Dark Phoenix: Ending on a Whimper

A film about free will should not bring studio intervention to mind. Yet from the opening monologue to the closing one, Dark Phoenix exudes control. Like Jean Grey herself, it contains great energy and it looks good showing it off. But no matter how forcefully it presents its thesis – about the pursuit of being different, being understood, fighting the system – it contains no more of it than any old superhero movie, and far less than the best ­X-Men ones. I can’t help but think there were three or four better endings for this series along the way.

There’s irony in Simon Kinberg’s work here: he writes and directs this movie with the humility of a sinner (his treatment of this same comic arc in X-Men: The Last Stand is what he’s repenting for). His humble approach doesn’t help Dark Phoenix rise from Last Stand’s ashes. It just piles on more ash. This movie is passive and passable, made with great actors who seem like they’re fulfilling contracts and getting ahead on their Valium before they’ve even left the set. It’s not aggressively bad; it’s not aggressive about anything and that’s the problem. Fox’s ­X-Men saga might have needed closure; I tend to think it just needed to go out on a decent movie. Why did they hire someone who had never directed anything before? The fact that Bryan Singer or James Mangold aren’t sitting in that director’s chair is a travesty. This is just a workout for Kinberg. It’s awkward to watch him work.

His scenes are adequately conceived but executed with disinterest; the result feels more like a two-part TV movie than a blockbuster. You should know by now that faithfulness to the X-Men cinematic continuity is no longer an issue and hasn’t been for a while: this series ditched continuity as soon as it introduced time travel. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that fact contains an important truth of these X-Men prequels: they are not prequels at all. Nothing in them connects to anything that we’ve seen before. Call this new movie a twist on a plot-hole, or a spinoff in another timeframe. But it’s not a prequel.

I’m fine with this! All I want is a good X-Men movie; I don’t need “timeline closure.” But it means that there’s no reason for the series finale to be this particular story: the movies haven’t been leading up to Jean Grey (in this continuity, she was only lightly introduced one movie ago). This is important to realize: the final X-Men movie is about Jean Grey, not because that’s where they thought this series was heading or where it should conclude, but because it’s the comic book that everyone knows. Dark Phoenix is like making Return of the Jedi and deciding that Lando is the new hero.

So if it ditches the original ambition of the “prequels” to be the origin stories of characters that we know, what does Kinberg have left to accomplish? All a movie like Dark Phoenix had to do was write something compelling. It’s not restricted by the series’ past or future (after the Disney-Fox merger, this will be the last X-Men film as we know them). Failing in that basic responsibility to write a good narrative is where Kinberg makes Fox look dumb for thinking they could trust his repentance over someone else’s talent. The elements of Dark Phoenix that are good are all based on the basic talents of the people working within this soppy, repetitive script. They lift it up, but they cannot save it.

Why, for instance, would Jean Grey’s (Sophie Turner) origin be something as ho-hum as being in a car crash that kills her parents? Just in the last couple of years, we’ve seen this in Shazam! and Jessica Jones; it’s a tired sequence. It tells us almost nothing about her, and yet the script expects us to believe that it stands in for her entire psyche. Her first meeting with Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is more humane but even more forceful: he consuls her with isms (“What you do with your great gift is up to you”) but we don’t get any other scene showing their emotional progression. We see their meeting but skip their relationship. This is a huge problem, not for a series finale, but for any movie about two peoples’ feelings for each other.

Would a sweet father-daughter scene establishing the baseline of their togetherness, or even a training montage of Jean discovering her powers and the Professor protecting her self-worth with deception, really have been that inconvenient to write? The entire plot of Dark Phoenix hinges on understanding their bond and what it means to them. Yet, it devotes less time to it than we once did exploring Ice Man’s anxieties about “coming out” as mutant to his parents. Jean ends up with less lonely angst than Rogue, who endured life experiences much more traumatizing than a car crash. Kinberg set out to write the story of Jean and Charles meeting; all he comes up with is that they meet. There are no particulars that change the emotions of the outcome. There’s no energy in this discussion.

This means that even as Charles pleas for her to remember their love for each other (“Jean, I raised you”), to us this is still exposition. His words are both the climax of their relationship and the first time we’ve been made aware of it. This script is like a train that builds the tracks as it’s moving. It won’t crash, so long as it goes slow enough.

You’re left craving some investment in Dark Phoenix, something to latch onto that you know about these people, some simple truth of their upbringing or their natures shown through action instead of statements of purpose. I just want to see them interact and bounce off each other a little. This entire series hinges on our ability to think of mutants as humans, which as comic book fans is pretty easy for us to do. But why would you use that as an excuse to not address their humanity in even the simplest cinematic tradition? Kinberg was gifted with a house full of amazing people who at some point go to school, have breakfast, sleep around, save people, and he can only imagine them frowning as they read their life stories to each other.

Do we really need a laborious scene of Beast (Nicholas Hoult) explicating his love to Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence)? Why can’t we just see them finish each other’s sentences and kiss over Cheerios? Does Cyclop’s (Tye Sheridan) love for Jean have to be as mushy as a bad dime novel? People don’t talk to each other in this movie: they profess, even when it’s the simplest plot detail. A villain played by Jessica Chastain relates, “If we can control that power, we can resurrect our race." Which race? This is the first thing we know about her, and we learn almost nothing else. Everyone’s life stories and goals are clear in this movie, but in the way that they would be at a job interview. These people just tell you what they’re about.

Magneto drops into this movie with some passionate intentions; Kinberg changes Magneto’s mind about those intentions by writing a scene where someone tells him straight out to change his mind. When a villain tells Jean that her life is a lie, she becomes a villain herself. Dark Phoenix treats these people like robots. When they get new information, it’s like their program paradigms shift: they are one hundred percent devoted to the new information. Their minds do emotional turns like Rumbas bumping into table legs.

It gets worse. Kinberg directs these exchanges as dispassionately as he writes them: it’s not uncommon for a scene to transpire with a couple of seconds on shot A, a couple on shot B, repeated until the necessary plot has been divulged. This isn’t a problem in itself (David Fincher got some masterful suspense out of the technique in Zodiac), but it reveals the larger dilemma with Dark Phoenix. Since so little has been set up before this film, all of this dialoguing is necessary framework: it’s what we need to know. Dark Phoenix feels rushed, like they built the structure but don’t have time for the art. Leaving these characters and this universe this way after what we’ve seen of them in previous films is more tragic than if they had died.

The performances strain to save the workmanlike script by adding hints of human kindness or relatability. McAvoy particularly has a way about him of making a trivial exchange of plot seem cutting and spiritual (he has a simple scene with Hoult at a dinner table that may be the movie’s very best). You will find yourself taking his side, even when the movie tells you that his betrayal is world-endingly severe. Fassbender activates this movie when he enters it; he’s the only character in this prequel universe that has enough motivation behind him to warrant the action he’s thrown into. When he appears for the first time in Dark Phoenix, floating down off a precipice, I got the unmistakable impression that the movie had finally arrived.

By contrast, Lawrence reduces herself to a paycheck. She’s barely even present in Dark Phoenix, performs no stunts (she does her longest scene from a comfy chair), and meekly fades away. Remember the playful cruelty at the heart of that particular character when Rebecca Romijn played her in the original films? Lawrence has become worse than a pantomime: she’s a self-parody.

This makes the movie’s gender politics more awkward than they should be. I’m sure some people are obsessing over certain statements made by Dark Phoenix (one particularly by Mystique, concerning “X-Women,” which she says with the inflection of a mic-drop). There’s also repeated reference to Jean by Chastain’s character as “not your little girl anymore” (she’s speaking to Charles). I want to talk about this, not because I disapprove of the concept of subverting a genre or affirming a gender, but because it reveals problems that are at the center of Dark Phoenix itself.

The first has to do with context. Dark Phoenix never establishes that this is a power fantasy, as though Jean is someone to aspire to; it would have been fine to do so, but it never sells itself to the idea. So the idea that the Phoenix power allows Jean to break out of some oppressed state hinges on how well the script sets up Charles for a fall, and as I’ve said, it’s just as likely that you’ll be on his side. Jean’s life seems mostly fortunate and comfortable compared to some of the others; it makes her come off as distant, almost a whiner. A lot of this movie exploits trauma by failing to have any and acting like it does. It’s hard to get invested in that.

But the bigger problem is seeing this movie try to represent female superheroes in its action, especially compared to its predecessors. X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past had an idea of representation that involved writing Mystique a compelling part and giving her beliefs and desires an active role in the movie’s plot. That’s representation I can get behind. But now in Dark Phoenix, in the wake of other studios’ more aggressive campaigning, Kinberg reduces that character to a bit part, spouting affirmation in petty semantics rather than involving her in the emotions of the narrative. The shift from a bold subversion to a campaign slogan is jarring. If you’ve seen Dark Phoenix, you know that the plot wipes its nose on Mystique, even as it writes her lines proclaiming that the abuse is for her benefit. What a sorry state.

If Mystique had a point that the female members of the X-Men were undervalued, then she and Storm (Alexandra Shipp) should not be forgettable knick-knacks on the script’s cluttered shelf: we would see them become central and emotional, deep enough to have ambitions and flaws, as they were in Days of Future Past and Logan. Kinberg wouldn’t play with them and throw them away for a plot that boils down to four men being attracted to two women, if he really thought those women were worth more than a thematic mouthpiece. The irony of Dark Phoenix is that it’s the most vocal film in its series on this issue and it’s also the least proficient at acting to further it.

I’m making the prospect of enjoying Dark Phoenix seem grim. Truthfully, it’s not aggressive enough to feel grim. It’s humorless but I appreciate its ability to tackle issues without finding the need to laugh about them; a lack of quips at this point has become refreshing. It’s certainly not on the bottom of the X-Men pile. It’s a tired, affable superhero movie made by people who, in theory, wanted to make it.

But it ultimately comes down to Turner’s performance and though she labors through it, it comes up empty. The problem isn’t that she’s incapable of emoting, but that she emotes in ragged, unpredictable ways. There’s a disconnect in this movie between Jean’s murderous actions that she can’t control and those that seem to be genuine outbursts of someone disillusioned about their friends and family. She never embraces darkness (the movie, inappropriately I think, stays at a comfy PG-13) or expresses her free will: the Phoenix is neither a release of suppressed power nor a demonic possession. It’s a little of both (we even saw the Phoenix power in X-Men: Apocalypse, despite the fact that this movie opens with her getting possessed by it). The result is not a thinking character with a continuity of belief but a writer unsure of what his subject means. Kinberg makes Jean into a teen raging one minute over offenses that are about as heinous as your mom telling you your “dead” dad is alive and living with a cheerleader in Atlantic City, and the next minute sobbing over her own inability to control her emotions. The movie hopes to drive home the message that being possessed by power that makes her do terrible things is evidence that “her emotions make her strong.” This combination of heartlessness and ego is ironically less satisfying than it was in Last Stand. The whole thing culminates in an unrelated train sequence against an enemy that has almost nothing to do with the X-Men's emotional conflict with each other.

And that brings me to my ultimate caveat with this movie. I've read that Kinberg planned a final act that was intimate and emotional, with the X-Men fighting over their allegiances and being forced to take sides. Test audiences yawned so a second unit did a new ending with an action scene on a train. Magneto pulls some superpowered tricks, but is this really the right culmination of such an emotional character? Beast, lit by a spotlight, thrashes around in the fog, snarling; I was pleased to see him turn into an actor on stunt wires and not a CGI ragdoll. But why waste that anger on something barely related to the conflict of this cinematic universe? The film’s opening is downright gratifying: the X-Men team up, use their powers in clever ways, and save some people. An ending that explored their divisions and challenged the heart of the whole matter might have been terrific and Kinberg knew it. That's the caveat: Dark Phoenix might have been so much better, if it had tried to be more like what it was intended to be and less like what a few snarling test audiences expected of it.

As it is, emotions do not make Dark Phoenix strong. They expose its ultimate weakness: that no one was motivated to work within the established framework of these movies, more than to just repeat this familiar arc no matter the cost. The desperate attempts to be politically relevant just make the whole exercise sadder: this series, which started in 2000 by bringing the superhero movie to the modern age with a female main character, which re-established a sex object as a thinking human and built her into the nucleus of its ideological universe, this series ended with a disinterested plea to be perceived as relevant in a market whose profit margins had surpassed it. Listen to the final monologue again, about “evolving” and “accepting change” and “moving on from this world.” Tell me you don’t hear Disney telling you to think of the merger as a favor to you.

***

Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Simon Kinberg

Simon Kinberg

Charles Xavier/Professor X James McAvoy
Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto Michael Fassbender
Raven Darkholme/Mystique Jennifer Lawrence
Hank McCoy/Beast Nicholas Hoult
Jean Grey/Phoenix Sophie Turner
Scott Summers/Cyclops Tye Sheridan
Ororo Munroe/Storm Alexandra Shipp
Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler Kodi Smit-McPhee
Vuk Jessica Chastain

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