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Thursday, June 6, 2019

Dark Phoenix

DARK PHOENIX

** SPOILERS **

"We're all that's left, the last of the First Class," Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) tells Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and we feel the significance of how long these X-Men have known each other and how long we, in turn, have known them. Though you'd never know it by looking at them, Mystique and Beast, along with Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), have known each other since 1962. They are indeed the last of X-Men: First Class, which rebooted the X-Men saga into a new continuity. Like the four X-Men founders, writer-director Simon Kinberg's Dark Phoenix is the last of this quadrilogy of films and also the last of the 19-year saga of X-Men movies from Fox. It's both a continuation and a finale about endings, rebirths, and... evolution. The film strains and teeters under all of that weight and it never truly takes flight (it tries but can't quite). And yet, it's still a pleasure to be with these X-Men after all of these years.

While it seems so on the surface, Dark Phoenix is thankfully not a retread of X-Men: The Last Stand. Instead, it feels like a glorified TV episode, which is both a good and bad thing. Good because at least it strives to be Peak TV and hits some of those dramatic notes; bad because it still feels undercooked and it could be grander, but it isn't. What is here, though, is rather interesting. We know the beats of the Dark Phoenix Saga story by heart, even if you've never read the comic: Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is a powerful mutant psychic with a tragic past (in this telling, her powers caused the death of her mother when she was 8) who is imbued with a cosmic force from outer space that she can't control. The Phoenix Force (though it isn't called that) feeds on her rage and trauma, which was kept in check by psychic walls secretly built by Professor X, and transforms her into a malevolent, god-like being. The X-Men try to bring her back to the Jean they know and it ends in tragedy.

Dark Phoenix's first act is its best: the year is 1992 (though you'd never know it from the fashion or music) and the X-Men are beloved, rock star superheroes on call from the President of the United States. (Xavier even has an X-Phone hotline to the POTUS.) When the space shuttle Endeavor is damaged by a solar flare, Mystique leads her team of X-Men, including Beast, Jean, Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) into space on a rescue mission. The X-Men save the astronauts but Jean is struck by the solar flare, which is actually the cosmic Phoenix Force. Instead of dying, Jean's powers grow "off the charts" and the walls in her mind Xavier built come crashing down. The cool thing about all of this is seeing something we've never seen before: the X-Men outright loved by the public. They get a standing ovation from the young students at the Xavier School and they even have a party in the woods with Dazzler (Halston Sage) as the entertainment. Meanwhile, Xavier soaks up adulation with all of the false modesty he can muster at a black-tie gala. All of this is accompanied by a groovy Hans Zimmer score that alternates from heroic bombast to eerie foreboding as the Phoenix grows Dark. 

Mystique and Charles have been friends since the 1940s but they've never really seen eye-to-eye. She thinks his lifelong patriarchy and ego-trips (she even calls out the sexist "X-Men" name) will lead to disaster - and she's right. He argues that he's finally achieved his dream - humans trusting mutants and regarding them as heroes - and he's also right that mutants are only one bad day from becoming public enemy number one again. That day comes immediately when the newly Dark Phoenix-ed Jean escapes the X-Mansion; she realizes that Xavier has lied to her for 17 years and that her father is actually alive. Just like in The Last Stand, there's a confrontation at Jean's childhood home and an X-Man dies, but this time it's Mystique, whom Jean kills (and not accidentally). Jennifer Lawrence's reluctant but heroic shapeshifter dies with a whimper and this splits the X-Men apart, with Beast blaming Xavier since they are two of the three men who have loved Mystique since 1962. 

Meanwhile, Jean seeks out the third man who loved Mystique: Magneto, who now runs a mutant refuge on the island of Genosha. Unlike Ian McKellan's Magneto, who wanted to seduce Dark Phoenix into his Brotherhood, Fassbender's version doesn't want anything to do with Jean. But someone who does is Vuk (Jessica Chastain), the leader of shapeshifting aliens called the D'Bari, who lost her whole planet to the Phoenix Force. Vuk plays the role of seducer to Jean, offering to teach her how to control her power, but what she really wants is the Phoenix Force itself, which she is somehow also strong enough to absorb. The movie is unclear about how Vuk can also be its host, but Vuk doesn't mince words that she doesn't care about humans and she wants the Phoenix Force so the D'Bari can take over our planet. The whole thing ends with a mutant brawl on a block outside Central Park West, which leads to all of the X-Men captured on a train by the US Military, which then leads to a big train fight between the X-Men and the D'Bari where Jean fully evolves into the Phoenix Force. Unlike the comics or The Last Stand, Jean doesn't die. Rather, Dark Phoenix fulfills the original voiceover by Patrick Stewart's Professor X in the first X-Men movie: "Mutation. It's the key to evolution." Jean transcends her mortal form and embraces her destiny as a cosmic being. While it doesn't quite stick the landing, it's still a better ending to this story.

Just as Charles argued in favor of Jean despite the chaos she caused, I would argue that there is a lot of good in Dark Phoenix. There's more intimacy between Tye Sheridan's Scott and Sophie Turner's Jean than there ever was between Famke Janssen's Jean and James Marsden's Scott (it's easier when there's no Wolverine at all in Dark Phoenix). Cyclops even drops the F-bomb - "I will fucking kill you!" - at Magneto. Alexandra Shipp's Storm also has more to do and is a better fighter (and lightning thrower) than Halle Berry's version, while Kodi Smit-McPhee's Nightcrawler is the MVP and has some cool action moments - the X-Men could not have accomplished anything in this film without his BAMFs. Alas, Evan Peters' Quicksilver is short-changed; Dark Phoenix doesn't attempt a three-peat of the superspeed rescue sequences set to a pop song that were memorable highlights of X-Men: Days of Future Past and X-Men: Apocalypse. However, there's a clever reversal of one of McKellan's signature quips: "You homo sapiens and your guns!" This time, Fassbender's Magneto uses a trainful of guns as weapons and opens fire on Vuk.

As the centerpiece of the film, Turner has much more inner turmoil to play and she digs deep. Also - this is important - no X-Man has to save Jean as she can save herself, thank you very much. Still, Jean isn't exactly a witty conversationalist and she doesn't have much of a personality, whether or not she's malevolently powerful. Dark Phoenix ends not unlike The Dark Knight Rises, with Charles Xavier retired in Paris and Magneto still looking to play his old friend in a game of chess. It's a low key and muted ending to the grand, messy, but weird and wonderful X-Men saga, but Dark Phoenix also contains a meta-joke for the X-Men's future: when the military captures the X-Men and transports them to the Mutant Containment Unit. The X-Men didn't make it to the MCU in Dark Phoenix but they'll get there regardless soon enough. And when the next evolution of the X-Men begins in the MCU, we hope it'll also be first class.

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