Review: X-Men: Dark Phoenix

25 July 2019

Returning to the Dark Phoenix Saga 13 years after X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men: Dark Phoenix is tasked with retelling the Jean Grey story in a manner that is sufficiently fresh and respectful to the series’ first attempt, all the while winning the approval of new and dedicated fans. It goes without saying that Fox’s last outing has faced tremendous pressure from fans and critics alike, which is evident in the noticeably “safer” (but hardly boring) plot, which allots greater focus on Jean and utilises a relatively narrower consortium of X-Men heroes in comparison to previous releases.

Dark Phoenix follows Jean’s (Sophie Turner) internal struggle dealing with a fierce, ever-present alter ego that threatens not only herself, but those she cares for deeply. A past failure to keep these powers at bay is what brings her to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, a place where she is led to believe she truly belongs. This all changes, however, when Jean, largely at the coaxing of Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), is forced to confront her abilities during a visually spectacular rescue mission involving a group of stranded astronauts endangered by an encroaching cosmic entity. The mission, and the events that transpire, take a toll not only on Jean, but on the relationships that bind the X-Men together – Jean’s powers become increasingly dominant, and tensions flare between Professor X and some of his fellow companions, who accuse him of acting in his own best interests. A major turning point in the narrative occurs after the death of an iconic character, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), due in large part to Jean’s increasing instability.

While the death might be difficult for fans to accept, especially for occurring early on in the film, it nevertheless acts as an effective reminder that no-one is safe, and that Jean’s powers are not to be reckoned with. It also brings the US government into the fray, given that the event took place in broad daylight in a suburban area.

Unlike The Last Stand, which featured two concurrent and intertwining storylines, one following Jean and the other involving a scheme to “cure” mutants by depleting them of their abilities, Dark Phoenix spends greater time delving into the character of Jean, whose fear of her own powers takes her first to Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and then to the film’s power-hungry villain, Vuk (Jessica Chastain), who leads a gang of alien shape-shifters that, outside of human form, bear a striking resemblance to Groot. Unlike her brief role in X-Men: Apocalypse, which was tokenistic to say the least, Sophie Turner is given the chance to fully develop her character, and this time (in contrast to The Last Stand), Jean never completely loses her human side, at least not to the extent that her character is reduced to her computer-generated powers.

Vuk is the clear villain in this film. Whilst she is given sufficient backstory to justify her motives, her persona and identity is largely left a mystery. For fans of psychologically complex characters (what instantly comes to mind is Alfred Molina’s superb performance in Spiderman 2), this may come as a disappointment. That being said, when acknowledging the role Vuk plays in the narrative, one comes to the realisation that her mysteriousness is precisely what makes her an effective villain. Vuk is literally “out-of-this-world”, a quality Chastain effectively channels in her performance, and it is difficult not to admire her ability to put on eerily indecipherable facial expressions. Her simplicity as a character also ensures that fan favourites such as Professor X and Magneto are given their time to shine.

While not nearly as ground-breaking as X-Men: Days of Future Past, a high point in the series for its brave yet tactful handling of its first and second-generation actors, Dark Phoenix has its share of thrills. Jean’s first meeting with Magneto in a hidden sanctuary results in a power battle between the two characters, as Magneto desperately tries to retake control of a US army helicopter that has been hijacked by Jean. Fassbender, as always, provides a riveting performance as the series’ villain/anti-hero, and the plot ensures that there is never a lack of metal around. His powers are showed off in inventive ways during a high-speed train sequence in the final act of the film, when the X-Men are forced to put their differences aside and fight Vuk and her gang. Mind you, Magneto is much more “sensible” with his powers this time around, and you will not be seeing him cause such mass destruction as he did in The Last Stand, such as relocating the entire Golden Gate Bridge. Interestingly, Magneto is shown at times to harbour a concern, or at the very least, consideration, for non-mutant civilians, which places him in stark contrast to his character in The Last Stand. This could be explained by the fact that Magneto has matured over the years, as Dark Phoenix is meant to take place after the events of Apocalypse.

Thanks to the changes made to the canonical storyline by Days of Future Past, Dark Phoenix is free to tell its own story, and thus feels like a standalone film as opposed to a reboot. In many ways, Dark Phoenix can be seen as an experiment, a re-imagining not only of the events of The Last Stand, but of how we are led to see and understand its characters. However, Dark Phoenix never attempts to break from formula (which is all for the better), and its flashes of novelty are always restrained by the role its characters have to play; just as in every other film in the series, Professor X remains the voice of reason, and Magneto the voice of emotion. Only time will tell if Dark Phoenix deserves to be viewed among the series’ better films, but for the moment, Dark Phoenix is too much of a good thing to not be seen.

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