Whilst Marvel gave us an end to the Infinity Saga with Avengers: Endgame, a whole other endgame was taking place over at 20th Century Fox. Of course, we are talking about the last of the X-Men movies that started under the umbrella of 20th Century Fox pre-Disney – X-Men: Dark Phoenix.
In the recent batch of social media clips showcasing a plethora of actors that have taken on the roles of arguably the greatest comic book superhero team in existence, 20th Century Fox has focused more on their legacy in the comic book film space and their slice of the Marvel pie as opposed to pushing the actual Dark Phoenix film. Which is not a criticism, aside for the fact I can distinctly remember the lacklustre fanfare that came with the promotion of first trailer and the promotional blackspots that existed in the head and tail of it.
Nevertheless, the last cinematic run (are we still getting The New Mutants?) has come to fruition on our silver screens and the Dark Phoenix saga seethes to the surface one last time. And besides the merit of the film, how does it stack in the overall legacy of the X-Men movies and their contribution to the wider comic book movie genre?
⚠ SPOILERS AHEAD ⚠
The Enemy Within
We’re violently thrust into a space mission, unfamiliar territory even for Xavier’s team of mutants. NASA space exploration takes a deadly turn when the shuttle becomes damaged. And in a daring rescue, led by Mystique, the team aboard the Blackbird are about to witness a bird of an entirely new origin. The solar flare responsible for the space shuttle damage is a more purposeful phenomenon, and it enters Jean Gray who gets separated from the team in a valiant effort to save the last strangler from the shuttle crew. However, by all appearances, Jean Grey recovers without injury and makes the trip back to Earth.
It does not take much time to realise Jean is a ticking time-bomb, as a dark, impulsive force awakens in her. A dark impetus fuelled by Jean’s past that Professor Xavier tried to shield from her through suppression. The X-Men do their best to subdue her, and they fail at a huge cost to the life of Mystique.
And as Jean’s turmoil to understand the changes and her hidden, sordid past that she is grappling with, her circle of trust grows smaller, pushing her into the arms of Vuk, one of the last remaining aliens from the D’Bari race. And they have plans for the alien Phoenix power too, and if Jean proves undependable to wield it, they will take it from her, killing her in the process.
X-Men divided. Magneto and Beast’s blood boils for revenge for the death of Mystique.
All those who would wish to use, save or kill Jean for the actions of the alien power all scurry to get their fill, even as Jean threatens to go nuclear, consuming everything and everyone in the process.
Gender politics, like all politics, never quite has the intended impetus when things are too “on the nose”. Surprisingly, here, Mystique dipping into her feminist bag was not quite as offsetting. Seeing Mystique as the matriarch of the X-Men was something I wished was explored a bit more, but this is what happens when the franchise feels like it jumps from saga to saga without allowing certain themes to percolate. And to see Mystique go so quickly the way she did, there is something deeply unsatisfying about that. Just me.
There was also that cringeworthy moment that Scott aka the one-eye laser gun demands a Phoenix-possessed Jean to come back to him, hearkening back to a lover’s talk about undying love and all that. It wasn’t what he said but how it was said… rehearsed, no cadence, hurriedly-spewed and almost possessive. Slightly chuckled and threw up in my mouth a bit.
The idea of Jean Grey and the Phoenix has always epitomised the idea of her limitless potential, the destructive side of her power. And it is women who carry this film, which feels more organic than other attempts in superhero team and comic book efforts in recent years.
The Legacy of Xavier
If you were looking for the bitter-sweet au revoir to the great mind that powered the Cerebro and honed telepathy and psychokinesis to bring the brightest and talented mutants the world over together for the glittering, Martin Luther King-esque ideals, then this is surely not it.
In Logan, we see Xavier as a great mind eroded by time, age and regret, yet still retaining a spark of zeal. If this was the last we say of Professor X, we would have been happy. No such luck. In Dark Phoenix, Professor Xavier is more of a PR-man putting the lives of his students at risk in an effort to gain the type of exposure a socialite would crave. And, realistically, this is probably what Xavier would be in real life. Someone who played the game to ultimately make mutants seem safe and friendly and useful in the eyes of ‘humans’. Nevertheless, we see less of Xavier using his mind and more of him using the bottle. For a moment, in all honesty, we even forgot he was even a mutant.
We love James McAvoy’s Xavier. And that’s the problem. For someone who stood in the void as the only mentally-capable match to Jean and someone who raised her would be abashed and engulfed by a sense of responsibility, crippled (no pun) by the debilitating sense of his duty to protect his students, Jean, and humanity. Knowing one or more may have to be sacrificed to procure the other(s).
And seeing a paraplegic man forced to walk upstairs by Jean Grey manipulating his legs like a puppet with her powers was a pretty disturbing visual. Felt it went on too long myself. I just felt the most powerful, or second most powerful mutant mind the world has ever seen should at least be able to hold his own. Denial, a short moment of clarity and then being a loner in Europe to then play chess with Erik. Not quite legacy building scenarios, Prof.
“You won’t like me when I’m Phoenix-y”
There is just something we like about good guys going bad. Possibly its the inevitability echoed by the sentiment that you either “die a hero or live long enough to become the villain”. Or maybe bad guys are just more fun. In any case, we get a lot of the internal conflict and psychosis that you would expect in the Dark Phoenix. However, was it enough to separate it from the earlier 20th Century Fox imagining of the Phoenix saga. Set pieces were not particularly enthralling, but seeing Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey coming into her potential will always be a plus. And can we just say Sophie Turner and Michael Fassbender are the perfect embodiments of Jean Grey and Magneto respectively?
And while there was great action sequences, you would not be wrong in saying we got a lot of X-Men screaming “JEAN!”, some repetitive breaks in psyche that emulate an EMP burst is to be expected. And for that reason, it does feel after a while that we’ve seen it all before.
Our introduction to Alien races in the X-Men was as brunt as it was weird. Our guess is that was why Dark Phoenix gave us a ‘hard start’ bringing us straight into outer space. We are not saying that Aliens are not believable in this universe, obviously, but a more ease-in and discerning reveal would have served them better. The aliens in Dark Phoenix are presented to us as the surviving members of the D’Bari race, and actor Chastain’s D’Bari name is “Vuk”.
And why does the Alien want this power. From what we gathered it was the ability to recreate their world which was destroyed (in a war?). Nevertheless, the aliens’ intent was made to feel inherently evil, because they were willing to destroy the entire world of Earth to rebuild the D’Bari empire here. But if the Phoenix power could create new life, wouldn’t it be a case of taking the power back to their home planet? Just some niggly questions.
Now imagine if Vuk were already stationed on earth, gets visited by strange men, and then proceeds to kill everyone at the dining table who are here friends and family. That intro would be like “what the fuck” and we would be enthralled enough to see exactly what she is about. But everything concerning the flaws of Dark Phoenix has an epicentre crafted by a converging of two tectonic plate-sized bodies.
The Enemy Adjacent. Or (Captain) Marvel Ruins Everything
Now, understand, much of this started as a rumour. But as more became revealed, and critical thinking takes the wheel, the conclusions and timeline are pretty damning. Marvel sabotaged Dark Phoenix. In more ways than one. There is no other explanation that explains the way things panned out. This may be a lengthy deep-dive, so bare with us.
Originally when the news of the Disney and Fox merger was underway, things seemed to be in limbo at 20th Century Fox in regards to Marvel-franchise films. Dates kept being pushed back for Deadpool 2 and Dark Phoenix. Gambit, a film that was in trouble as soon was announced, may have been scrapped altogether as rumours sprouted and director after director stepped up then left the project. And even as news of other X-Men-related films like Logan spin-off with X-23 was announced, we did not put much faith in it as the Disney machine was still in consumption mode. We knew some of these projects, if not, most, would not survive the fusion. Even Logan‘s director had concerns. Especially in seeing how the more outside-the-box Marvel horror The New Mutants was being treated.
Now concerning the promotional lead-up of Dark Phoenix… One only has to compare how X-Men: Apocalypse promotional run was led versus this final X-Men movie was handled. X-Men: Apocalypse churned out promo after promo, poster and key art and concept art and poster images. Dark Phoenix went, well, dark for a great period of time before and after the first trailer got released. A trailer that premiered on a night talk show that no one cares for or watches. Not exactly how a conglomerate would promote a new Marvel-themed superhero movie. This was the first signs something was happening behind the iron curtain that we were not privy to. That and Disney was, in part, orchestrating things in the budget department.
However, as it turns out, Disney was not just in the finance department. They were in the writers’ room too. News bubbles to the surface that Dark Phoenix was slated to be a working trilogy, and would span the Dark Phoenix saga comic book arc, building to a climactic story of Jean coming into her power. This, however, was where Disney interjected and the film’s trajectory changed. The trilogy now was just one film. This is not the only kicker.
In Dark Phoenix, we have shapeshifting aliens that took on human form. They are the last of the B’Dari in the current film. However, in the original script of Dark Phoenix, these aliens were Skrulls. The main characters in Captain Marvel. Ever wondered why Dark Phoenix‘s release date got pushed back to after the release date of Captain Marvel. Could it be that Dark Phoenix displayed too many similarities with Captain Marvel to Disney’s liking? A strange alien entity endows a human woman with special powers (‘solar flare’ in Dark Phoenix, ‘spaceship’ in Captain Marvel). Shapeshifting aliens need for that alien power. The upheaval caused by the Disney-Fox merger becomes more apparent, does it not?
Despite Dark Phoenix being the only film I remembered coming from the 20th Century Fox camp that Marvel actually live-premiered the red carpet screening of, the damage was already done. And late efforts to promote Dark Phoenix felt more like Disney’s recouping on monies in the last straggling projects they were flushing out the 20th Century Fox pipeline. Not a concerted effort to bring the last era of X-Men films to fruition. And to think Dark Phoenix original plans were suppressed to ensure it did not interfere in the slightest with Marvel’s alien and Captain Marvel plans, is also kinda disgusting. I can only imagine how the creatives felt having to make changes not for the art but for an executive decision. And, in the end, was it all worth it?
Alas, we can’t judge a film by what was planned, but by what is. Dark Phoenix has its moments of great action and those that shone the most had was that of Mystique, Jean and Erik. Aside from that, it does feel like a story we have seen already, and the set pieces were not as epic as one would have hoped for. It is still a watchable moment in the Marvel-Fox run, and holistically, the film still shines brighter than the likes of thatThe Wolverine solo film. You know the one.
Nevertheless, a deal breaker for me was that corny end shot of a fiery bird travelling across the bright morning sky. Leave it up to the imagination if she is alive or dead, man. It would have been more awesome to get a hint of a celestial Jean Grey creating worlds and life in space like a bad-ass Dr. Manhattan, if what Vuk told her about her new Phoenix power was true. And not a fan of the narration either. We deserve a bit more poetry from the greatest mind of mutant-kind ever.
Dark Phoenix had the potential to be the farewell love-letter to an age in Marvel comic book movie history not puppeteered by Disney. Alas, what we got was a Disney-puppeteered movie, inadvertently in an effort to bolster one of the more loathed Marvel heroes in recent movies. And seeing we were getting a very condensed hashing of the Phoenix saga, the little charm of the movie lies heavily on a few action sequences and brief moments, not on the story. Logan was much more a better ode to the 20th Century Fox run of the X-Men franchise.
Now that X-Men film rights are back at Marvel, with a multi-verse premise sure to be used to retcon them into the current MCU, we are not exactly revving up right now to see what Marvel has planned for mutant-kind. Especially when the general sentiment by Disney and their agents seem to think that the X-Men franchise is a “dated” one.
Of course, we could also get into how sloppy the X-Men timeline is on a whole, and Dark Phoenix does nothing to even attempt to soothe the wrinkles. And, of course, the problem always was trying to create connective tissues cloning some Marvel techniques without following all the necessary steps. Not all it’s cracked up to be considering even Marvel’s technique is starting to fray.
X-Men delivered us moments. Iconic characters that survived the many iterations of other characters. Patrick Stewart’s Professor X. Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. And whilst the timeline has been fucked for a very long time, I remember First Class feeling like the first attempt of a reboot to start clean, add a bit of foresight and direction to the timelines of future X-Men movies. Which didn’t last long at all.
A lot of behind the scenes chaos went some ways in altering the course of this film. Alas, Dark Phoenix, like every other X-Men movie has its moments. Iconic portrayal of characters. Everything else on the timeline, however, can get a bit messy. As always.
*UPDATE* Just to show you how drastic the changes were, here is Tye Sheridan, the actor that played Cyclops, talking about the original aliens being Skrulls and the massive, multiple changes made to the movie’s narrative ending:
It’s really hard for me to remember what the ending of this movie is. [laughs] Originally, it was scripted that Charles and Scott go to the U.N. because — man, I’m totally going to mess this up — they go to the U.N. because they’re going to try to tell the President that, ‘Hey, we’re under attack by aliens, and they’ve now captured Jean Grey.’ Or, you know, whatever it is that we’re going to tell him.
And then Jean comes down in the front of the U.N., and causes… there is this huge battle between the guards at the U.N. and Jean Grey, and all the guards turn out to be Skrulls. And then Jean and Scott are — Scott is fighting Skrulls in the fountain. He gets thrown into the fountain in front of the U.N. And then Jean comes down and basically fights all of the Skrulls off, and then blasts back off into space. [She] basically says goodbye to Scott and Charles. And then it’s all over, I guess.
And then Jean comes down in the front of the U.N., and causes… there is this huge battle between the guards at the U.N. and Jean Grey, and all the guards turn out to be Skrulls. And then Jean and Scott are — Scott is fighting Skrulls in the fountain. He gets thrown into the fountain in front of the U.N. And then Jean comes down and basically fights all of the Skrulls off, and then blasts back off into space. [She] basically says goodbye to Scott and Charles. And then it’s all over, I guess.Tye sheridan (VIA the Reelblend podcast)
Magneto getting back into the killing game
People shouting "Jean!"
That corny end shot of a firebird streaming across the sky.
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