If Marvel’s gargantuan “Infinity Gauntlet” epic had been downsized to a strip mall jewelry store heist for the movies, the result couldn’t be more disappointing than the painfully squandered opportunity called “Dark Phoenix.”
This embarrassingly wasted second chance to get the X-Men comics’ most venerated old-school storyline right is so thoroughly wrong it seems intentionally insulting. Make no mistake, those 1970s comics certainly weren’t great literature, but being this unfaithful to their well-known details is downright disrespectful.
Every fan frustrated by the botched continuity and inconsistent quality of 20th Century Fox’s X-Men franchise should be delighted that any future films featuring the characters will be produced under the Marvel Studios banner, now that Disney owns Fox.
Some elements of the no-happy-ending comics storyline called “Dark Phoenix,” in which telekinetic mutant Jean Grey gets a massive power boost that makes her go very bad, were already employed in 2006’s “X-Men: The Last Stand,” co-written by Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn. The natural assumption was that this rebooted do-over—written and directed by Kinberg alone, using the actual title of the classic comics arc—would be more faithful to the source material. Otherwise, why bother?
Instead, what should have been a space-spanning, melodramatically tearjerking, and strangely kinky exercise in superhero soap-opera excess has been reduced to a dismal series of generic Earthbound brawls spiced up with a non-canon character’s demise.
Isn’t Jean Supposed to Be a Killer?
In the comics, founding X-Men member Jean (played here with morose disinterest by “Game of Thrones” star Sophie Turner) kills five billion aliens by causing their sun to supernova when she uses it to re-charge her Phoenix powers. The tragedy of the tale is that Jean, even if under the influence of uncontrollable urges, really is responsible for the act. What she has done attracts the attention of no less than three alien empires that jointly put her on trial for genocide, resulting in a huge trial-by-combat between all of the X-Men and a host of alien heroes that takes place on the moon.
The movie throws all of that away except the name of the murdered alien race (the D’Bari). Ruining the impact of Jean killing everyone on a planet, the movie blames its destruction on a fiery space-blob bizarrely referred to as a solar flare. A handful of D’Bari survivors (huh?) have followed it to our neck of the galaxy, hoping to harness its energy and resurrect their race. After Jean ends up absorbing the blob’s immense power during a Space Shuttle rescue mission, the D’Bari bunch—led by the coldly albino-looking Vux (Jessica Chastain)—goes after her to extract it.
In other words, the screenplay eliminates the dramatic impact of Jean causing mass murder on a global scale, as well as two incidents of her furiously destroying alien starships. Petulantly crashing some helicopters and wrecking a few police cars onscreen doesn’t exactly compare.
The Mistakes Don’t Stop There
Other mistakes: The movie turns X-Men team leader Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) into a glory-grabbing fame hog for the greater good. He also has become a well-meaning but manipulative monster who sees nothing wrong with walling off an important part of Jean’s family history from her memory since she was eight years old. The details he hides emphatically were not part of the comics continuity, where both of Jean’s parents—and even a sister—were still very much alive and fond of her.
The movie clumsily hammers several characters into the story who had nothing to do with the print version (Magneto and his mutant gang, Mystique, Quicksilver), while eliminating Wolverine, the X-Men’s most popular member. If that’s because Hugh Jackman got a gander at the script and decided to remain retired from the role, well done, bub.
This is yet another superhero movie in which almost nobody ever is identified by a superhero name. The reliably studly Michael Fassbender is called only “Erik” (not Magneto). Jennifer Lawrence, doing her best to inject some believable emotion into the proceedings, is only “Raven” (not Mystique). Nicholas Hoult is only “Hank” (not Beast), Kodi Smit-McPhee is only “Kurt” (not Nightcrawler), and so on. Toy licensees must be less than delighted.
Complaining that nothing resembling the very unflamboyant outfits worn by the team appeared in print until decades after “Dark Phoenix” was published may sound like nitpicking. Still, no one could argue that Jean’s original skintight bodysuit, bold phoenix chest logo, and saucy low-slung hip sash in the 1970s comics weren’t preferable to these more utilitarian and unisex uniforms. When it comes to vintage Marvel characters, garishly vulgar and distinctively outrageous garb beats looking like a NASCAR pit crew any day.
Magneto and his band of formerly evil mutants live on an island compound that looks third-world schlocky instead of high-tech cool. Even a throwaway sop to fanboys is done on the cheap, when the (unidentified here) comic-book character Dazzler appears as a singing and dancing extra on the mansion grounds, instead of being introduced in a Manhattan disco that becomes a mutant-blasting battleground.
Missing Pieces of Plot?
A completely missing plot element that spanned several issues of the comic featured a villainous cad called Mastermind, who mentally convinced Jean he was her dashing husband and they were living in the 18th century. All of this was in service of getting Jean to assume the role of the Hellfire Club’s Black Queen and use her Phoenix powers for nefarious ends. Her brief sojourn to the dark side finds her attired in a lace-up corset and matching boots, black panties, spiked dog collar, and cape. (See what I mean by “kinky”?)
It’s easy to see why that goofily Gothic romance angle was left out of this stuffily grim affair. On the other hand, imagine how much fun could have been had if the movie were uninhibited enough to include the frankly ridiculous along with the would-be sublime, as writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne did so entertainingly in the comics.
That bizarre subplot’s most over-the-top moment came when the temporally dislocated Jean perceived her fellow X-Men as if they also were living in the 1700s. This included Jean seeing black female team member Storm as a house slave in a do-rag, and even striking her across the face with a whip for insolence. Politically correct, it wasn’t.
For better or worse, there’s nothing that shockingly silly going on here. The closest thing to camp is an “X” phone on the U.S. president’s desk that connects him directly to Professor Xavier, a la Commissioner Gordon’s Batphone hotline to stately Wayne Manor. Mystique provides a timely #TimesUp dig by telling Professor X that he “might want to change the name to X-Women,” considering how often the female members save the day. The only laugh in the movie comes unintentionally when boringly bland Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) is in such an angry snit he uses a variation of the f-word to threaten Magneto.
The plot derails (in more ways than one) after Vux sucks enough Phoenix energy from Jean to pull focus from the movie’s title character. Cue a big climactic fight on the heavily guarded train transporting the captured X-Men to parts unknown. That’s a remarkably poor substitute for what was an ancient city-wrecking battle royale on the moon in the comics.
Unless the long-completed but so far unreleased “New Mutants” ever sees the light of day, “Dark Phoenix” will be the final Fox X-related movie. Over the past 19 years, the studio has released 11 X-flicks: six with the main team, three for Wolverine, and two devoted to Deadpool. All have been segregated from the rest of the Marvel Universe due to contractual issues that no longer will apply in the future, when every X-character can interact with the Avengers and other Marvel heroes.
With any luck, they will manage to rise from these ashes like a — well, you know.