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Descending into the Ashes: A Dark Phoenix Review

For almost twenty years, audiences have been on an ever mutating adventure known as 20th Century Fox's X-Men franchise. With its newest and final entry, Dark Phoenix, we say our goodbyes to a long history of reboots, claws, two-finger temple touches, retcons, blue skinned baddies (or goodies) and of course, the juggernaut (bitch). Since Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox, the future of the X-Men is currently unknown, but undoubtedly, these characters will somehow be reimagined and folded into Disney’s ever expansive mega franchise: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Is this final entry a satisfying conclusion to the series? Does it wrap up its long history of beloved comic book heroes? Short answer: No.

Long Answer: It’s strange to see the X-Men franchise cinematically return to the beloved “Dark Phoenix” story arc from the comics, because the last time we saw this tale of telepathy and UNLIMITED POWER was back in 2006, with X-Men: The Last Stand. Simon Kinberg wrote both films and in this year’s Dark Phoenix, he is also the film’s director. X-Men: The Last Stand is not a film that is remembered fondly amongst X-Men fans, and the franchise itself has gone to great lengths to retcon that movie out of its “impossible to understand” continuity. So what’s the logic of taking another stab at this comic book arc? By wiping the previous attempt out of existence and setting its reimagining in the new-ish 'First Class' timeline are the filmmakers attempting to make a more faithful adaptation? Again, short answer: No.

To be completely transparent, I was not super familiar with intimate details of the Dark Phoenix story, first appearing in 1976, in ‘Uncanny X-Men #101’. So I did some research, read some plot synopses, and started to understand why this arc was so beloved by fans. In the comics, Jean Grey fuses with a powerful space entity known as the ‘Phoenix Force’. The Phoenix Force has a mind of its own, and it operates like a parasite that feeds on its host’s passions and desires. Its goal is to burn the old and make way for the new. For a while, Jean Grey is just known as ‘Phoenix,’ using her newfound upgraded powers for good. Eventually, Jean unleashes her full potential and turns into ‘Dark Phoenix’. Jean loses control of her actions and devours a star system, causing the cosmic genocide of an alien race known as the D’Bari. A series of events led Jean to sacrifice herself in order to destroy Dark Phoenix, and in typical comic book fashion, she comes back from the dead, a lot.

The narrative bits from that storyline that most intrigued me personally was the idea of a parasite that fed off of emotions and desires, an entity with cosmic awareness and motivations of its own with a desire to destroy old paradigms so that new ones could arise from the ashes. I thought the idea of a space genocide caused by a telepathic mutant with no off-switch was fascinating. As well as the dilemma the other X-Men face when these events unfold - to fight and try to kill the Dark Phoenix or attempt to reason with their loved one trapped still trapped inside. Or the cold war that starts between Magneto’s Brotherhood vs Xavier’s X-men, to try grasping this powerful mutant weapon. Unfortunately, what we get with Dark Phoenix is little to none of these plot lines.

Dark Phoenix feels like a redundant origin story for a character that we’ve already seen on the big screen. Similar to X-Men: Last Stand, the film’s opening focuses on Jean Grey as a child, but instead of an intervention/recruitment from Charles Xavier (that comes a bit later) we instead see Jean cause a terrible car accident involving her and her parents, due to the uncontrollable nature of her newly formed psychic powers. The world of this X-Men movie is strange, the general public is aware of mutants, and at the moment is totally okay with their existence. Charles Xavier has the President on speed dial, and is actively sending his crew of young mutants on dangerous missions. X-Men stories have always been about the struggles of ‘the other’ or the minority trying to secure rights for themselves and be treated fairly by the majority. For years, the X-Men have been an allegory for civil rights and even the LGBTQ movement. To see the general public be cool with mutants is just a little weird, but even Charles remarks that being the super-powered rescue team for the world is better than being ostracized. The inciting incident of the film and how Jean gets her powers is a space mission gone awry-ish. The X-kids led by Raven (who usually is known as Mystique) go to rescue a crew of trapped astronauts. It's here that Charles insists that Jean is powerful enough to finish the mission on her own, saving the final astronaut before absorbing the Phoenix Force.

This also sets into motion the main villain of the film, the D’Bari: shape-shifting aliens WHO ARE NOT THE SKRULLS, that seek the Phoenix Force. Why do the D’Bari want the Phoenix Force? I don’t really know, it appears to just be bad guys seeking power, and that whole song and dance. There’s really no moment in this movie that feels original, (especially to longtime X-Men fans). Going through the flick beat by beat will make you think it’s 2006 all over again; only this time we have different actors. The movie’s stakes feel muted, intimate or earth shattering none of it really hits any emotional beats. It seems to be a vessel to get to big action sequences, and those are occasionally fun. I do like seeing Magneto do “Metal-bending-kung-fu” on people. There are character deaths and character betrayals that I just couldn’t bring myself to care about, because the movie itself didn’t seem that interested in those moments. The film feels hollow, it’s strange to see a series that even at its worst critically still delivered on some emotional highs, but I really can’t find any of that here. Everything the characters do in this film I’ve seen them do before.

This film may be an unsatisfying conclusion to the X-Men saga some of us grew up with and it’s a shame. Luckily in 2017, we got the spiritual and perfect conclusion to the series with Logan. I think the problem is that this iteration of X-Men has overstayed its welcome, and the genre of comic adaptations has evolved and moved on. It’s sad, the first X-Men movie in 2000 laid the groundwork for some of our favorite super stories on the big screen, and this is just an unfortunate note to go out on. I’m excited to see future X-Men stories under the Marvel Cinematic Universe banner, hopefully this will be the mutation the X-Men need to get back on track.


Robert Anderson

Co-Head of Podcasting

Robert has a degree in Screenwriting and Playwriting and works in multiple genres. He's just your typical man-child who enjoys most things nerd culture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RoBaeBae




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