Counting to X: Dark Phoenix

This piece originally appeared as part of my weekly newsletter, The Full Lid . If you liked it, and want a weekly down of pop culture enthusiasm, occasional ketchup recipes and me enjoying things, then check out the archive and sign up here.

It’s the mid 1990s and the X-Men are beloved superheroes. Charles Xavier is the US President’s go to advisor and the dream of mutant/human cooperation is alive. Until the X-Men are dispatched to save the crew of the space shuttle Endeavour from a solar flare and Jean Grey takes the full force of it head on. When she survives, two things become apparent; what they saw was not a solar flare. And something is verywrong with Jean…

Good news everyone! This isn’t even in the same time zone as 2017’s risible, phoned in X-Men: Apocalypse. Characters actually do things! There are frequent emotions! At no point does Oscar Isaac go full Skeletor! Even better, it’s a substantial improvement on The Last Stand, the last time these movies tried to tell this story. Simon Kinberg was one of the writers then and is the sole writer and director now. He’s definitely exorcised his ghosts. The franchise’s ghosts? Enh. Not so much

For all the problems we’ll get to there’s a surprisingly strong emotional and thematic arc to go with the punching. Charles has won, mutants are protected by being in the public eye and he’s become increasingly blasé about what his kids do to earn that safety.  Not to mention the hints of servitude to how he deploys the X-Men at the government’s beck and call. One of the movie’s best scenes sees Mystique confront him about this very thing and it solidifies perfectly the principled amorality that lies at the heart of McAvoy’s take on Professor X. He’s a fundamentally good man, but frequently expresses that goodness in startlingly irresponsible and manipulative ways. Getting something that subtle on screen in this franchise is kind of amazing and McAvoy and Lawrence both do excellent work here.
But they’re blown off the screen, at times literally, by Sophie Turner. This incarnation of Jean Grey is one movie old and has far more nuance and agency to her than the last one was given across an entire trilogy. This Jean dives deep into her trauma, hates what she finds there and spends the entire movie searching for her moral compass and often not finding it. Turner hits both essential notes, horror and seething joyous rage, with equal success and when the movie works it’s almost always because of her. She feels genuinely dangerous, especially in the whirlwind fast confrontation at Jean’s old house and that’s more than The Last Stand managed at any point.

Elsewhere in the cast, Nicholas Hoult’s Hank gets a couple of surprising turns that give him the depth he’s singularly lacked since First Class albeit for very tiresome reasons. Fassbender too, who at times looked actively bored in Apocalypse has some fun moments. Magneto’s peace is, again, hard fought and, again, shattered. But this time there’s a real sense of progress with the man that has been singularly lacking. He gets the movie’s most surprising heroic moment and his government sanctioned mutant state is one of the many ideas the film could have done with exploring more.

There is, inevitably, some bad news.

Outside the characters mentioned above, no one else has much to do. Tye Sheridan’s Cyclops is entirely reactive, Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Nightcrawler is ineffectual until the movie’s laziest, stupidest moment in the closing fight gives him RAAAAAGE. Evan Peters’ iconic Quicksilver is benched for most of the action and Alexandra Shipp’s Storm gets five lines more than last time and a couple of fun beats in the final fight but nothing else. Worse still, the film largely wastes Jessica Chastain as Vuk, the shape-changing leader of a race whose world was destroyed by the Phoenix. She gets to stalk around, look menacing, explain her plan and then watch as the film chooses the least interesting response to it. There was a chance here to take the X-Men out into the cosmos, to tie the biological singularity of mutation to the cultural singularity of first contact. For this to be a rescue mission rather than a war. It would have been glorious. Instead, we get an extended fight on a train that you keep half expecting Deadpool, Domino, FireFist and Cable to try and hijack.

The film’s other faults are less obvious but no less severe. There are, counting Storm, five people of colour with speaking roles in the movie. Storm is the only survivor. She’s also one of only two to actually be named on screen. For a franchise built on the idea of the power and worth and necessity of diversity to be doing this after two movies is stupid. After seven, it’s deliberate to the point of malicious. Oh and that scene between Mystique and Xavier I mentioned? Only time the issue is brought up. Because why tackle the exact social issues these characters are defined by and built to explore when there’s CGI to throw around?

Then there’s the Mystique problem. Look, this is the X-Men, death here is a cold everywhere else, I get it. But despite working so hard to show every single character in jeopardy, Dark Phoenix ends with a single body in the ground and, as always, it’s a woman. This is the one place where the ghost of Last Stand rattles its chains and shrieks, as ladymurder and REVENGE! Become the sole motivators for Magneto and Hank to solve the problem by… committing even more ladymurder.

This is stupid.
It’s lazy.

It’s crushingly obvious and, much like the fact POC characters in these movies really shouldn’t start long books, it looks deliberate and flies in the face of everything the franchise notionally represents. I can forgive them not salting the Earth because Dark Phoenix was no doubt in development before the Disney/Fox  merger went through. But for a franchise that has always hit its lowest points by taking the obvious route, again, this feels pretty disingenuous. There was a chance to go out on a high note. They go out on a middle note at best.

So those are the problems. If you can get past them, there’s a fair bit to enjoy here. Kinberg joins Matthew Vaughan as one of the two directors this franchise has ever had who understands how to do multi-person fight scenes. The cast members who have things to do carry out all those things very well. Best of all there are actual emotional stakes, something which has attended guest lectures at the Xavier School but never really matriculated. It is far from perfect and it’s already getting critically slammed but that’s only partially deserved. Dark Phoenix does the job. It doesn’t do it brilliantly but it does a hell of a lot better than its immediate predecessor. As a closing note for the embattled, outmoded X-Men movies it’s absolutely fine. And that, honestly, is better than I dared hope for.