“Every Hero Has a Dark Side”
Directed by Simon Kinberg
Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Jessica Chastain, Kodio Smit-McPhee and Evan Peters
Since preventing the whole ‘destruction of human civilisation‘ thing, the X-Men have blazed a trail for mutant acceptance. Now Charles Xavier (McAvoy) has a direct line to the White House, and the X-Men – Cyclops (Sheridan), Nightcrawler (Smit-McPhee), Storm (Shipp), Jean ‘Codenames are for losers’ Gray (Turner) and Quicksilver (Peters), led by Beast (Hoult) and Mystique (Lawrence) – are national heroes. This status leads to them being called in to rescue a shuttle crew from an unknown cosmic force, which ends up absorbed into Jean.
As Jean’s powers begin to grow out of her control, she learns that Charles lied to her about her parents’ deaths. After a tragic confrontation with her team, she goes to Magneto (Fassbender) for advice on not being a rage-fuelled killer, before falling in with Vuk (Chastain), one of a group of shapeshifting aliens (who definitely aren’t the Skrulls,) seeking to control the power which Jean now possesses for her own, frankly apocalyptic ends. As various parties seek to find Jean, to help her, or to harm her, they leave a trail of destruction which threatens to tip the world back to the bad old days of full-on mutant panic, and Jean tries to find a true path through the madness.
What’s wrong with it?
The film makes literally no attempt to play with the audience’s expectations regarding the D’Bari, who make their appearance by killing a bunch of innocents to assume their appearances, and kick off their pitch with ‘we can use Jean’s vulnerability to control her and – dare we say it – rule the world.’ As a result, there isn’t a great deal of tension. Jean isn’t going to go along with them in the end, so it’s either triumph or destruction, and 90% of options for the latter would play too strongly into tropes of women driven mad with power to be interesting.
Jennifer Lawrence is a great actor, but she doesn’t really seem engaged. It may be the makeup that does it, as her Mystique still doesn’t quite… work. It doesn’t help that she’s lumbered with one of the clumsiest pieces of ‘girl power’ dialogue since Stargate SG-1‘s reproductive organs. Conversely, it’s sad that our secondary female protagonist takes and early bath.
Quicksilver is rapidly removed from the movie, presumably to try to prevent him dominating the action as only a speedster can, and neither Storm nor Nightcrawler is much more than set dressing.
What’s right with it?
The movie charts a careful course between ‘power drives a woman mad’ and ‘with great power comes cool new effects’, depicting the Phoenix Force as intoxicating, but not able to remove Jean’s fundamental agency.
Charles and Jean both have effective character arcs, with strong secondary arcs for Beast and Magneto. Fassbender does a particularly strong job of depicting Magneto’s realisation that he isn’t the edgiest show in town anymore.
Turner puts in a strong performance of Jean’s emotional turmoil, and Hoult, McAvoy and Fassbender are predictably strong.
The film really benefits from the existence of Guardians of the Galaxy, which allows it to bring in cosmic elements without the cinemagoing public being completely lost.
How bad is it really?
Despite a bit of a pre-emptive critical panning, Dark Phoenix is a pretty good movie. It’s imperfect, and in particular the D’Bari do very little to add to the tension of the movie, basically just providing something to hit in the third act.
A big part of the problem is that there is just too much story in the Dark Phoenix to do in one movie. It needs to introduce and normalise mutants, establishing a baseline against which Jean’s regular powers are impressive, then take a clear step up with the Phoenix powers, introduce at least some cosmic elements – because we’ve seen what happens if you don’t have the Phoenix Force as an outside element – and then explore their impact on Jean and her ultimate fate. That’s a lot of ground to cover if you don’t even bring her in until the third movie of four.
Best bit (if such there is)?
The film has some astonishing set-pieces, but they lack in emotional kick. One of the ones that manages to have a bit more oomph comes when Nightcrawler fails to save someone, and goes full beast mode on the D’Bari, thanks to some spot-on physical acting from Smit-McPhee, even through the prosthetics and stunt work.
What’s up with…?
- Magneto’s goons? They’re basically just there to pad the fight, but one of them is supposedly Selene, an immortal mutant vampire sorceress, which feels like a lot of nouns to shoehorn into a bit role that is basically only a quarter of those things.
Production values – It’s as pretty as you might expect, with some particularly neat effects showing the Phoenix Force’s impact, not only on Jean, but on the world around it. 4
Dialogue and performances – For the most part, this is a strong category, but there are a few real clunkers in there, and one or two performances that seem a little unengaged. 9
Plot and execution – This film is stuffed with plot; far too much of it. The trajectory is good, but the pacing is too rushed. 15
Randomness – Despite the enhanced level of cosmic acceptance among the general public, the Dark Phoenix saga needs a solid couple of movies to do it justice. If the X-Men were part of a larger cinematic universe, you could introduce the D’Bari and/or the Phoenix Force in another title, but it’s just too much for two hours. 11
Waste of potential – This category is seriously skewed by expectation. On the one hand, I think there’s still a much better movie in the story, but on the other it’s just so much better than The Last Stand. 6