to Raven’s death at her hands. Desolate, she is caught drinking at a bar by Vuk, the leader of the D’Bari who breaks the news to her about her powers being uncontrollable, and talks her into unleashing her full potential. Magneto and Beast join hands and intend to take down Jean in New York. Outside the D’Bari’s hideout, the remaining X-Men and the Brotherhood battle it out in opposition while an angered Erik confronts her, only to be quickly overpowered by her. She then has a confrontation with Charles too, who reminds her to look for the good within her again, and find herself, while Vuk begins absorbing the powers of the Phoenix Force. While only halfway through, the process is interrupted by Cyclops, just as the US Security forces arrive and neutralise all mutants including Jean to put them on a train to a secret facility.
While on its way, the train is attacked by the D’Bari and Vuk who now seeks to complete the transfer of powers from Jean to herself. As the soldiers are overpowered by the aliens, the mutants are set free to help them combat the threat. What follows is some of the best fast paced action in the X-Men movies you may have seen till date, with Magneto, Nightcrawler and Storm especially being on an absolute roll. Within a decade atleast, I can say that the powers of atleast the last two mutants have never been on better display. Needless to say, all of them are overpowered by Vuk who now partially possesses the Phoenix powers, until she confronts Jean, who then unleashes her full potential and takes Vuk to space, before killing her and disappearing as a white flush of light in the sky, later revealed to be an almost cosmic outline of a phoenix. Charles remarks that Jean is now finally free.
The Ending, Explained
What comprises of the ending is a series of quickly put together shots that explore the aftermath of Jean’s apparent death with her Phoenix persona unleashed. Charles retires from the institute as the mutants look to a more hopeful, new beginning, just as Hank takes over responsibilities as Dean of the Institute. In Paris, Erik and Charles reunite for a final game of chess, just as a flaming phoenix is shown soaring across the sky. While this is in no way meant to allude to the possibility of Jean being alive and present in any sequels, especially given that there are going to be none, what it does signify is that Jean is probably not dead. She has escalated to a higher form of living not too unlike the Phoenix Force itself, becoming a manifestation and a bearer of it. She is now almost omniscient, all knowing and all present, much more powerful than any other Earthly mutant, and that she is now finally “free” in the most literal sense: free from the limiting confines of her brain that being one of a telepath was complicated enough already, and free to soar just as a phoenix would. However, more than that, I absolutely adore the fact that the film sought to close the way it did, with Charles and Erik keeping aside their personal differences and indulging in a game of chess: Classic Professor X and Magneto.
I probably don’t need to put more words in establishing that within the course of a single day of its release, ‘Dark Phoenix’ has been unfairly bashed left, right and centre. However, I may use a few more words to tell you that it is a perfectly watchable film, with visibly more skill put in than half of the MCU movies out there. I can be only apologetic that the Marvel films that are by themselves no means bad films, end up bearing the brunt of the comparisons, but that is bound to happen when mediocre movies are hailed as masterpieces owing to brand. To put it on a scale, ‘Dark Phoenix’ is definitely better than ‘Apocalypse’ in its own franchise, and while I do not believe it could have benefitted from a lighter touch, it sure could have been tighter around the edges with more exciting sequences pushed in. The cast are all fairly good, especially Sophie Turner who somewhat effectively channels the rage and confusion of the Phoenix, and now series veterans Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy, both charming in their roles of Magneto and Charles Xavier. The interesting thing to note here is that the film chooses to present these two remarkable individuals too as broken, imperfect beings. Coming to the other aspects of the film, this is one of the more forgettable Hans Zimmer scores, but despite that is significantly different and better than any recent superhero movie score you may have heard. The cinematography is meticulous, and the VFX is on point, especially in the Phoenix sequences. The emotional core of the story finds its right spot, and while ‘Dark Phoenix’ may take some time to get the ball rolling, its finale train sequence is what best represents the X-Men: fighting together as a family. This is a film not without its flaws that deserved better. Give it a chance while you still can.