In Greek mythology, a phoenix dies in a fiery display of combustion, and is later born again. One could say Jean Grey had her volatile death in 2006’s controversial X-Men: The Last Stand, and this year’s Dark Phoenix is her chance to rise again. Unfortunately, Fox has fumbled their franchise conclusion once more, and instead of a rebirth, Dark Phoenix is just simply another death. In his directorial debut, longtime franchise writer/producer Simon Kinberg tries once more to adapt the famed Dark Phoenix Saga to film, but merely closes the X-Men series on a grim and dissatisfying note.
Jean Grey was first brought to film in 2000’s X-Men, the first entry in the long-running superhero franchise where she was introduced as one of Charles Xavier’s most powerful mutants, due to her dual powers of telepathy and telekinesis. In the fan-favorite X2 however, she gave her life in the climax to save her fellow mutants from a flood. Then in X-Men 3, it was revealed Jean hadn’t died, and had evolved into a darker, more powerful alternate personality, the Phoenix, in Simon Kinberg’s first stab at adapting the Dark Phoenix storyline from the comics.
In X-Men 3, characters were discarded at reckless abandon, and fans were less than pleased. Thankfully, the franchise was given a second chance at life in the prequel First Class, and in the following Days of Future Past, Simon Kinberg thrilled viewers by not only bringing together both the classic and younger casts, but by ret-conning the entire series of events of X-Men 3. Then in 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse, a young Jean Grey was introduced as portrayed by Sophie Turner of Game of Thrones, and the groundwork toward 2019’s dismal Dark Phoenix was sadly complete.
Dark Phoenix was originally slated for November of last year, but was delayed multiple times due to Fox’s sale to Disney, as well as for trouble behind the scenes involving reshooting the whole third act after receiving negative reactions at test screenings. Having seen the movie, it’s clear the reshoots haven’t improved much, as the movie still reeks of production issues, as well as of a first-timer behind the helm of a project too large for his initial experience in the director’s chair. If this was meant as Kinberg’s do-over for X-Men 3, this time he’s botched things even worse.
The final X-Men film begins recounting Jean’s past, as she inadvertently causes the death of her parents in an automobile accident by using her powers, and a young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) persuades her to come to his school for gifted youngsters. In the present, it’s 1992, nine years after the cataclysmic events of Apocalypse, and Charles keeps the X-Men busy with heroic missions to ensure mutants stay in the public’s favor, an endeavor Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) takes issue with. During their first mission to space, something happens to Jean that changes her.
While rescuing the crew of the space shuttle Endeavor after it is disabled by a solar flare (the mission happened in real life, but not the solar flare), Jean unwittingly absorbs a powerful form of energy that a malicious alien race headed by Vuk (Jessica Chastain) is after. Her enhanced abilities not only render her the most powerful being on earth, but enable her to recover painful memories from her past that Charles altered with the intent to protect her. Confused and angry, Jean is now a danger to the public, and it’s up to the X-Men to either help her or to put a stop her.
From there, things get progressively worse until the entire X-Men franchise is culminated in a blaze of profoundly dispiriting solemnity. Schisms within the X-Men and propelling a pivotal character down a darker path is a concept that has potential, but it’s a grim choice to top off a beloved comic franchise that has helped in part to shape the foundation for the superhero mania that has dominated our cinemas in the 21st century, and it’s an especially bad look so shortly after the far-better franchise conclusion we saw in Avengers: Endgame only a few weeks ago.
Much of this is due to unsound character motivations that are either not properly portrayed, or don’t make any sense in the first place. Your first example: the X-Men are big heroes. They are saving lives on a regular basis, and they are safeguarding the public perception of mutants. But yet Raven is fostering a grudge against Charles for “using” them for self-aggrandizement, when most of the participating members seem to be contributing out of their own free will, and appear very pleased to do so. It’s this view that ultimately poisons Hank (Nicholas Hoult) as well.
Going along with this, the reasoning behind Jean Grey’s emotional crisis and destructive rampage is also very difficult to buy. At first, her distress is understandable when all she knows is that Charles has been manipulating her memories, but once she realizes the reason for this it should be clear that Charles’ intentions were in good faith, whether you agree with him or not. After this, there’s not much left to drive Jean’s hazardous behavior, and another major character is lost in a death that is an utter throwaway, repeating the failures of The Last Stand all over again.
After this, the film spirals as the Phoenix is not so much “dark” as she is alone and afraid with no one left on her side. It doesn’t help that most of this elite cast is obviously here out of contractual obligation, and that Dark Phoenix features another weak villain with Jessica Chastain as an airy and thoroughly uninteresting alien overlord. Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner shows considerable promise as Jean Grey, but unfortunately her first big starring role will be mired by an underdeveloped character in a bleak franchise-capper that will live forever in infamy.