I have a long-standing love/hate relationship with critics. For instance, I think RottenTomatoes, while a good idea in a few ways, is ultimately a way to keep audiences away from movies instead of inviting them to go out to form opinions for themselves. Critics have been known to get reviews wrong. I’m not even a professional and I recently got a review wrong. It happens. But at the same time, audiences do tend to put stock in critics and that’s simply a shame.
Take, for instance, Dark Phoenix. The current RT score for the film stands at 23%. The audience score fares a little better and sits at 64% and, honestly, I don’t understand the flack this X-Men installment-and the last before the MCU reboots it somewhere in Phase 6, I’m sure-received. Was the film perfect? No. Did it end the series with a solid story and a conclusion to the characters we’ve loved for almost twenty years? In my opinion, yes.
For those of us who have never read the comics, Dark Phoenix adapts the highly popular Marvel Comic arc that sees Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), an omega level mutant who has been tampered with by benevolent headmaster Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), turn against her family and turn dark when a cosmic force known as the Phoenix force enters her body on a mission to space. This cosmic force destroys everything it touches but stops when it gets to Jean. She can’t control it, but it cannot fully control her. What results is a fascinating emotional journey of a young woman at war with herself and powers beyond her control.
Jean Grey is my second favorite X-Men character from the movies. My first is Charles, more specifically McAvoy’s iteration of Charles. Both are such fascinatingly complex characters with moral centers that echo each other but also splinter in varying ways that make them both interesting foils to each other even in the First Class timeline. These are two powerful mutants who are at opposite ends of the spectrum and if we’re going to talk about where the film went wrong, it’s in the interpersonal relationships between Jean and the other X-Men more than anything else.
X-Men: Apocalypse gave audiences their first glimpse at Jean and Charles’ relationship as well as their first glimpse of the Phoenix. In an otherwise stagnant and iffy installment, the most fascinating and interesting scene comes at the end when Jean and Charles share an astral plane to defeat Apocalypse. What is obvious in that scene is how close Jean and Charles are to each other. They are friends. They are family. Their relationship rivals the one between Charles and Raven (Jennifer Lawrence).
In Dark Phoenix, Jean is ripped away from Charles and his steadying influence by the Phoenix force, Jessica Chastain’s character, Vuk, and Charles’ growing ego, all three of which introduce Jean to a myriad of emotions she’s never had to face before or deal with. In a lot of ways, Dark Phoenix is a metaphor for depression, mental illness, and how one reacts and bounces back from a deep-seated betrayal. This film was never meant to be bombastic like most summer tentpole films. It works more on an introspective level but the core relationship of the film, Charles and Jean, is never fully developed and is relegated to Vuk and Jean’s relationship which is neither dynamic or interesting.
However, while the film sloughs Jean off to be a background character in her own story (and doesn’t give her much to do), it still fixes X-Men: The Last Stand and Jean’s story is still at the forefront, even if Simon Kinberg told it through Charles and Magneto instead of Jean herself. In the end, though, in a lot of ways, Kinberg sets up Dark Phoenix as something that happens as a result of male egotism and the lack of female voices and female choices. To be fair, Dark Phoenix does happen in the nineties and while Charles is my favorite character, he is a cocky jerk who is full of himself and that is on full display here.
Honestly, that is the weakness of the film. Men not listening to women and Charles Xavier being an asshole. That and Vuk. Everything else in Dark Phoenix sizzles. The special effects are spot on and beautiful. Turner and McAvoy give it their all and deliver fantastic performances, especially Turner. She’s a powerhouse and now that Game of Thrones is over, I can’t wait to see her in more films.
Was Dark Phoenix perfect? No. Is it enjoyable? Yes. It doesn’t deserve the flack it’s been given.
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