And so, after a long journey we finally reach the last main series instalment of the Fox X-Men films, a once proud dynasty now culminating in the flabby, five-chinned inbred monarch we see before us (in this analogy, New Mutants is the secret bastard child the king fathered on a tavern wench and then hid in a dungeon for three years).
And sure, the odds were against Dark Phoenix. It was released after the Disney/Fox merger all but assured that this series and its continuity would shortly be scrapped, giving the whole enterprise an inescapable stink of futility. It follows in the wake of Age of Apocalypse which was the cinematic equivalent of someone pissing up your nose for two hours. And it tries again to tell the story of the Dark Phoenix saga despite being written by the same dude who ballsed it up last time.
And yet…maybe it’s the contrarian in me. Maybe it’s the fact that the DVD yelped and recoiled in fear when I opened the case. Maybe it’s the fact that that the critical consensus on this film, that it’s the worst X-Men movie (it has less than half Apocalypse’s score on Rotten Tomatoes) is just flatly wrong.
Maybe it’s that I went in with expectations lower than a snake’s ballsack. But dammit, I kind of enjoyed Dark Phoenix. It’s bad, but it’s bad in weird and surprising ways and I never felt as horribly bored as I did with The Last Stand, Wolverine: Origin…to hell with it, I’m just going to say it. I would watch Dark Phoenix over any of the other bad X-Men movies. So there.
Which, of course, is practically the opposite of saying that it’s actually good.
In fact, Dark Phoenix is refreshingly honest about its not goodness upfront. Now, it’s practically law by this point that an X-Men movie will open with a voiceover musing philosophically on the nature of mutation and I honestly can’t remember any of them being particularly well written but this one, jeez louise:
“Who are we? Are we simply what others want us to be? Are we destined to a fate beyond our control? Or can we evolve? Become… something more?”
Goddamn that is some fucking basic pseudo-profundity right there. Anyway, for once it’s not Professor Xavier giving the opening spiel but Jean Grey. We then flashback to 1975 where Jean was just an eight year old ginge and we see how her psychic powers accidentally caused a car accident that killed both her parents. This scene is actually pretty good. Summer Fontana, who plays the eight year old Jean is excellent and there’s a really nice effect where the car is flipping over and all the little shards of broken glass are bouncing off the forcefield she’s unconsciously erected around herself.
Jean survives and is visited in the hospital by Charles Xavier. Now, this movie’s script is fascinatingly bad but I don’t want to put all the blame on the writers. It’s no secret that this film was plagued with rewrites and reshoots and it absolutely shows onscreen. Character motivations change from scene to scene and a lot of the dialogue has a thuddingly obvious quality that screams “this character is saying this now because some studio exec demanded that we hit this beat now don’t bitch to me I just work here”. And some scenes just play weird. Like this one.
JEAN: Where are my parents?
XAVIER: My name is Charles Xavier…
JEAN: They’re dead. Aren’t they?
XAVIER. Yes. They are. I’m very sorry to have to tell you.
(A pause of maybe three seconds, tops)
JEAN: So what happens to me now?
XAVIER: Well, that’s why I’m here actually…
Like, Jesus Christ, there’s making your eight your old child character seem mature and precocious and there’s making her come off like a goddamned sociopath. Break the scene so we get the impression that she’s cried offscreen in the time that’s passed, it won’t even lengthen your pagecount, Gawd!
And yet, there’s a lot of good here too. Fontana, as I’ve already said is a really strong child actor and of course McAvoy as Xavier elevates every scene he’s in. Weird script issues aside, I actually really like this as a first meeting between Charles Xavier and Jean Grey. It’s miles better than the one we got in The Last Stand with the creepy CGI mannequins of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan.
Okay, cut to 1992 and the Space Shuttle Endeavour runs into a problem on its inaugural flight. Charles and Hank McCoy are watching the news and Charles asks Beast if the X-Jet can fly into space and Beast says “no, absolutely not. That’s crazy. It’s a jet. It’s not a space-ship. That’s stupid. Shut up”. And then Xavier gets a call from the president and says “sure, we can go to space. Our X-Jet can go to space. No problem.”
Later, the X-Men are getting ready to go to space and Scott asks if the X-jet can actually go to space and Beast says “well actually” and Mystique just cuts across him and says “you bet. The X-Jet is going to fly to space. No problem.”
And I’m like. Guys. The guy who built the damn thing seems pretty sure it CANNOT IN FACT GO TO SPACE. But whatever. The X-Men are going to space now. Jean asks Mystique if she’s worried and Mystique assures her that if anything goes wrong she’ll take them back to Earth immediately. Which is a weird thing for a superhero to say, honestly.
So the X-Jet goes to space and approaches Endeavour to see it being menaced by some kind of giant space goo. Nightcrawler and Quicksilver are able to teleport over and rescue the astronauts but, while trying to keep the shuttle from exploding, Jean gets hit by the giant space goo and absorbs all of it and wait a minute, hold the phone. So, this is how Jean gets the Phoenix Force? The Phoenix Force is from space, like in the comics? Okay. Cool. Cool. Cool.
THEN WHAT THE FUCK WAS HAPPENING AT THE END OF AGE OF APOCALYPSE?
I dunno bout you, but to me that looks a bit like she’s already GOT the Phoenix Force so what the hell?
And I’m not even getting into what that means for the Famke Jannsen version of the character because honestly, who can even marshall the mental energy to make sense of this bullshit continuity anymore but…ah, screw it. Life’s too short for this kind of negativity. Honestly, if I was happy with First Class retconning away The Last Stand and Wolverine: Origin, how can I complain if this movie does the same to Age of Apocalypse?
This movie does a lot of stuff I appreciate. For one, it actually changes the status quo for once. The X-Men arrive back with the rescued astronauts and are feted as heroes. In fact, it seems like the X-Men have actually…won? The world considers them superheroes, Charles Xavier is an advisor to the president and there are even X-Men action figures. One of the biggest criticisms of the X-Men as a concept is that nothing ever gets better. Humanity always hates and fears mutants and they never seem to make any progress towards their goals of gaining greater tolerance and acceptance. So it’s immensely gratifying to see at least one reality where mutantkind has actually caught a break.
Back at the X-mansion, Raven takes Charles to task for risking the X-Men’s lives, saying “you put those kids lives in danger” and he replies “they’re not kids anymore”. Like, yeah. No shit. This movie is set in 1992. Quicksilver is almost eligible for a bus pass at this point. Raven asks him if he likes getting medals from the president and being on the cover of Time and he’s all “well, beats being hunted by giant robots, y’know?”. Raven, who I guess never stopped being an anti-human bigot, says she resents “our” people being risked to save “theirs”. She then says that she can’t remember the last time Charles was the one being put in danger (he is, I remind you, in a wheelchair) and then says “by the way, the women are always saving the men around here, you might think about changing the name to “X-Women”.
I’m sorry. No. Give this speech to somebody who didn’t fuck up so badly that a hairy Canadian had to be sent back into the past to undo the literal holocaust her actions created. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Jennifer Lawrence Mystique but MY GOD this scene just burned every lingering shred of respect I might have had for the character.
Anyway, there are aliens now.
Yup. Mysterious lights appear in the sky over a suburban home and a woman played by Jessica Chastain and her guests are killed and replaced by shapeshifting aliens. Their leader, who’s named Vuk (as in “what the Vuk is this shit?”), takes on the appearance of Jessica Chastain.
Now aliens have been a presence in the X-Men comics since the earliest days (did you know that in the comics Xavier lost the use of his legs in a battle against Lucifer, who was leading an invasion by an alien species called the Quists? Well now you do). And of course, once Chris Claremont took over and started using the X-Men to launder a bunch of ideas for a Ms Marvel series he never got to do, the X books have been lousy with all manner of extra-terrestrial shenanigans. But the movies very much have not. And it’s a bit of a lurch when X-Men suddenly goes X-Files arf arf. It’s even more jarring when you realise that Chastain is definitely supposed to be playing Emma Frost (y’know, the platinum blonde psychic who manipulates Jean Grey to gain control of the Phoenix Force) and apparently the movie was originally shot with that very intention. But the studio demanded a more action packed finale which somehow translated into making Emma Frost and the Hellfire Club into aliens. Specifically Skrulls, if the whole shapeshifting thing wasn’t a giveaway for you. But then Captain Marvel was doing Skrulls as well so they had to switch things up again to make the Skrulls…sigh…the D’Bari.
Who are the D’Bari? Good fucking question. The D’Bari are these guys.
An extremely minor Marvel alien race whose one claim to fame was getting wiped out by the Dark Phoenix. And if that doesn’t scream “we literally read one comic when coming up for the plot of this movie” I don’t know what does. I mean, if you want an alien species with close ties to the X-Men who can infiltrate humanity and are also a genuinely threatening and terrifying enemy…guys, the Brood are right there.
Back at the mansion, Raven tries to get Hank to leave the school with her, saying that she doesn’t like who Charles has become. Hank says that the school is their life and Raven replies “it’s not our life. It’s his. What do you think the “X” in “X-men” stands for?”. Oh Raven, Raven. Poor suspicious, doubting Raven.
See? Perfectly reasonable explanation.
Meanwhile, Jean, Scott, Nightcrawler and Storm are having a midnight party in the forest to celebrate their recent success. This is a weird scene because everything about it, how the characters act and are dressed and just the basic fact that they’re having drinks in a forest makes it feel like these are teenagers sneaking around behind their parents’ backs instead of, y’know, people old enough to have mortgages. Like…people old enough to drink somewhere comfortable don’t drink in forests. Whatever, Jean has a psychic attack and collapses, which is noticed by Mystique and Hank who see it on the CCTV cameras that are apparently everywhere, watching the students at all times.
Not content with this violation of privacy, Xavier returns to the mansion and starts poking around in Jean’s mind with Cerebro. Charles reveals that he put mental blocks in Jean’s mind to protect her from the trauma of her parent’s death, but now that her powers are increasing those protections are falling apart. Jean suddenly hears her father’s voice and realises that he’s actually been alive this whole time and that Charles lied to her. Furious, Jean expels Charles from her mind and and sets off to find her father.
Arriving at his home, Jean’s invited in by her father. He feigns happiness at seeing her but, looking around his home she realises that there are no pictures of her. She asks him why he never came looking for her and he invites her to read his mind where she learns the awful truth: her father abandoned her because it was her psychic powers that caused the crash that killed his wife.
So, another thing I will give this movie props for is that it actually has a genuinely interesting moral conundrum at its core; was Xavier right to tamper with Jean’s memories? On the one hand, her anger is absolutely understandable and justified. On the other, he did what he did to protect an extremely vulnerable child from one of the worst traumas anyone can experience; parental abandonment. It’s a rare instance where you can genuinely see both sides of the argument. Anyway, enough nerd stuff, time for a big superhero fight.
The X-Jet arrives and Xavier tries to talk Jean into coming home but the situation quickly escalates and Jean lashes out, attacking her friends. Jean’s now so powerful that even Quicksilver’s plot armour is no defence. Beast is about to fire a stun gun at Jean but Charles stops him telepathically so that Mystique can talk her down. Mystique tells Jean that they’re family and that she’ll take care of her and then Jean loses control and impales Mystique on a fence spike which, yeah, is like a lot of family arguments.
Distraught, Jean flies off and Raven dies in Beast’s arms.
The X-men hold a funeral back at the X-Mansion and are now deeply divided over what to do with Jean. Scott obviously thinks that Jean can still be saved and brought back to the light side because, y’know…
But Beast is coming apart at the seams. We now get an actually really good scene between Nicholas Hoult and James McAvoy where Beast calls Xavier out on his arrogance. Xavier, for his part, still refuses to even admit he did anything wrong and Beast tells Charles that Raven saw the truth: that they thought they were protecting the students from the world when they should have been protecting them from Xavier.
Like, I know objectively this is not a good movie but guys, it is so, so much better than Age of Apocalypse. There’s actual dramatic weight here. There’s atmosphere (a lot of that due to a quite excellent Hans Zimmer score) and there are even individual scenes that I would hold up as some of the best in the franchise.
Okay, well, Jean now does what I think any of us would do in this situation; she goes running to cool Uncle Magneto who is now running what I think is supposed to be the mutant nation of Genosha but looks like a moderately staffed urban farm. Magneto at first offers her sanctuary, asking her whose blood is on her shirt, but when the US Military lands and demands to know where Jean is he has to restrain her from killing them all and he angrily banishes her from Genosha.
Jean gets picked up in a bar by Vuk, who feeds her some vague mumbo jumbo about realising her full potential. Meanwhile, Beast shows up in Genosha and tells Magneto who that blood on Jean’s shirt belonged to and Erik’s all “oh fuck no”.
Back in New York, Vuk shows Jean a holographic projection explaining what the Phoenix Force is and we get another really weird scene.
VUK: What entered you in space was not a solar flare. And it was not an accident. It was drawn to you.
JEAN: What… what was it?
JEAN: A pure and unimaginably powerful cosmic force. We saw it enter you in space. We were there, Jean, following that force.
JEAN (A woman who has just learned that aliens are real, that she’s talking to an alien, that she has an alien energy being inside her and that everything she thought she knew about humanity, earth and the universe is wrong): Why?
Like…damn Jean Grey is being pretty chill right now. Vuk says that the Phoenix Force destroyed their world and that they’ve been chasing it ever since to try and harness it which is honestly the opposite of what i would do in that situation. Vuk tells Jean she’s the only person who’s ever been able to control the Phoenix Force because she’s “special”. We will soon see that this is a blatant fucking lie. But we will never find out why.
The X-Men and Magneto’s forces arrive in New York to stop Jean. Magneto tries to kill Jean but is quickly overpowered. Charles pleads with her and apologises for lying to her and she responds by telekinetically taking control of him and forcing him to agonisedly walk up the stairs towards her so I’m guessing she still mad.
Before she kills him, Charles tells her to read his mind and she sees how her father rejected her and Charles came to the decision to raise her as his own. Shocked by how close she came to killing the only real father she’s ever had, Jean decides to renounce the Phoenix Force and asks Vuk if she can take it and Vuk’s all “well, I suppose”.
Charles realises that this was Vuk’s plan all along (which, and let’s be fair here, makes absolutely no sense) and that she will use the Phoenix Force to kill all of humanity and remake the Earth for the D’Bari. Fortunately, Scott arrives just at the last moment and blasts Vuk, severing the link between her and Jean.
The army arrives and carts all of the mutants off in a train to be incarcerated but Vuk hasn’t given up and the D’Bari attack and Magneto and Xavier’s forces have to join together to defeat them. And so at last we discover the reason why the enemies had to be changed to aliens, its so we can watch our heroes absolutely WRECK SHOP on them without feeling guilty about the loss of precious human life. Fair’s fair, this final fight scene feels really arbitrary and forced but…it also kicks ass? Like, the X films are a really mixed bag when it comes to fight scenes and group fight scenes in particular, but I think this might be one of the best. Everyone gets a moment to shine, powers are used inventively and it moves along at a fair old clip. It’s pretty great.
The train crashes and Jean finally unleashes her full powers and just massacres the D’Bari. I feel like Sophie Turner got shit on a lot for her performance in this movie but I think she’s honestly pretty great. Particularly in the Phoenix scenes. There’s some great facial acting here. A kind of unearthly bored contempt that really brings across just how powerful the Phoenix is. She can kill you with a thought, but she still resents the inconvenience of even having to do that.
With Vuk the last surviving D’Bari, Jean grabs her and prepares to give her the Thanos special. But Vuk tells her that she can’t control the Phoenix’s power and that if she kills Vuk, she’ll kill the X-Men too. I don’t follow the logic but clearly this movie just wants to end so I won’t make a fuss.
Vuk tells Jean “your emotions make you weak!” and Jean replies…well, why don’t you guess from one of the following options:
- No! My emotions make me strong!
- No. My emotions. They make me strong.
- My emotions strong, they make me.
- No. Emotions. Strong. Me have strong emotions. Strong emotions good.
Anyway, Jean sacrifices herself to end the threat from Vuk who by this point represents zero threat at all and everyone pretends that that’s noble and not deeply stupid.
Charles renames the school the “Jean Grey School for Gifted Youngsters” and makes Hank the new dean.
Not a good movie, but miles better than its dismal reputation. And you know what? It set out to be a more grounded and emotionally resonant film than Age of Apocalypse. It succeeded. It set out to tell a better version of the Dark Phoenix saga than The Last Stand? It succeeded at that too. Yes, it’s a hot mess, but a hot mess is better than a cold turd, and Lord knows this series has had plenty of those.
No stinger. After all, nobody making this even knew if there was going to be another.
Department of Duplication Department
Scott Shepherd and Hannah Anderson replace Adrian Hough and Desiree Zurowski as Jean’s parents.
How worried is Guinan right now?
Guinan is so damn tired. But we’re nearly done.
Wait, Magneto is how old?
Magneto is 62.
Sure. Sure he is.
Mutant Heaven has no pearly gates, only revolving doors.
Jean Grey comes back to life. You’re all shocked, I’m sure.
Today, mutants are…
Vulnerable young women who’ve been lied to about their fathers being dead when they were actually alive. I dunno.
This movie is…
NEXT UPDATE: 28 April 2022.
NEXT TIME: Look, all I know is this. If a studio keeps a movie hidden for three years, it’s because it’s so damn good they couldn’t bear to share it with anyone else.