Dark Phoenix (2019)
Written & Directed by Simon Kinberg
If a superhero is released in theaters without the promise of a dozen sequels, does it matter if we see it?
This is a legitimate question to ask ourselves in an age of perpetually existing cinematic universes. The X-Men franchise has always been an odd duck in the post-MCU landscape, with its muddled timelines and no strong throughline existing between films. Days of Future Past (2014) was the most successful in terms of box office crossing the $700 million line, but I don’t ever see too many people talk about how much they enjoyed that film. I found it to be okay, a competently made follow up to the much better First Class. The most successful movies in Fox’s superhero stable have the tangentially connected near-spoofs of Deadpool and Deadpool 2, with the bleak dystopian Logan not far behind. The X-Men team itself has suffered not just from a lack of continuity but in a stable roster of characters for audiences to become emotionally invested in. Nothing that Dark Phoenix does helps remedy these problems and leaves a sour taste in the mouth upon its conclusion.
The X-Men, who are now heralded as heroes by the public, are called upon to aid the space shuttle Endeavor which has suffered a malfunction. When they arrive in space, the mutants find an incalculably powerful energy storm is the culprit. Their effort to save the shuttle crew leaves Jean Grey, the resident telekinetic, struck down by the cosmic force. Arriving back on Earth, she appears to be fine but quickly manifests this new destructive persona of the Phoenix. Also, there are shape-shifting aliens (never named the Skrull, but c’ mon) who want to harness the power for themselves and plan on wiping out life on Earth to start their species anew. What follows is lots of sequences showcasing the abilities of the various X-Men but very little substantive character development so that we have zero emotional stakes and feel nothing when anyone on screen dies.
I fail to see the reasoning behind hiring the same person who wrote X-Men: The Last Stand which got Jean Grey and the Phoenix storyline so woefully to wrong to write and direct what is essentially a remake of that movie. Franchise mainstay Bryan Singer chose not to return to direct, though at this point his career I don’t think he’ll be the one making those choices any longer. Instead, Kinberg decided to make his directorial debut with this lame duck entry into a franchise that, the next time we see it, will have been absorbed into the monolith that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I suspect this will exist in the record books as an oddity, a strange vestigial picture that fits awkwardly into its continuity and was virtually erased of all importance meta-textually.
I like that an effort was made to stay somewhat true to the comic book origins of the Phoenix character with the cosmic Phoenix Force, but beyond that, we once again get a story that hinges more on Jean Grey having a dangerously dualistic personality than her coming to terms with her powers. In the 1980s and 90s, this was a weird trend with female heroes like the Invisible Woman and Polaris as just two heroines given edgy, sexier dark personalities. I mean, I would write them better instead of using the evil twin gimmick, but what do I know?
There’s just no way to encapsulate the Phoenix Saga in a single film as Kinberg has done twice. The scope of this story should be epic, it was a space opera in the pages of the X-Men comic, but films keep trying to make it a grounded, Earth-based story. If I were helming the next redo of this, as I would expect Marvel will do down the road, I would look for something that aesthetically resembles the recent Star Wars revitalization. Regardless of how you feel about those movies, the tone of the trailers with that grand sweeping score and fantastic alien vistas should be what the Phoenix Saga should look and feel like. I know adaptation involves cutting away the chaff and focus on the central themes and arcs, but part of what makes the Phoenix Saga such a classic comic storyline is taking the X-Men out of their element. It shouldn’t be a story that focuses on the prejudicial themes surrounding the characters but could be about building the bonds between the characters.
Do a trilogy of films to break up the story. The first movie could be mostly Earth-based and show Jean getting the Phoenix Force through similar circumstances as this movie. You also introduce the Sh’iar Empire and Lilandra eventually ending with Jean escaping into space with both the Sh’iar and X-Men in tow. The second film could be like that Empire sort of bleak movie, the X-Men visiting alien worlds and ending up split apart, smaller groups of them tackling pieces of the overall conflict. This allows excellent character interaction moments and for those emotional bonds to be forged. The third movie would give that ultimate showdown, Jean sacrificing herself and that way Cyclops’ pain would have greater resonance with the audience. We’d feel the scope of his journey, leaving Earth, jumping into the unknown, finding her but ultimately losing her. You can’t do justice to a story like this in an hour and forty minutes.
I have no idea what plans Marvel has in store for these characters when they eventually fold them into their universe. It sounds like there won’t be any mutants showing up soon in the next phase of their pictures so it’ll likely be a good five years or so before we have a chance to see the X-Men pop back up. Here’s hoping they put the property in the hands of people who are ready to tell epic yet character-driven stories and maybe we’ll finally get a film that lives up to the legacy of these superheroes.