Dark Phoenix, the latest X-Men movie, is getting roasted by critics, and none of the pull quotes and hot takes this critic has seen on social media seem fair. I tempered my expectations going in, but the fact that my palms warmed up as the movie built toward its final conflict was one of the most refreshing things I’ve felt from one of these genre films that have often put me to sleep by the time the climax arrives (it took me three days to get through Infinity War on Netflix). For all of its bluster and bravado, response to the superhero tent pole movies produced by major studios is a fickle thing. The fans of these movies are smart. Many have read the comics on which they are based, follow the trades on the development of the movies and compare and contrast with the 50-plus other Marvel or D.C. Comics movies they have seen adapted to the big screen over the past 20 years or so. Response has often varied, as if feelings, nostalgia and a sense of ownership taints the often emotional gut response to these movies. Meanwhile, hardly any of these flicks are truly that much different from one another.
I’ve reviewed several superhero movies on this website over the years. I’ve considered the Batman franchise under Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises: an Independent Ethos take on another Hollywood tent-pole), Mark Webb’s Spider-Man flick (The Amazing Spider-Man: an Independent Ethos take on the Hollywood tent-pole), Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (Wonder Woman is a plus for the woman’s perspective in same old superhero movie formula) and even Suicide Squad with hopes that the talents of David Ayer, the director of Fury (Fury depicts war at its most gruesome with a sprinkling of hope) would shine through. They didn’t (Suicide Squad is an exasperatingly dull sidebar to super hero genre). Then there was, of course, Black Panther (Black Panther uses grounded villain to embody complex issues never seen in superhero movies), as a follow-up to my review of Fruitvale Station (Fruitvale Station fuels heartache with intimacy), also by Ryan Coogler. I’d be remiss to not note X-Men: Days of Future Past, which I also reviewed (X-Men: Days of Future Past: an Independent Ethos take on a Hollywood tent-pole).
Despite some indie directors moving into these films, some of which feature socially conscious themes, there’s hardly much difference in these story lines. It usually follows the formula of a supernatural power being bestowed on an individual in the first act, then the individual struggles with that power in the second, and the power is finally put to the test in the third in an often muddy, loud mess of digital and sonic effects against a clear villain who also has some form of super power. Writer-director Simon Kinberg’s Dark Phoenix, the first of the X-Men movies he has directed after writing and producing several other Marvel mutant movies, is not much different. To measure where it works, however, is to appreciate its focus on the film’s central, private struggle of the woman at the heart of Dark Phoenix.
I won’t argue that some of his dialogue is clunky and ham-fisted, but it becomes easy to forgive, as the film’s pace (at under two hours for a change) is focused on what has gotten into the telekinetically endowed Jean Grey (Sophie Turner giving a nuanced, richly conflicted performance). After an intergalactic space flare envelopes her during the rescue mission of a crew of shuttle astronauts, she returns home changed. Her powers are enhanced, a trauma that throws her back to her childhood where her initial powers got the better of her with tragic results. It’s this internal struggle, which is never quickly or neatly resolved, that sustains the film’s tension.
As she struggles with her return to earth as “Phoenix,” a compatriot dies as a result of Jean’s lack of control. Meanwhile, Professor X (James McAvoy admittedly not granted enough room to perform) has lost his purpose for helping youngsters with special abilities in favor of the glory of super heroics. That he buries his own conflict by taking to the bottle is a detail that stands in intriguing contrast to Jean’s explosive acting out. When she turns to the unscrupulous Magneto (Michael Fassbender, always skilled with a single tear duct), even he won’t take her in. As a woman alone, she falls for the temptation of the calming presence of the mysterious alien Vuk (Jessica Chastain, always great). Jean’s conflict is as much inside her as outside, and the film presents both with intimacy. Close-ups of characters’ faces throughout the movie, even in the heat of battle, work well at keeping the film grounded in performances, even if they aren’t as fleshed out as Jean’s character.
To its benefit, and again, forgiving some overly direct dialogue, the story is written by Kinberg — based on comic books and stories all attributed to men, it should be noted — with an awareness of the feminine energy that drives much of the film. As a believer in Jung’s anima and animus, this applies both to male figures as well as female, from Magneto’s emotional reaction to the danger Jean carries as Phoenix to the understanding between Jean and Vuk of the power that resides in our heroine. The set pieces and effects and cinematic elements are layered on to serve this. For the first time ever, I could even appreciate a brooding score by Hans Zimmer. Strings and horns churn and build over a fluttering piano melody to various degrees as Jean’s internal struggles mount. The musical theme has a foreboding quality that builds up throughout the movie to satisfying effect. There’s a true elemental darkness to this movie, despite a couple of throw away lines of comic relief by Quicksilver (Evan Peters). Dark Phoenix is a dark movie that although playing with the same old tropes of superhero cinema feels refreshing in its focus, which lies in how the feminine struggles with power in a visceral way. That it is also generating some rash, emotional reactions is a bit ironic and speaks to Dark Phoenix‘s power as a film firmly embracing feminine power.
Dark Phoenix runs 113 minutes and is rated PG-13. It opens in wide release on Thursday night, June 6. 20th Century Fox invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.