Warning: Major SPOILERS for Dark Phoenix.
Dark Phoenix is better than X-Men: The Last Stand but it still made big mistakes that kept it far from being one of the best X-Men movies. Writer-director Simon Kinberg's film is a do-over of the Kinberg-co-written, Brett Ratner directed 2006 stab at adapting Marvel Comics' The Dark Phoenix Saga, arguably the most popular X-Men story. This time, Sophie Turner portrays Jean Grey, who is imbued with the cosmic Phoenix Force and grows too powerful and malevolent, forcing the X-Men to take a stand against her.
After the X-Men movies were rebooted in 2011's X-Men: First Class, the opportunity arose to remake The Dark Phoenix Saga. The X-Men from the original trilogy like Jean Grey, Cyclops, and Storm were recast with younger actors in X-Men: Apocalypse and the timeline had been altered by X-Men: Days of Future Past so that The Last Stand never happened. While many fans groaned at another movie about Jean Grey becoming corrupted by the Phoenix Force, the hope was that Dark Phoenix would do the tale justice and stick more closely to the source material, which included the X-Men fighting aliens, Jean becoming so out-of-control as the Phoenix that she destroys a star and commits interplanetary genocide, and a major showdown on the moon.
The trailers immediately dashed fans' hopes as Dark Phoenix's resemblance to X-Men: The Last Stand was too close for comfort. Still, there were nods to the source material that didn't exist in X-Men: The Last Stand: the mutant heroes do travel into space, the Phoenix Force (but not Jean) does destroy a planet, and there are aliens in the movie, which were originally rumored to be Skrulls. The final cut of Dark Phoenix underwent highly publicized reshoots that delayed the release date twice and made significant changes to the third act (in the final cut, there are no Skrulls in the film). As a result of all of the tinkering and second-guessing, Dark Phoenix received the lowest Rotten Tomatoes score of any X-Men movie. It also doesn't help that since fans have already seen a bad Dark Phoenix Saga movie, they don't feel the strong urge to see a remake that also got bad reviews.
However, even though it's a low bar to clear, Dark Phoenix is a superior and more satisfying movie than X-Men: The Last Stand, though it's destined to earn far less at the box office. X-Men: The Last Stand is one of the biggest money-earners of the series since it rode off the popularity of X2: X-Men United. Alternately, Dark Phoenix is the sequel to the poorly-regarded X-Men: Apocalypse. Wolverine is also not in Dark Phoenix since Hugh Jackman retired the X-Men's signature hero in 2017's Logan, so that also hurts Dark Phoenix's drawing power. But comparing Dark Phoenix to its predecessor, here's how Simon Kinberg fixed some of X-Men: The Last Stand's biggest problems while still making critical mistakes that kept Dark Phoenix from soaring.
Dark Phoenix Is Properly About Jean Grey
Dark Phoenix immediately corrects X-Men: The Last Stand's biggest sin by making the entire movie about Jean Grey's transformation into the Phoenix and how she, in turn, affects the X-Men. After teasing The Dark Phoenix Saga with Jean's death in X2: X-Men United's cliffhanger, The Last Stand relegated it to the B-plot while the A-story was a war over a mutant cure. In X-Men: The Last Stand, Famke Janssen's Jean kills Cyclops (James Marsden) and Professor X (Patrick Stewart) - although Cyclops' death was kept off-screen - but otherwise, Jean's story was completely wasted; she mostly stands to the side waiting for Magneto's orders to act. Worse, Jean's turmoil and the mission to save her is seen through the eyes of Wolverine.
To Dark Phoenix's credit, the entire film is about Jean and there is no B-story. Jean's actions drive the entire film, with the X-Men and the Brotherhood led by Magneto (Michael Fassbender) taking sides over what to do about her. But before the Phoenix Force corrupts her, there are scenes of genuine intimacy between Jean and Scott (Tye Sheridan), something that was mostly absent from the original X-Men trilogy where the audience is told Jean and Scott are a couple but the focus is on Logan's desire for her. Before violence erupts at Jean's childhood home in Dark Phoenix, the pleas for Jean to "come home" are about Cyclops, Professor X (James McAvoy), and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) asking her to return to her true family, the X-Men. And when Jean lashes out and kills Mystique, this breaks the X-Men apart, but it also shines a light on what Jean meant to the group (though it's all still awkward, underwritten, and doesn't quite land).
Interestingly, the blame for Jean is largely placed on Professor X's shoulders. First, Mystique questions Charles' lifelong patriarchy (as her foster sister since the 1940s, she's seen it throughout their lives). After Mystique's death, Beast (Nicholas Hoult) accuses Xavier of being at fault for manipulating Jean's mind since she was 8 years old. Finally, Professor X admits he was the villain all along for his lies and deception, despite his good intentions to protect Jean from her childhood trauma. This is an intriguing and crucial shift of blame that builds to the biggest departure from The Dark Phoenix Saga and X-Men: The Last Stand: the ending of Jean's story.
Dark Phoenix Solves The Last Stand's Ending Problem
X-Men: The Last Stand ended with Wolverine killing Jean - a major change from The Dark Phoenix Saga comics, which ended with Jean sacrificing her own life to eliminate the threat of the Dark Phoenix. But since X-Men: The Last Stand is Wolverine's story, the POV is Logan's and the sacrifice he had to make by being forced to execute the woman he loved to save the world. In the end, Logan 'did the right thing', though Jean's death would haunt him in The Wolverine and until he fixed the timeline, which inadvertently restored her to life at the end of X-Men: Days of Future Past.
Dark Phoenix's biggest surprise is probably is its ending, which is a major departure from both X-Men: The Last Stand and the Marvel comics: Jean gets to determine her own destiny. Despite being manipulated by an alien shapeshifter named Vuk (Jessica Chastain) and the corrupting influence of the Phoenix Force, Jean eventually comes to the aid of the X-Men and fights off the alien invaders. To defeat Vuk, she soars into orbit and sheds her mortal form, becoming the fiery energy of the Phoenix. This version of Jean Grey doesn't have to die and doesn't need to be saved. Rather, Jean not only take control of her power and do the heroic thing at the end, but she also evolves into a higher form of life. This ties into the X-Men's overall theme of evolution - Jean becomes more than a mutant and is free to seek her destiny in the stars. Through it all, Sophie Turner proves up to the challenge of portraying Jean's fracturing psyche.
Dark Phoenix's ending may be sacrilege to comics die-hards but at least Jean doesn't have to die yet again and she fittingly emerges as the hero of her own story. And yet, even though Dark Phoenix's ending 'empowers' Jean, the muddled execution still feels unsatisfying and incomplete. Worse, Dark Phoenix seems to set up another sequel that can't happen because of the Disney/Fox sale, so the film caps off the entire X-Men saga with a somber and muted conclusion.
Dark Phoenix Changes Who The Threat Really Is - And It Doesn't Work
Dark Phoenix's marketing promises "The X-Men will face their greatest enemy", implying it's Jean, but the film actually pulls a bait-and-switch. Jean does kill and is a threat in the film, but the real enemy is Vuk and her race, the D'Bari. As a nod to the cosmic aspects of the comic book story, in Dark Phoenix, the D'Bari's homeworld is destroyed by the Phoenix Force as it traveled to Earth to bond with Jean as its host. Vuk leads the few remaining D'Bari to Earth with a plan to manipulate and control Jean or take the Phoenix Force for herself. Ultimately, the D'Bari want to use the Phoenix to wipe out humanity so they can take over the Earth.
However, despite the icy menace Chastain brings to Vuk, the D'Bari never truly emerge as a credible threat. The X-Men don't even find out about the aliens until well into the third act and, despite the D'Bari's shapeshifting abilities, the mutants are more than a match for them even before Jean steps in and wipes out the invaders as the Phoenix. It's also unclear how Vuk was able to steal the Phoenix Force from Jean and why she somehow has the ability to be its host when the cosmic power traveled to Earth specifically to bond with Jean. Regardless, the D'Bari come off as straw villains with an ill-conceived scheme that could never succeed.
Sadly, this ending is a result of reshoots that changed what was potentially a more spectacular third act: Dark Phoenix was going to originally end with a battle at the United Nations followed by Jean soaring into the heavens as the Phoenix and single-handedly repelling a full-scale invasion. However, this finale was reportedly changed because it was "too similar to a different superhero film" (likely Captain Marvel). The X-Men would have also suffered a schism, not unlike the Avengers' in Captain America: Civil War. Instead, Dark Phoenix ended with a scaled-down train fight when it should have memorably gone for broke - especially since it's the final film of Fox's X-Men franchise and they had nothing left to lose.
The Last Stand Felt Like A Movie, Dark Phoenix Feels Like TV
X-Men: The Last Stand's flaws are legion; for instance, Brett Ratner's film is overstuffed with poorly-written characters, insipid dialogue, lowbrow humor, and its frantic pace robs major dramatic moments of proper impact. However, even though it leaves fans disappointed, X-Men: The Last Stand looks and feels like movie worthy of the big screen, with grand moments like Magneto (Ian McKellan) moving the Golden Gate Bridge.
By contrast, Dark Phoenix boasts superior character development, some intriguing philosophical questions, and exciting superpowered action scenes on Earth and in outer space - and yet, despite receiving an IMAX release, Simon Kinberg's film is light on sheer spectacle. More than any other X-Men film, Dark Phoenix feels small, contained, and episodic, as if it's a made for TV movie better suited for Netflix instead of the tentpole blockbuster it's supposed to be.
Considering he's a first-time director, Kinberg does a credible job helming Dark Phoenix but perhaps a film of this magnitude needed someone more experienced behind the camera who knows how to meld and balance high-octane superhero battles with intimate character moments. Ultimately, while it lacks the epic scale that it truly needed, Dark Phoenix certainly improves on X-Men: The Last Stand, but it's still faint praise to call it an improvement over one of the worst X-Men movies, especially when the stakes were so high.
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