Monday September 30, 2019
Movie Review: Dark Phoenix (2019)
This thing pissed me off right away. It pushed my buttons.
We begin in 1975, with little Jean Grey in the back of the family car. On the radio we hear a country song, Glen Campbell’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” which is an unnecessary bit of foreshadowing. Dad says it’s a classic, but little Jean doesn’t want to listen to it. So with her mind she switches stations and we hear Warren Zevon belting out, “Aw-wooooooo, werewolves of London.”
Me: Wait a minute, that didn’t come out in ’75. It was later. Right?
So why did they use it? For the “Aw-woooooo!” part?
I’m not two minutes in.
The movie nearly won me back. Unable to control her powers, Jean causes the car to veer into the opposing lane, into a truck, and both parents are killed. For Jean, not a scratch. A young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) shows up at the hospital and invites her to his academy for gifted students. She’d doubtful, he’s kind.
Jean: You think you can fix me.
X: No. Because you’re not broken.
It's a nice scene. But then they blow it again. God, do they blow it.
Last Stand 2
Have to say: It was ballsy of them to return to the Jean Grey/Dark Phoenix storyline since that’s the plot of “X-Men: Last Stand” and “Last Stand” basically ruined everything in the X-Men universe. It killed off Prof. X, Scott and Jean, stripped Magneto of his powers, and left the filmmakers nowhere to go. So they went backward and rebooted the series as a 1960s prequel: “X-Men: First Class.” Then in “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (the best of the bunch), they created an alternate timeline in which mutants were outed in the 1970s—a brilliant maneuver since it allowed them to bypass the mess of “Last Stand” and do whatever they wanted with the characters again.
And what do they do? Return to the mess of “Last Stand.” Cue face palm.
Worse, who do they tap to write and direct it? Simon Kinberg, the guy who wrote “Last Stand.” It’s his first feature-film directing credit. Maybe his last, given the box office.
It is interesting comparing the two movies. In “Last Stand,” Prof. X is not at all regretful that he created psychic barriers in order to save young Jean from the immensity of her own power. “I don’t have to explain myself—least of all to you” he sneers at Wolverine. It’s a line so out of character I assumed it wasn’t Prof. X speaking but Mystique or someone. Nope: him. He says he had to choose the lesser of two evils and went with that one and he’s not regretful.
In “Dark Phoenix,” Prof. X is continually regretful. He apologizes like a zillion times. Plus what he does isn’t nearly as bad. In “Stand” he created psychic barriers to control Jean because she was too powerful. In “Phoenix” he creates psychic “walls” to protect her from unending trauma: the fact that she caused the death of her mother and in the aftermath her father (who survived) didn’t want her. That’s why Prof. X raised her himself. And he gets no end of shit for it.
Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) is particularly bad. She’s a nag. Did no one see this? Were they all so blinded by #MeToo and the need for strong female characters that they let J-Law become a harridan?
In this timeline, it’s 1992, the X-Men are celebrated rather than feared, and Prof. X has a direct line to the president. Manned space flights are still happening, so maybe the Challenger disaster didn’t, but either way the latest space flight encounters a solar flare and the X-Men are shot into space to save them. But Jean (Sophie Turner of “Game of Thrones”) gets caught in the flare, kinda dies, then comes back to life. Back home, the other mutant kids begin to call her Phoenix. She begins to drink a lot of wine. A sure danger sign.
Even before the wine drinking, Raven questions Prof. X (invariably pouring himself a bourbon—another danger sign) on what they’re doing: the bigger risks they’re taking. “Please, tell me it’s not your ego,” she says. “Being on the cover of magazines, getting a medal from the president. You like it, don’t you?” Maybe he is drinking too much, because he can’t answer these charges. Me, I’d go, “Bigger risks than what—taking on Apocalypse? And I don’t create the disasters. They’re there, and we do what we can, and nobody has to go if they don’t want to. You can opt out.” Instead he says it’s better than being hunted, which it is, but otherwise he’s kinda mute.
And it’s not enough for Raven. “It’s not our life, it’s his,” she tells Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult). “What do you think the X in X-Men stands for?” And when she finds out about the psychic walls? Hoo boy.
Raven: What did you do to her, Charles?
X: I ... saved her.
Raven: What did you do?
X: I protected her.
Raven: From the truth. There’s another word for that.
I’m not sure what that word is. Lying? Either way, Jean goes off, finds her father, discovers that he didn’t want her, gets angry. And in a confrontation with some of the X-Men, she kills Raven, who, with her dying breath, tells Hank that she loved him. It’s almost like the torch is being passed to a new generation of X-Men with grudges against Prof. X:
Hank: This is your fault, Charles. It’s your fault that she’s dead. ... She saw what the rest of us didn’t.
X: And what was that?
Hank: This whole time, we’ve been trying to protect these kids from the world, when really we should’ve been protecting them from you.
Really, Brainiac? Because he tried to shield a little girl from tragedy?
Anyway, a distraught Jean, with Raven’s blood on her shirt like she’s Lady Macbeth, seeks out Magneto (Michael Fassbender, looking gorgeous), who’s running a commune. She wants to know how he turned to good. He wants to know whose blood that it is. (He, too, loved Raven, you see.) When he finds out, he’s Magneto again.
Eventually, he and his team, including Hank, assemble to kill Jean, while Prof. X and his team assemble to save her. Meanwhile, aliens, led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain), try to entice her to their side. But really they want the power the solar flare gave her. “It’s the spark that gave life to the universe,” Vuk says. “It destroyed everything it ever came into contact with. Until you.”
The battle includes an absolutely horrific scene where a smiling Jean uses her powers to make Prof. X walk, puppet-like, up the stairs to her and Vuk. Then we get the apology parade. From him. “I was trying to protect you—I was trying to keep the pain away,” he says. It’s only when Jean enters his mind that she sees all the good, realizes the X-Men are her family, and fights Vuk and the aliens to protect her family. She disappears in an explosion in the form of a Phoenix. In the aftermath, Hank takes over the Xavier Academy, it’s renamed in honor of Jean (not Raven?), and the movie ends, as “Last Stand” ended, with Magneto playing chess. At least this time he’s doing it with Prof. X at a café in Paris. If you’re going to do it, that’s the way to go.
50th of 58
The movie was a disaster—with both critics (23% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences. There have been 12 X-Men movies, and the worst any of them did at the domestic box office was 2013’s “The Wolverine,” which, trying to overcome the absolute disaster of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” managed to gross only $132 million. This one? Half that: $65 million. That’s shocking for a modern superhero movie. Currently, “Dark Phoenix” ranks 50th among 58 Marvel movies. The only movies that did worse at the box office include: the 2015 “Fantastic Four,” the second “Ghost Rider,” the third “Blade,” the two “Punisher”s, “Elektra” and “Howard the Duck.”
So are we just tired of it? Do we have, if not superhero fatigue, X-Men fatigue? (Probably.) Is Sophie Turner not the box-office draw Hollywood thinks she is? (She’s not the box-office draw Hollywood thinks she is.) Was it a mistake to return to this story so soon? (Oh yeah.) Was it a mistake to hire the screenwriter for “Last Stand” to write and direct it? (Fuck yeah.)
The movie even writes its own epitaph. Before the big battle, Magneto tells Prof. X the following:
You’re always sorry, Charles, and there’s always a speech. But nobody cares anymore.