One of the most well-known storylines in comic book history has been adapted for the screen, again, in X-Men: Dark Phoenix, the 12th film in the Fox X-Men franchise – and, very likely, final one to feature this cast of characters following the sale of 20th Century Fox to Disney.
The Dark Phoenix Saga, written by Chris Claremont in the pages of Uncanny X-Men in the late 1970s, is not only one of the most famous events in the pages of X-Men but one of the best-regarded of all Marvel comic book storylines; the story of Jean Grey’s meteoric rise, corruption, and fall broke new ground for the series, and helped launch the X-Men into the realm of Marvel’s hottest properties.
The Phoenix saga was memorably adapted in the 1990s X-Men animated TV show, and set up for a big screen adaptation in Bryan Singer’s X2 before being mangled as an afterthought in X-Men: The Last Stand, widely regarded as the worst of all the X-Men movies.
Ripe for re-adaptation, here it is again, and in much greater focus. But the writer-director behind Dark Phoenix, Simon Kinberg, was also responsible (with Zak Penn) for the screenplay to 2006’s The Last Stand, and his new take bears a lot of more similarities to his earlier screenplay versus the original intergalactic comic book saga.
Grounding the events of the film on Earth, Dark Phoenix focuses on the internal struggle of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) to control her powers; in an opening sequence that is almost identical to one seen just a few months ago in Shazam!, a young Jean inadvertently causes a fatal car crash.
Years later, in the mid-1980s, the X-Men are a burgeoning superhero group with a direct line to the White House who are called upon for aid during a space shuttle disaster. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) leads a team out of the Earth’s atmosphere, but the mission nearly turns into a disaster when Jean is ravaged by “cosmic rays” and left floating in space.
Those rays amplify Jean’s powers, but the planet-devouring Dark Phoenix of the comics gives way to more of an angsty teenager in this film version: after discovering that Professor X (James McAvoy) has lied to her throughout her life, she leaves the X-Men in search of truths about her past.
McAvoy’s Professor, by the way, is one of strangest versions of Charles Xavier to hit the big screen yet: an alcoholic obsessed with his increasing political influence, he pushes his X-Men past their limits and alienates not only Jean Grey but also Mystique and Beast (Nicholas Hoult). He’s an outright villain for much of the film, but abruptly turns heroic without any hint of a character arc during the climax.
After two incidents during which Jean Grey loses control of her powers and causes bad P.R. for mutantkind, a minor civil war breaks out regarding her future, with Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) duking it out with Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and two other mutants the film doesn’t even see fit to give names or clear fates; they’re Ariki (Andrew Stehlin) and Selene Gallio (Kota Eberhardt), IMDb tells me.
By the way, Evan Peters’ scene-stealing Quicksilver, highlight of the last two X-Men movies, Days of Future Past and Apocalypse, mostly sits this one out.
And then there’s a mysterious race of aliens, led by Jessica Chastain’s Vuk, who are somehow behind the cosmic rays and for some reason want to take over the Earth. They are so poorly integrated into the rest of the movie that I’m convinced they were added in post-production; Dark Phoenix went through some lengthy re-shoots that pushed back its premiere six months.
In the end, Dark Phoenix presents another missed opportunity to tell this story right. While producers may have been right to ground the story on Earth (though the MCU has had plenty of success with intergalactic fare), the true spectacle of the Jean Grey’s raw power never comes across, and results only in minor incidence. Those aliens are the real threat here, the climax tells us, and once again Dark Phoenix gets lost inside her own story.
X-Men: Dark Phoenix is reasonably well-put together, and a seriously great original score by Hans Zimmer, with fittingly 80s synth vibes, is often enough to convince us the images we’re seeing have more resonance than the story gives them.
But while Dark Phoenix is never as outright disappointing as The Last Stand, it’s easily one of the weakest entries in the series, and doesn’t even manage the cheesy fun of X-Men: Apocalypse. Here’s hoping the MCU can eventually get the Dark Phoenix saga right.