Movies / Comics Movie Reviews

X-Men Dark Phoenix – the Rebirth of a Franchise?


By Hervé St-Louis
July 1, 2019 - 11:16

X-Men Dark Phoenix, mutant Jean Grey is infected by an outer world power and rejuvenated as a powerful woman capable of destroying the planet. While her allies in the X-Men want to help her, aliens from the D’Bari world want to use her power so they can take over the Earth, now that the Phoenix power has destroyed theirs. Will they succeed or will Jean Grey defeat and control this new power?

First, I would like to apologize for such a late review. I had been traveling and very busy as the film was released and for some reason, none of the marketing campaign seemed to have hit me. Disney did not put much money in promoting this film and that is part of the larger problem with X-Men Dark Phoenix. Speaking of X-Men Dark Phoenix, if you are American, this movie has been titled only Dark Phoenix, as some have claimed, presumably to disassociate the X-Men franchise and branding from this movie. However, if you are Canadian or saw the movie outside of the United States, like most people who will eventually see this film, you know it’s X-Men Dark Phoenix.

This film is the second last movie of the 20th Century Fox's X-Men franchise which is the longest running superhero cinematic franchise having begun in 2000 in the first X-Men movie. That movie, nearly saved Marvel Comics at the time from irrelevance and possible bankruptcy by allowing a Fox to make movies from several Marvel properties (Daredevil, The Fantastic Four) while the comic publisher was on the brink of disappearing after the mismanagement of Revlon’s Ron Perelman and continuing boardroom intrigues. Marvel Comics sold licenses to Fox, Columbia Pictures, and other studios for next to nothing.

Nominally, X-Men Dark Phoenix was supposed to be the last movie of the Fox franchise, however, The New Mutants movie, a horror-based spin on the famous X-Men spinoff series has been delayed many times and will be released after the X-Men Dark Phoenix even though it was set to appear earlier. The first X-Men movie was a good attempt at building the second Marvel cinematic universe after the Blade movie trilogy. While a good movie, it would Take X2: X-Men United to allow the franchise to take off remarkably well and set a very high standard for the sequels.

Looking at X-Men Dark Phoenix, one can difficulty perceive that it is the last direct film from that universe (if we ignore New Mutant which could work as a stand alone). Disney has been crass in its handling of this film (I am allowed to write this as ComicBookBin is already under Disney’s infamous blacklist). Disney and Marvel have a history of sabotaging productions handled by third parties they dislike even when they bought them off less than a year ago. When Disney-Marvel does not want a project or a brand to succeed, they allow it to fail and blame the creative team behind it. Many are claiming that director Simon’s Kinberg’s directorial debut will be his last after the poor results from X-Men Dark Phoenix.

The hubris here is that Marvel thinks it is the only entity that can make good X-Men material. This is odd as eventually, IDW Publishing or another comic book publisher will probably handle the Marvel Comics universe as Marvel Comics folds and only Marvel Studios remain. It’s as if Disney Marvel are attempting to fuel the negative feelings about this movie through public relations so that whatever they come up with in a few years when they reboot the X-Men will seem authentic and fresh. Hey, it worked with Coke, New Coke, and Coca Cola Classic…

If indeed Disney Marvel’s strategy is the scorched earth, they really do believe in the power of the phoenix. However, despite their best attempt at sabotage, X-Men Dark Phoenix is not a bad movie. It is certainly not the best superhero comic-to-movie adaptation, but it is much better than the first attempt at telling the story of Phoenix and Jean Grey, the first female X-Men.

The story of Jean Grey, better-known as the Dark Phoenix saga is one of the most important storylines in the X-Men comics’ lore. As comics are wont to do, the story is frequently revisited, tackled, retold, picked apart by new generations trying to make a name for themselves. Just like every Batman creator salivate at writing the ultimate Joker story, just like any Daredevil creator constantly wants to retell the story pitting the blind vigilante against the Kingping, so are troves of creators in comics, games, cartoons, and film salivate at the thought of creating the Dark Phoenix saga.

This is Kinberg’s second attempt, but I will not blame him for trying. The story is just good. People who know little about Captain Marvel – Carole Danvers did not know that a seminal part of her history was her rape and forced marriage to a stranger, sent away in another dimension by the Avengers, returning with a baby boy who grows to adulthood immediately before future stories have a mutant named Rogue put the heroine into a coma. You know nothing of the convoluted Captain Marvel history because Marvel does not want you to know about that. Just like Disney, they’d rather keep this mess in a vault.

Yet, Jean Grey’s journey as the Phoenix has been used as a template for stories about female comic heroine ever since Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum, and John Byrne created the tale in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Grey, a boring character following the mould of many early comic heroines would be given greater powers which would ultimately corrupt her and force her friends to protect her life at the cost of dooming whole planets and galaxies. The story became one where the life of one individual was valued against that of a multitude and a choice had to be made about which one mattered the most.

In Captain America Civil War, the titular hero chose to put the life of his old friend above that of others and even the law. The X-Men chose the same path and had to fight the imperial guard of an alien empire in order to protect Jean Grey which had destroyed the planet D’Bari, the same aliens we see in the movie. In the movie the Phoenix force that powers Jean Grey already consumed their world yet instead of revenge, they seek to control this power to transform life on Earth so that they can exist again.

The D’Bari are shapeshifters much like the Skrulls from Captain Marvel but in the comics they are closer the plant-like aliens. The Fox team had to change the aliens when they found out that Marvel was using the Skrulls in Captain Marvel. Some may call it poetic justice at Fox claiming Quicksilver early on as he was announced to play and important role in the second Avengers’ film.

If it’s not obvious by now, the world of comic-based storytelling is epic and confusing. Fox and Disney fighting over the same characters, each trying to supplant the other studio because Marvel made the decision to sell its most profitable characters to Hollywood when it feared bankruptcy. A loan from Meryl-Lynch and a purchase by Disney has emboldened the publisher. Fox’s cinematic universe could not resist Marvel forever and had to fold, as the weaker dog of the breed. This is what this movie is really about. This is Fox, now part of the larger Disney family closing the books on a very competitive cinematic superhero universe.

Some have said that Logan was the better movie to end the Fox cinematic universe. It was a better movie and really did end of high note, they claim. They argue that all people will remember from X-Men Dark Phoenix are the flaws and the uselessness of the endeavour. The Phoenix saga has been used since 1980 by the writers of the Fantastic Four, in the form of the Invisible Woman, in the Avengers, in the form of the Scarlet Witch, at DC Comics, it has been used for Raven, Donna Troy, Mera, and even Terra. A strong woman’s power is drastically reduced or she will lose control over it.

To be fair, Marvel had already written this story in the form of the X-Men’s Havok, brother of Scott Summers who also gained tremendous powers and had to be shot down. It is a trope in comics. The difference between the original tale that few remember or even have read, and the Phoenix saga is that Claremont, Corckrum, and Byrne did it better with some help from then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter who mandated the death of the heroine using a moral argument.

Jean Grey had been a boring character in comics. She was the typical weak girl being rescued by the boys and the one they all wanted to date. At the time of her creation, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, her powers were rather weak and not as extraordinary as that of her male teammates. It took years for her powers to be greatly amplified, better explained, better used for more than defensive measures, like the Invisible Woman, until she was finally deemed the most powerful member of the team. This is what often happens in superhero comics.

Women of power often have responsibilities trusted upon their shoulders when their powers are better explained and somehow, they have to be reduced. Heroines rarely have strong storylines where like Spider-man they must realize that with great powers comes great responsibilities. Unless you are Wonder Woman, chances are your powers will not be maintained or improved continually without them being shut eventually. Come to think of it, even Wonder Woman lost her powers at one point. The Jean Grey in the film is as boring as the classic comic Jean Grey whose utility is defined against the male characters that surround her.

A major difference and improvement in X-Men Dark Phoenix is that the plight of a woman is not hers to fight alone in a world of men. Here Jenifer Lawrence’s Mystique attempts to help Grey where Professor Charles Xavier fails. Ororo Monroe, her confidante in the comics also has doubts about Grey but will not let her down. Unfortunately, Alexandra Shipp did not get much of a role in this film. I will note that a classic fight move from the Dark Phoenix saga was shown in an updated form as she fought the whiplash of the mutant Ariki, much like in the original fight against Imperial Guard member Hussar.

It is small gems like this one that makes me doubt the harsh criticisms levied upon X-Men Dark Phoenix. It is a film that was sabotaged by the purchase from Disney and many other unfortunate conditions such as trying to use the Skrulls only to have Marvel use them first. Kinberg is not an idiot and a talentless hack who had not studied the source material extensively, especially given that he had written many of the past films.

X-Men Dark Phoenix did not go far enough and could not really attempt to as even if a successful movie would have been dismissed by Marvel and Disney in favour of their eventual reboot. Kinberg and his crew had a thankless job of completing a project that the studio did not believe in. But what worked? First, Professor Xavier was criticized for his handling of the lives of his X-Men for his own benefit. This has been a constant criticism in the comics, and it was finally used in the films. It helps that James McAvoy’s Xavier has always been a tragic character since the X-Men film reset from 2011. While Wolverine has been the device used to trick us into liking these films, Xavier’s story has been central in most of these movies.

Fassbender was shoehorned in even though thematically, Magneto, the character he portrayed had no reason to be interested in Jean Grey. It is a bit redundant and annoying to always see his side of the story. It reminds me how American newscasters seem obsessed with covering both sides equally. They don’t need to. Some stories do not have the same weight. The time spent on the proto Genosha island could have been used to further exploit and demonstrate the ruthlessness of the Phoenix upon humanity.

The character conflict between Mystique, Xavier, and Beast was better developed although I was glad to see Lawrence exit the film so early. I have seen some criticizing some of her comments about female X-Men members as social justice warrior-like. This kind of criticism about films is becoming tedious and annoying. Nowadays, every time any issue is mentioned that might be a veiled criticism of orthodoxy, there is no tolerance and a rapid litany of complaints. The things is that I would not even have noticed the X-Women jibe as nothing more than that, had I not seen the vitriolic response from men feeling under siege by one line. This is ridiculous. I suggest that men who are so sensitive over random lines to look inward. The problem is really with them as well-adjusted males do not feel slighted in any way by comments about the place of women in a patriarchal society.

A scene that I really liked was the one where the latch hiding the X-Men jet, the Blackbird, pushes a basketball away, much like in the first X-Men film. Scenes like this one added nostalgia and a sense of closeness to the story, much like the ending with Xavier and Magneto who were playing chest. Moments like these, like Lois Lane being unable to spell in the first Superman film, often translate into the vernacular of the comics and become characteristics that embellish the comics even when borrowed from film.

Speaking of touches that yield back to earlier film, there was one discrepancy or missed opportunity with the score. Hans Zimmer who is a master at the film score genre did not draw from the previous X-Men cartoon score nor from the original X-Men trilogy score that helped define the films. His score seemed grand but not native to X-Men Dark Phoenix.

Other non-natives in this film were the D’Bari aliens led by Jessica Chastain’s Vuk. The aliens were tough to defeat by the X-Men. That was a good thing. However, their hatred of humans was weird. I wish that they had used the Shi’ar empire and empress Lilandra instead of the D’Bari and Vuk. They could have modelled the generic D’Bari fighters on the Imperial Guard which would have made this film much more satisfying to older fans of the Dark Phoenix saga. This is where Marvel and I will claim even DC excel at when adapting their work themselves for other media. They always know how to use a relevant reference.

Did Kinberg who also wrote the script thought about using Lilandra and he Shi’ar empire? Was that one of the many sabotages by Marvel and Fox executives. There are enough Imperial Guard members to have picked some that could have fit the film. It would have helped flesh out how their leader could wield the power of the Phoenix. It would have helped to reprise classic scenes from the Dark Phoenix saga where Cyclops and Jean Grey, dressed as Marvel Girl hid behind a wall of sand.

In the resolution of the Phoenix saga and Jean Grey's power surge, the X-Men barely had a thing to do. Again, crucial things were missing from the film as Jean Grey never lost enough control as to warrant that her teammates attempt to stop her when everyone else has failed. We see something similar during the second act of the film, but it was too early in the film to have the right gravitas.

Fans of Marvel’s cinematic universe who bash this movie in hopes of “something better” coming from Disney Marvel in the future and who cheered at the purchase of 20th Century Fox by the Mouse should not be so hasty in their condemnation of this film. What we see here is that the former most illustrious superhero cinematic universe was rendered ineffective by corporate sabotage and propelled to a certain death while careers are destroyed. Do not believe for one moment that this could not be the fate of the Marvel cinematic universe one day should audiences or other external corporate matter such as strategy, fraud, or a moral controversy-based crisis would not make the current guardians of the Marvel Comics’ properties to throw out the work of so many in haste.

American regulators allowed Disney to purchase 20th Century Fox. This should not have been. Disney’s control of the cultural sector is so great that even reviewers fear criticizing its products for fear of being cut off. This kind of power is not just affecting the production talent whose careers can easily be sidetracked. It can also affect the lives of people whose job is to report on the entertainment industry fairly without direct influence. This age has ended and as we see here, Disney quietly supports the bashing of X-Men Dark Phoenix.

These things are cyclical fortunately. The same day one day some of us will be writing columns on the destruction of the Marvel cinematic universe through a review of their worst movie, so can Disney and Marvel fall from their high positions. Fatigue is a condition that is easy to get. The next step in the X-Men’s world will be based on a reimagining orchestrated by Marvel first in the comics before being brought to the silver screen. This is not what comics and old Marvel were about.

We have long lost the house of ideas of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Corporate mandates now control the creativity of comics and films to such an extent that audiences seemed like they are programmed to enjoy movies based on specific brands. Communication scholar Dallas Smythe writing about the commodification of audiences comes to mind when thinking about what is happening with Marvel’s cinematic universe and its competitors in the form of Fox’s X-Men. This is not cause to rejoice if you like innovative contents and culture.

The cinematography of X-Men Dark Phoenix was fine although not very provocative. In fact, it was rather utilitarian much like the acting of most actors, except for McAvoy. I encourage you to go see this movie as it truly is the end of an era.

Rating: 6.5 /10

Last Updated: August 31, 2023 - 08:12

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