'Dark Phoenix,' the latest 'X-Men' installment, makes the most of its flawed source material

Despite its problems, “X-Men: Dark Phoenix” has real intelligence and heart, as well as a firm sense of purpose.
Sophie Turner stars as Jean Grey in Twentieth Century Fox's "Dark Phoenix."
Sophie Turner stars as the dangerous yet complex Jean Grey.Twentieth Century Fox
Get the Think newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Noah Berlatsky

There was every reason to think that “X-Men: Dark Phoenix” would be a terrible film. Most of the movies in Fox's "X-Men" franchise have ranged from mediocre to wretched, and the last entry, 2016's “X-Men: Apocalypse,” was even worse than most. “Dark Phoenix” was delayed multiple times — usually a sign of production troubles, confusion and creative incoherence. Making matters worse, the trailer was no good and early press was brutal. Just as concerning, the story of “Dark Phoenix” reprises the basic plot of 2006's “X-Men: Last Stand” which was (you guessed it) awful.

Worst of all, though, is the “Dark Phoenix” plot itself. The famous original comics series, created by writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne in 1976 and 1977, told the story of how Jean Grey gained cosmic universe-destroying abilities, and then was corrupted by them. In the era of Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, do we really need a throwback tale about how women with great power inevitably destroy themselves and everyone around them?

Somehow, director Simon Kinberg has taken this inauspicious material and made a decent superhero film.

And yet, somehow, director Simon Kinberg has taken this inauspicious material and made a decent superhero film. “Dark Phoenix” manages the difficult task of remaining true to the source material's tragic vision while dumping most of its banal misogyny. The result is an often moving story about failure and redemption, with more emotional weight than most superhero blockbusters can muster.

Want more articles like this? Sign up for the THINK newsletter to get weekly updates on the best pop culture news and analysis

Kinberg uses the bare bones of the original Dark Phoenix storyline. The X-Men are a group of mutants, born with superhero abilities, who try to use their powers to serve humanity. While the team is on a mission into near-earth orbit, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is trapped outside their spaceship and absorbs a mysterious energy known as the Phoenix force. The force boosts Jean's telepathic and telekinetic abilities to cosmic levels. It also gives her a wicked temper. Soon she's damaging property, wounding bystanders and threatening the lives of her own teammates. As she starts to rack up a body count, her friends and colleagues split over whether to kill or save her. Meanwhile, mysterious shapeshifting aliens try to gain her power for themselves.

Get the think newsletter.

The aliens who try to steal Jean's powers are a not particularly inspired innovation; they don't appear in the original comic. Many of the plot details are scrambled as well. The changes that really matter, though, involve Jean's plot arc.

In the Claremont/Byrne story, Jean as Phoenix literally destroys an entire world; she's a genocidal monster who casually kills billions of people. In “The Last Stand,” Jean kills her lover, Scott Summers, and Xavier, and shows little regret. She chooses or is possessed by evil, and there's no going back.

But in “Dark Phoenix,” Jean's transgressions aren't so out of line with those of other characters in the movie. Magneto (Michael Fassbender), for example, murdered dozens of people in "X-Men: Apocalypse" when he lost control of his anger. He and Storm (Alexandra Shipp) were also both involved in a plot to destroy the earth — a serious ethical lapse! But they've reformed, and now Magneto leads a community of peaceful mutants. After the Phoenix force possesses her, Jean asks Magneto for advice on how to put aside her rage, too.

Magneto was a villain in earlier X-films, but in “Dark Phoenix” we learn that even good guy telepath Charles Xavier has done horrible things.

Magneto was a villain in earlier X-films, but in “Dark Phoenix” we learn that even good guy telepath Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has done horrible things. When Jean as a child first came to stay in the school that Xavier runs for mutants, he erased her memory of her early family tragedies without her consent. These mental walls crumble before the Phoenix force. When Jean realizes what Xavier did to her, she becomes angry — and who can blame her?

In the original comics, Jean loses control in part because of an attack by a villainous telepath who seduces her with kinky daydreams. The villain essentially defeats her because she has sexual desires, and female sexual desires are (supposedly) bad and dangerous.

In “Dark Phoenix,” though, the telepath who causes problems isn't a villain, it's Xavier himself — the father figure and mentor responsible for training her. The weak link in the team isn't the powerful female superhero. It's the arrogant guy who named the team after himself and tinkered with the mind of children in his care. More, the movie unequivocally condemns Xavier's actions, so much so that even he has to swallow his pride and admit he screwed up. This is in sharp contrast to “Last Stand,” which raises similar ethical issues only to abandon them.

Unlike previous iterations of the "Dark Phoenix" narrative, the new film refuses to see Jean as inherently flawed. And as a result, it's able to achieve a better resolution.

In the original comic, Jean arranged an elaborate suicide for herself. In “Last Stand,” she was afforded even less dignity: Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) kills her, and her death is essentially used to demonstrate his heroic burden. But the Jean of “Dark Phoenix” doesn't end as a victim or a villain. Instead she's a rarity: a flawed female protagonist who does genuinely terrible, irreversible things, and yet who still manages to be, not just a hero, but the hero of the story.

"Dark Phoenix" isn't a great film. The plot meanders. A major character is killed off early with unsatisfying casualness. The space alien villains are generic and uninteresting. And like earlier entries in the franchise, there are far too many heroes to keep track of, and the battle sequences substitute CGI for imaginative choreography.

Despite these flaws, though, “Dark Phoenix” has some real intelligence and heart, and a firm sense of purpose. "You aren't broken," Xavier tells Jean when she first comes to his school. He occasionally forgets that, but the film never does. Kinberg took a famous narrative about how women can't control their own power, and made it into a story about how they can. “Dark Phoenix,” should have been dead on arrival. Instead, unexpectedly, it stretches its wings.