Undoubtedly, the biggest shockwave in recent Marvel movies and series was not a piece of comic book villain, but a click of Disney CEO Bob Iger’s pen. One by one, we’ve seen the reverberation of Disney’s Fox acquisition from last year, mostly in the form of Netflix series wrapping up so Disney can go full steam ahead (boot Willie) with its own movies and streaming service. This week sees an arguably bigger conclusion: the end of the latest X-Men film series.
Dark Phoenix sees the carpet being pulled under the teen reboot incarnation of the series, which began in 2011 X-Men: First Class and became an overwhelming mess in 2016 X-Men: Apocalypse† That latest entry tied a knot on an apparent trilogy, but this week’s one-off movie is a bummer for a surprising reason. Dark Phoenix begins with a glimmer of hope that this central cast could go somewhere interesting if they get another chance. Much of the film takes place as an incredible standalone graphic novel, with legitimate surprises, compelling intra-X conflicts, and a tighter focus on relationships that the latter film lost track of.
If you’re the kind of serial fan who can blow your mind with a crappy ending and neatly wrapped bow, Dark PhoenixThe best bits may not be good enough. But to that tedious conclusion, the film does its best to redeem half of the X-Men who never had a Hugh Jackman or Sir Patrick Stewart to lean on — and the result is a pleasant surprise in a crowded superhero movie ecosystem.
X-Women to the rescue
Dark Phoenix‘s best content revolves around a trio of badass leads: Jean Gray (Sophie Turner, Game of Thrones), Mystique (Academy Award winner Jennifer Lawrence), and a mysterious newcomer (Academy Award winner Jessica Chastain). I can point to a single, chilling line of over-serious dialogue and delivery from each actor mentioned, which, for a lore-packed series like X-Men, is like shooting four-under-par on a single hole in a golf course.
Turner in particular steps up to the board to juggle childhood trauma, growing up and endearing vulnerability, as she tries to make sense of her complicated past. The film opens with Jean flashing back to a childhood moment when her life was turned upside down, at which point a certain Dr. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, Glass) appears with an interest in her apparent mutant abilities.
The timeline then fast-forwards to the year 1992, when a core cast of seven well-known heroes (Jean Grey, Mystique, Cyclops, Storm, Nightcrawler, Beast and Quicksilver) blast into space to save the day. In this focused action sequence, each hero unleashes a superpower with incredible VFX work, most notably the wisps of smoke Nightcrawler leaves in its wake, as the inevitable “something isn’t right” twist plays out with logical reasoning for each character involved.
Jean experiences the most intense consequences of this mission, but we also see confrontations between other characters, all of whom clash with their own interpretations of what life as an American mutant should mean. For some of the cast, the answer is to just be kids – and as a result, we get some welcome comedic relief, along with a few sequences that balance teen melodrama with superhero stakes. The result reminded me of my favorite parts in Spider-Man Homecomingin which young characters deal with the usual coming-of-age trope of new forces versus old insecurities – though Dark Phoenix spreads that responsibility across more characters, making it feel more like Dawson’s butt-kicking Creek at times.
McAvoy also does a good job of portraying Xavier’s sometimes skewed priorities, while still making his character sympathetic and respectable – a fact that fuels a particularly interesting confrontation between his character and Lawrence’s. (Her recollection that “the women always save the men here” may seem bland out of context, but in the heat of the movie, the line makes for an impressive showdown of X-Men leadership.)
It’s a bird (eh, a phoenix), it’s a train
But the best relationship in Dark Phoenix is between Xavier and Jean, thanks to the way their similar mind-reading powers collide at dramatic moments. That’s all the more impressive when you consider that in some of their most intense conversations, the actors don’t stare at each other, but instead their conversations are thrown against the wall of mind-reading CGI effects. The resulting blob of chopped and messed up memories, whizzing and fading across a theater screen, could have been a dizzying, even unpleasant way of cutting corners. Instead of, Dark Phoenix‘s effects team provides cohesive visual themes to sell these vignettes.
In even better visual news, the movie’s battle sequences break through the usual open-air paradigm, myriad lasers that Marvel Cinematic Universe movies have hit us in the head with over the past five years or so. Focused camera angles stay at a certain impact point long enough before cutting away to the next hero or conflict. Characters do battle in clever ways, usually using the strength or weakness of each mutant paired nicely with an ally or foe. And early events make it clear that the outcome of no battle is predictable, adding weight and tension to each confrontation.
A train sequence at the end of the film is particularly good at selling the hierarchy of each mutant’s power. Weaker and stronger characters pit themselves against each other in ways that make rational sense without lessening the suspense of what’s to come – and this fact is brought out by a solid variety of camera angles in the car and above the train and key action moments in each. to sell.
In the end, none of these visually appealing things matter if we don’t care about Jean, a superhero who spends much of the movie peeling back onion layers of deceit and tragedy. She and Mystique are the focal points, with every major male character failing the inverted version of the Bechdel test by becoming obsessed with it. The result is both a refreshing gimmick and a masterpiece in progress. These two characters are pushing the boundaries of what the X-Men organization should be, and they both suffer — and generously carry — a major heartbreak along the way, giving viewers a chance to patch up our own coming-of-age metaphors. (I’d argue this was done well enough to possibly outdo the best comparables in Captain Marvel†
Without ruining the whole thing, though, I want to say that this particular praise pretty much crumbles once the movie ends. Jean, Xavier and a few other characters end Dark Phoenix with the sort of “no, there’s no sequel coming” tidbits spit in the face to survive and live through tragedy — a point that would have been great to stick around for another movie in this X-Men universe. Unfortunately. If this was a graphic novel I’d rip out the last few pages and feel pretty good that I’ve been through it all, and I urge anyone who likes this fork of the X-Men series to do the same, either in theaters or an eventual home viewing in a few months.