Review: DARK PHOENIX (2019)

Dark Phoenix Poster

So it was a while before I got around to seeing Dark Phoenix, but trust me, I didn’t watch any trailers beforehand. Or spend an abundance of time on the internet caring about what people had to say about the movie. I’m glad I didn’t, either, because I was able to see the movie with fresh eyes and my own opinion.

The events of Dark Phoenix take place not long after those of Apocalypse. In order to get a complete picture of Jean Grey, however, we must look at why she became Jean Grey in the first place. An eight-year-old Jean is on a trip with her parents, in a car driving down the highway. During an argument with her mother, Jean is suddenly overwhelmed with her newly surfaced powers of telepathy and telekinesis. Her pointed argument with her mother leaves her parents distracted, and the car is suddenly struck with both parents killed.

Jean survives the car crash and comes into the care of a benevolent soul – Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, Glass), at his School for Gifted Youngsters. When she is placed in his care, Xavier puts down a mental block in her head, purportedly to help her over the hurdle of PTSD.

Jean Grey (Sophie Turner, Game of Thrones) grows up at the school getting a handle on her mutant abilities. Being a very powerful mutant who possesses two substantial abilities, she becomes part of Xavier’s X-Men. In Dark Phoenix, the X-Men work as a high-profile group of mutants who, in addition to honing their abilities, act as a “face” for the mutant community as a whole.

The young X-Men have an impossible task to complete. This lineup of the X-Men is comprised of Beast (Nicholas Hoult, Mad Max: Fury Road), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, Mother!, The Hunger Games), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, The Tree of Life), Storm (Alexandra Shipp, Straight Outta Compton), Quicksilver (Evan Peters, Kick-Ass, X-Men: Days of Future Past) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee, Let Me In, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes).

Having grown out of secondary school age, Xavier feels they are ready for more responsibility. The X-Men are tasked with rescuing the astronauts of the 1992 Endeavour Space Shuttle, which has met the business end of a deadly solar flare. Mystique leads the team to save the astronauts.

But they are forced to leave Jean behind. Jean protects and keeps herself clinging to life in the ruined Endeavour shuttle by absorbing the creepy, almost sentient-seeming solar flare inside herself. After the group reconvenes and adjusts a bit, Nightcrawler teleports back aboard the Endeavour to recover Jean. She returns to the group’s shuttle healthy and unscarred, to the team’s surprise. The group arrives back on Earth, where they are hailed with jubilant celebrations from Professor X and the other students at Professor X’s School for Gifted Youngsters.

But Scott Summers notices something different about his girlfriend Jean Grey that he hadn’t before. She is more outgoing, more robust, with unusual vigor. Until, of course, her mental block suddenly breaks and releases her traumatic memories. Without warning, Jean Grey changes again, to the horror of those around her. Meanwhile, aliens are stealthily attacking Earth at a low-key dinner party (which is a little weird, but okay).

Dark Phoenix has a really neat premise, even if some of the dialogue in the movie is bad. I love that they didn’t waste a lot of time on exposition. For the most part, I didn’t need them to spell out every detail. Surprise, Magneto lives on a mutant refugee island called Genosha in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, when I did need details, they were not provided. For example, the D’Bari aliens. It feels like most moviegoers would need an explanation. The brevity on Erik’s story details should have freed up some time to spend on the D’Bari. I wanted to know more about how they were linked to the story and why they wanted Jean Grey. I also needed to know why they were mutant-power-stealing vampire plants. That was one area where it would have been worth having it spelled out for me.

I definitely crawled out from under my rock long enough to learn that, in particular, James McAvoy’s performance (as well as Sophie Turner’s) in Dark Phoenix were praised by critics. But I don’t feel as though James McAvoy’s performance measured up to his performances in other X-Men films. I couldn’t tell if he was meant to be a hero struggling with hubris, or doing a heel turn to contrast with Magneto’s face turn.

I enjoyed the supporting performances in Dark Phoenix. These are a talented bunch of actors who have done some amazing films away from the X-Men. My favorite was Nicholas Hoult’s Beast. He always turns out a good prissy scientist, and he and Fassbender have great chemistry. Michael Fassbender as Magneto was particularly good, but Fassbender has always given depth to the role. Jennifer Lawrence has always been a wonderful Mystique to watch grow up through all of the films, and that’s no different here. Quicksilver and Storm are also fun, though they are not in the movie nearly enough. It is a delight to see Kodi Smit-McPhee return as Nightcrawler, his joy in playing the character is palpable. I am a wee bit biased because I enjoyed the previous generation Nightcrawler so much, as played by Alan Cumming.

The “Mutants are people” minority allegory is an intriguing debate ongoing in the X-Men universe. Fighting for equal rights is part of a mutant’s whole life. The high-profile “save the astronauts” stunt is an interesting bid from Xavier to create acceptance of the mutant community. Others, like Magneto and the Genoshans, prefer to be left alone. This is where the good guy/bad guy line between Magneto and Professor X becomes blurred.

Sadly, Dark Phoenix’s poor writing makes Xavier’s story arc confusing and ham-handed. It’s unclear what his motivation is, in between glad-handing with the president and scheming at Cerebro’s deck. Erik Lensherr, by comparison, is almost a “good guy” in the plot to bring down Jean Grey, who is a nearly unstoppable, immensely powerful force. Seems a shame, Erik Lensherr always manages to depart from any X-Men movie on the terms of “always the villain, never the good guy”. We shouldn’t feel too sorry for Erik though, as Magneto has a bit more practice under his belt being the misunderstood type.

In terms of villains, Jessica Chastain Mama, Crimson Peak) is perfectly sinister in her role as Vuk, one of the shapeshifting D’Bari. She isn’t really given a lot of time to grow properly into her role, however. Jean Grey is the really scary one in the film, as it’s Jean Grey herself doing most of the violent, visceral damage. Sophie Turner owns her role as Jean Grey, making the character seem both believable and vulnerable. I bet the many years of the regal, poised Sophie Turner developing her acting chops on Game of Thrones had something to do with her killing it in the role of Jean Grey.

In short, I enjoyed Dark Phoenix. As with Captain Marvel, I liked seeing a woman at the forefront of the action rather than a man, or an ensemble cast. I wouldn’t sneeze at anyone’s need to see Dark Phoenix for curiosity’s sake.

If a movie can be good enough that I am focusing on the characters and their motivations, rather than an actor’s performance in his role, I’d say it’s a half-decent film, bad writing aside. The talented team of actors in Dark Phoenix goes all in deciding their characters’ fates. Go for Sophie Turner in a hair-raising performance as Jean Grey. Stay for Magneto and Professor X.

You don’t need to read minds to know that Dark Phoenix is now available in theatres everywhere as of June 7 from 20th Century Fox.

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