Xavier Is the Villain?
Dark Phoenix opens with narration from Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) rather than Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), which is traditional. This establishes Jean as the central character of the film. The opening scenes depict eight-year-old Jean (Summer Fontana) in 1975. She argues with her parents in their car over the choice of radio station. Jean uses her nascent mutant abilities to telekinetically change the station and make her mother, who is driving, fall asleep, resulting in a fatal crash. She’s later approached by Xavier in the hospital. Jean fears her powers and believes herself to be broken. Xavier warmly insists that she can use her powers to do good or bad, and that she’s not broken. He invites her to his school.
Seventeen years later, in 1992, a space shuttle is crippled in orbit by a solar flare and the US President calls Xavier for help. This is a situation never before seen in an X-Men film: the mutant superheroes are publicly known and trusted. The X-Men, consisting of Jean, Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Ororo Munroe/Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and led by Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), immediately springs into action. They fly into space, work together with their powers, and save nearly every astronaut on the shuttle as a strange cloud of cosmic energy approaches.
When they realize they forgot one astronaut, Raven attempts to leave but Xavier insists they rescue him. Kurt teleports Jean to the shuttle to hold it together while he saves the last person. But the energy cloud arrives. Jean telekinetically keeps the cloud from her team by absorbing it into herself. Somehow she survives the ordeal, and Kurt rescues her. These scenes are all top-notch, hinting at the potential greatness of a Phoenix film in which Jean didn’t immediately become the Dark Phoenix. It’s the high-point of the film, and it’s just ten minutes in.
As the film progresses, it’s partly hampered by Kinberg’s insistence on giving the older cast a spotlight. After the opening, Peter, Kurt, and Ororo are mostly sidelined, limited to the background or isolated action beats. Scott and Jean are living together, but there’s precious little time to explore their relationship before things go bad. Meanwhile, the focus is pulled to Xavier, Raven, Hank and, later Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Raven accuses Xavier of caring more about his notoriety and his accolades than the safety of the team, and she wonders if she and Hank should quit. (The answer is yes, so that the younger cast can finally take the spotlight.) Xavier, meanwhile, is trying to appreciate a world in which mutants aren’t feared by regular humans while he can, as one bad mutant could easily tip that balance. Again, a whole film to explore this status quo would have been wonderful.
Jean, meanwhile, feels terrific and the cloud has increased her power. But later, at a party, she has post-traumatic flashes of the shuttle mission and lashes out uncontrollably. She later apologizes to Scott, who received some cuts and bruises, like an alcoholic who realizes that she hit her partner while in a blackout. This is the beginning of Jean’s emotional arc. The extra power makes her black out, lose control, and she runs from her friends and family out of shame and a fear of hurting them. She also discovers that Xavier telepathically tampered with her memories when she was a child. Her father (Scott Shepherd) didn’t die in the 1975 crash as Xavier led her to believe, so Jean goes in search of him.
This begins a half-hearted attempt to portray Xavier as the villain. Kinberg took a similar approach in The Last Stand, where it’s revealed that Xavier secretly attempted to limit Jean’s extraordinary powers. In Dark Phoenix, Xavier’s villainy never feels believable and the film never fully commits to it. It’s gradually revealed that Jean’s father believed she was irredeemable after the crash that killed her mother, and he begged Xavier to take her away. Xavier hid this from Jean to spare her feelings. This is a definite violation of Jean’s trust, but Xavier clearly did it with her best interests in mind. The ramifications of Xavier’s actions, however, push Jean away and cause the X-Men to question him. But the film never really sells the betrayal strongly enough to convince viewers that Xavier is a bad person. As a result, Jean’s actions are too extreme and the endless scenes of the other characters questioning Xavier’s actions are a waste of time. None of this is credible.
Dark Phoenix loses further credibility with Kinberg’s baffling decision to set the film in 1992. For context, X-Men: First Class introduced McAvoy, Lawrence, Fassbender, and Hoult to the series and it took place in 1962. X-Men: Days of Future Past continued this story and took place primarily in 1973, a large but reasonable time jump. Both films also made full use of the geopolitics of 1962 and 1973, respectively, justifying the settings.
By contrast, X-Men: Apocalypse is set in 1983 for no particular reason and the filmmakers make no effort to appropriately age the main cast members. This choice establishes that each X-Men film will jump a decade, and that any justification for the time-jump or aging of the characters is unnecessary. Apocalypse introduced Turner, Sheridan, Shipp and Smit-McPhee as, roughly, 16-year-olds. Dark Phoenix then takes place in 1992, but the older characters appear approximately seven years older than they did in X-Men: First Class, not 30 years older. The younger cast, meanwhile, are now playing, roughly, 25-year-olds.
The older characters are called upon to convey decades worth of regret and mistakes, but they appear to be much younger than they should. Forty year-old Fassbender, for example, plays a man who survived the Holocaust as a teen 50 years earlier. Meanwhile, Jean’s arc is a coming-of-age story, learning she was abandoned by her biological father and lied to by her adoptive father, that would work much better for a character in her late-teens. The jump to 1992 profoundly undermines all the characters, and it provides no benefit to the film.
Jean is confronted by the X-Men outside her father’s house. She loses control of her powers, fights her friends and the police with ease, and impales Raven on a piece of wood. Jean is horrified and runs, while the X-Men return home to mourn Raven and question Xavier. Jean seeks advice from Erik, who has been granted a small island by the US government to create a haven for mutants. This is despite him attempting to assassinate the President in 1973 and nearly destroying the world (and likely killing millions) in 1983.
Jean asks how Erik was able to find peace and stop killing people. Before he can answer, the military arrives looking for Jean and Erik has to defend them from her. Later, Hank informs Erik that Jean killed Raven, and Erik vows to kill Jean. These scenes further highlight the older cast members, while also isolating Jean. This is where self-seriousness overwhelms everything. Dark Phoenix becomes nothing but one sullen conversation after another with the characters having either underdeveloped or unbelievable motivations.
Meanwhile, the D’Bari aliens, led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain), are lurking in the background. Their home planet was destroyed by the cosmic energy that Jean absorbed, and they hope to use it to remake their world. They manipulate Jean like the Hellfire Club in the comics, and they shapeshift like the Skrull aliens in the comics. Finally, after many slow-paced conversations, the second act culminates at the D’Bari’s base in Manhattan. Hank and Erik arrive to kill Jean, while Xavier and the X-Men arrive to save her. They all fight with the D’Bari while Vuk uses the battle as proof that Jean has no friends or family left. When Xavier reveals the full truth about Jean’s father, Jean breaks down and offers her power to Vuk.
She’s interrupted by the arrival of the military. Jean passes out, the mutants are captured, depowered, and placed on a train by the Mutant Control Unit, or MCU. This is possibly a not-so-subtle reference to the MCU imminently taking control of the X-Men through the Disney-Fox merger.
Vuk and the D’Bari attack the train, wanting to acquire the rest of Jean’s power. Despite all she has done, the X-Men and Erik defend her while Xavier telepathically apologizes to Jean. Jean forgives Xavier and realizes that the X-Men are her new family. Again, the film never makes Xavier seem bad enough for viewers to doubt him, while Jean has killed people. Her climatically apologizing to Xavier should be the triumphant resolution to her emotional arc, but it was never credible enough for viewers to care. The realization that the X-Men are her true family is cliché. Jean realizes she must defend her family. She crashes the train while protecting them in telekinetic bubbles. She then gives her power to Vuk, knowing it will overwhelm and kill her. As this happens, Vuk claims that Jean’s emotions make her weak, but Jean replies that they make her strong.
Firstly, this is another horrible cliché. Secondly, nothing in the film has indicated that Jean’s emotions are the problem. Thirdly, the idea of emotions being the source of strength for a female superhero was done, and done much better, in Captain Marvel just three months earlier. All of this makes Dark Phoenix fall horribly flat in the climax. That this is the climax that was created in reshoots, meaning it’s the studio’s preferred version, seems to indicate that Dark Phoenix was not working. If this was the better option, then the film never had a good ending.
Jean flies herself and Vuk into the sky to explode. After, Hank becomes headmaster of Xavier’s school, which is renamed for Jean. The film ends with Erik approaching a now-retired Xavier for a game of chess and a promise of peace, while a fiery bird is seen flying overhead.
And thus, Dark Phoenix ends the seven-film X-Men team series on a horribly disappointing note. Kinberg attempted to create a less flashy, more psychologically dramatic X-Men film, but he failed. The characters are not developed enough for viewers to care about their emotional struggles, and their motivations are not believable. The younger X-Men cast is not given a chance to shine as the older cast is given precedence. But the older cast is not allowed a satisfying conclusion to their arcs, as they kept being dragged along, film-after-film, for no real purpose.
Although the marketing branded this film’s story as the end of an era, Dark Phoenix is not the gratifying conclusion and curtain call that audiences experienced in Avengers: Endgame. Then again, it was never planned as such. When the film was in production there was every reason to believe there would be future X-Men films provided Dark Phoenix was moderately successful.
And so Dark Phoenix was horribly unsuccessful, the biggest box office bomb of 2019. Furthermore, when Disney acquired 20th Century Fox, it also acquired the cinematic rights to the X-Men characters — something that eluded Marvel Studios up to that point. Without a doubt, the next time the X-Men are depicted on screen it will be as part of the MCU. But no plans have been announced by Marvel Studios yet.
X-Men: Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix were such a toxic one-two punch to the reputation of X-Men films that Marvel will likely delay introducing a new version until the public has had time to forget them. Dark Phoenix is a missed opportunity all around. Kinberg’s ambitious plans were scuttled, the talented young cast was underserved, the film failed to convey credible dramatic depth, and its prospects were further damaged by poor marketing.
Dark Phoenix might be the most bumbling, mishandled Marvel Film ever produced. Then again, the actual final Fox-produced mutant film, New Mutants (Boone, 2020), was filmed in 2017 for an early-2018 release. After five release date changes it looks like it will finally be released in late-August 2020, amid the Covid-19 pandemic. So maybe that film will lay claim to the most-mishandled Marvel Film crown. That would be the first bit of good luck Dark Phoenix ever experienced.
Stan Lee Cameo Corner: Stan Lee’s final cameo was in Avengers: Endgame, so this section will no longer appear in my articles.
Credits Scene(s): This was the end of the road for the X-Men, so no credits scenes.
First Appearances: Some of the newer actors here may appear in future Marvel films, but that remains to be seen.
Next Time: Spider-Man returns to provide a jaunty epilogue to the MCU so far.