Sophie Turner Dark Phoenix
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Credit: 20th Century Fox

Not Guilty: Dark Phoenix

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Apr 1, 2020

In Not Guilty, we look at movies and TV shows that the general consensus tells us we should feel bad for liking, but that our hearts tell us we should give a second look — "guilty pleasures" we don’t feel guilty about. This time around, we turn our attention to the Fox X-Men franchise's controversial Dark Phoenix.

After what many consider to be a disastrous adaptation of the Dark Phoenix Saga in X-Men: The Last Stand, almost no one seemed to be clamoring for a reboot of the story. The franchise had gone in continuity-averse directions since 2006 and was working with an entirely different cast and in a different time. The general hubris behind the choice by writer/director Simon Kinberg to do the story again, only "right" this time, gave the film a distinct aura of having way too much to prove right off the bat. Box-office returns were dismal, leaving the multimillion-dollar series to wrap on a highly anticlimactic note.

Yet Dark Phoenix was in a difficult position from the jump. Tying together the wildly veering plotlines of the previous nine installments in a satisfactory way was a Sisyphean task to begin with, and it isn't exactly the fault of this one movie that audiences were growing a little weary of the countless bizarre storytelling choices of the X-Men films that had come prior. Movies like Deadpool and Logan had taken the series in more exciting directions than the main films had gone in several years, and that made it difficult for Dark Phoenix, which certainly is an X-Men movie of at least equal quality to previous X-Men films ... and received the back end of a lot of the critiques that the franchise overall had earned.

Dark Phoenix (2019) / Credit: Fox

The Story

Dark Phoenix begins with a revised childhood origin story of Jean Grey. Her mother dies in a car accident, and Xavier tells her that her father did as well to avoid the truth that he feared and abandoned her. In the comics, it was perhaps more effective to note that Jean had highly supportive parents who were at a loss with a child who possessed the power of a god — but for the film's purposes, this is an apt set-up. Xavier takes Jean to the school to teach her to control her powers, but in many ways, he simply ends up controlling her instead.

The journey through the decades that began with First Class finds us in the year 1992. In his endless quest to appease humans at a terrible cost to mutant life, Xavier sends the X-Men into space to deal with an incredibly pointless threat vaguely based on the events of Uncanny X-Men #101. Jean merges with a cosmic force that truly defies explanation, which triggers her own equally undefined mental illness. She becomes immensely powerful, discovers Xavier has lied to her, storms her father's home, and accidentally murders Raven/Mystique.

The rest of the film is Xavier attempting to corral the X-Men, who veer in different directions in regard to whether Jean is worth saving. Beast and Magneto are angry and want revenge for Raven's death, while Nightcrawler and Storm support Cyclops and Xavier. Cyclops' complete dedication to Jean is genuine and often touching — when Magneto threatens to hurt Jean, Scott steps forward and promises to kill him if he tries. At no point do Xavier or Scott waver in their attempts to help Jean, which adds a lot of emotion to an otherwise rapidly escalating narrative.

The last half hour of the film is nothing if not the big-budget superhero brawl that we all came for, and there's a lot of interesting notes. Magneto utilizing hundreds of guns to open fire on D'Bari, Nightcrawler frantically teleporting in an attempt to save lives, and Storm cracking open the sky with her lightning bolts, all while the train they're on threatens to implode, is honestly really fun to watch. The whole thing ends with Erik walking up to Charles at a sidewalk cafe in France and sitting down for a game of chess — the standard ending for an X-Men film.

Dark Phoenix (2019) / Credit: Fox

Not Guilty!

Again, the clunky plot, lack of autonomy for Jean in her own story, and forced character resolutions have been discussed at length, but the thing to love about this movie is that it is a mess ... and never backs down from being a mess. The X-Men consistently push Jean when they shouldn't, and they are forced to pay for it. Storm is given more screen time and more power than we have seen in most of these films. Raven's dissatisfaction with Xavier is an evolution of dubious feelings already established beforehand. The "X-Women" line is pandering to audiences that are dissatisfied with the treatment of women in this franchise, but it's also correct.

There is a lot of criticism of Xavier's role in this specific film, but again, this is just the completion of an arc that began long before Dark Phoenix. Xavier was already guided by his conviction that he alone was doing the right thing for some time before this. Homing in on what humans think of mutants more than on protecting mutant lives in the present shows the flaw of centrism. Here he does more work to atone for the way he treats people than we have ever seen from him.

Additionally, Xavier gets genuinely touching moments over the course of the film. When he looks Jean in the eye and insists he will never fix her because she is not broken, regardless of his hypocrisy on the matter, we still see a man who deeply cares for her. Later, when Jean asks if he's come to kill her, he is appalled. Xavier does cross a moral event horizon, but he did that in previous films — and this is where that is actually addressed, confronted, and even somewhat resolved.

Dark Phoenix (2019) / Credit: Fox

Of course, Jean does not get equal character resolution, but that is the primary problem with the source material for the story and can't necessarily be projected onto the film, despite the perpetuation of the theme. Leaning into the Phoenix as mental illness while trying to merge with the cosmic roots of the original story gave us a clunky and overall fairly baffling opening scene, but the attempt to join the plot to its comic book origin was made. Jean's escalation from "mutant frightened of her own powers" to "demigod" is not exactly a seamless shift, and her characterization suffers as a result. Many of the criticisms around the villainization of powerful women that we see around the original Dark Phoenix Saga go unaddressed or are even confirmed.

Still, Sophie Turner, like Famke Janssen before her, is a very good Jean Grey. She went to more trouble attempting to infuse reality into the character than a lot of the actors in superhero films would have. This complicated role of a woman both immensely powerful yet existing in a suspended childhood after being blocked from her own emotional development by her mentor is far from an easy tone to pull off without condemning anyone involved, but this movie rides that line fairly well. The story generally turns Jean into a vehicle for other characters' storylines, but the original comic did that, too. Jean is an immensely difficult character for people to understand, and it's hard to place the full blame for that on the film franchise when many of these issues have origin in the comics.

Sure, this movie was panned — and maybe that's how it had to be. A lot of X-Men fans, of both film and comics, have developed the idea that the Dark Phoenix Saga is an unadaptable story, while a retread of ideas that had been botched only a little over a decade earlier with much of the same creative team would seem even to the casual viewer as Hollywood hubris at its best. However, this franchise had already sailed right off the rails, so one must admit that there is a certain poetic justice in ending this franchise with a literal extended train wreck. Dark Phoenix might not be the best movie, but a lot of X-Men films aren't the best movie and escaped a lot of the criticism Dark Phoenix received. In the end, if this was going to be the swan song for a franchise, it's hard to deny that it's a fitting one.

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