Dark Phoenix destined to split audiences as much as it splits character

Movie Review: Dark Phoenix

Simon Kinberg reignites Dark Phoenix with an emotional match that strikes gritty issues, and challenges superhero stereotypes by featuring a morally conflicted, and ultra-powerful, woman in the lead. No wonder the fan boys hate it so much.

Dark Phoenix

3.5/5

Starring: Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Tye Sheridan, Nicholas Hoult, Jessica Chastain

Directed by: Simon Kinberg

Running time: 1 hr 53 minutes

Rating: PG-13

Opens wide June 7, 2019

By Katherine Monk

In a world where we can take just about everything literally, Jean Grey is the grey zone. A member of the X-Men, an Omega-level mutant and a childhood survivor of a fiery car crash, Jean Grey isn’t like all the superheroes we’ve come to know over the last 30 years of cinema.

Yeah, she’s beautiful and she fills out a Spandex onesie with suggestive curves — the way all superhero women can — but Jean Grey is troubled. Really troubled, and we know this because we watched her change sides a few times over.

In the original X-Men franchise she was played by former supermodel Famke Jannsen, and she wrestled with her feelings for Wolverine while married to Cyclops. She was also torn between her admiration for Professor Xavier, and her outsider sympathy with Magneto.

Now ranked as one of the top ten super villains of all time (and the only female to make the list), Jean Grey is largely seen as Dark Phoenix. But how did this good girl go bad?

That’s the question Dark Phoenix seeks to answer as it gives Jean Grey the full protagonist treatment, beginning in the back of the family car — where little Jean is arguing with her parents about what kind of music they should listen to.

Now ranked as one of the top ten super villains of all time (and the only female to make the list), Jean Grey is largely seen as Dark Phoenix. But how did this good girl go bad?

It’s a friendly family chat, but it all turns ugly quickly. The radio dial starts turning on its own. Jean starts to hold her temples yelling “stop! quiet!” Her mother turns around and asks Jean: “Are you doing this?” And then, crash.

Jean is orphaned, leaving her to find a new home with Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) and his school for mutants. She thrives, finds new friends and falls in love. She becomes part of Professor Xavier’s new squad of crime fighters called The X-Men, and feels a sense of purpose by proving to the world that mutants can be a force of good.

It’s on an X-Men mission with Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and the rest of the gang that Jean Grey starts to change — and it’s all Xavier’s fault. He asks Phoenix to put herself in harm’s way to protect an astronaut marooned on a debilitated shuttle. A chunk of free-floating solar plasm is drifting toward them, and Jean decides to stop it using her body.

Zap! Like a bug hitting an electrified screen, Jean Grey lights up and starts cooking. She blows up — and yet, all her little pieces miraculously recombine and she’s back to being Jean Grey. Or so she thinks.

It’s a matter of fan boy debate about whether Jean is possessed by the forces of the Dark Phoenix, or whether they’re a dormant part of her inherent personality. It’s an existential question that’s been played out before in other X-Men movies — again, without any definitive answer. Either way, Jean Grey is a potential benefactor or a powerful villain — which makes her one of the most interesting superheroes of all time because, in many ways, she’s the most like us.

She’s not certain of her identity. She’s not confident about which path is the most just, or even the most honest. She’s not even sure she can be faithful to one love, or one role model. Jean Grey is constantly evolving, which makes her feminine and fluid in a world where men are supposedly made of steel.

Given the massive amount of ambiguity, it’s not an easy role to walk into, but Game of Thrones veteran Sophie Turner handles it with the same definitive grace she brought to the role of Sansa — balancing a visual sense of vulnerability with cool intelligence and physical grace, resulting in a character that seems to cringe one minute only to triumph in the next.

Turner, along with the rest of the next-gen gang that includes Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Nicholas Hoult, make everything in the X-Men universe feel a shade darker, murkier than before.

For instance, this Professor X has ego issues of his own as he fights a PR war on behalf of the chromosome challenged. He’s not the perfect Patrick Stewart mentor, but a young man looking to make a name for himself — prompting Mystique to suggest he may want to change the name to X-Women, since the women are doing all the work.

Dark Phoenix

Why so blue? Jennifer Lawrence stars as disgruntled X-Men member, Raven/Mystique, in Twentieth Century Fox’s DARK PHOENIX. Photo Credit: Doane Gregory.

In this case, it’s undeniable. Turner, Lawrence and co-star Jessica Chastain — who does a fantastic job as an alien presence in a Jil Sander wardrobe — deliver all the substance. They’re the ones questioning the bigger picture at every turn, speaking truth to power, and inevitably challenging long-held assumptions about personal responsibility vis-a-vis the communal code of conduct.

In this case, it’s undeniable. Turner, Lawrence and co-star Jessica Chastain — who does a fantastic job as an alien presence in a Jil Sander wardrobe — deliver all the substance. They’re the ones questioning the bigger picture at every turn, speaking truth to power, and inevitably challenging long-held assumptions about personal responsibility vis-a-vis the communal code of conduct.

Inserting real world issues and talking points into the mix is part of the superhero formula, but it can come with a cost. It can make the heroes feel more human, and far less “heroic” — at least in the modern, primary-coloured take on the world. Now, heroes come with a set costume and fixed palette for the purposes of copyright protection — not to mention a line of licensed toys and miscellaneous merchandize.

In this era, Jean Grey feels so… um, grey. In every way. She’s both a victim and a victor, a hero and a villain, a friend and a foe, a caring human and an all-powerful Omega-level mutant imbued with the Phoenix force.

In this era, Jean Grey feels so… um, grey. In every way. She’s both a victim and a victor, a hero and a villain, a friend and a foe, a caring human and an all-powerful Omega-level mutant imbued with the Phoenix force.

Director-writer Simon Kinberg takes all the material created by John Byrne, Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum via Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics over the past 50 years and tries to weave it into the X-Men movie franchise, which may leave some viewers confused about timelines and suggested resurrections.

I know I had a few significant “wha?” moments, where certain plot points seemed impossible given what I knew about the “future” as detailed in the previous films. Then again, it’s a comic book prequel — which means it only has to obey the rules of the Comic Book Universe, where the rules are often reinvented with each new issue.

That said, Dark Phoenix gets its most benevolent read when seen as a new breed of superhero movie instead of a recreated backstory to the X-Men. Where the formula once called for bright, bold and decisive action, Dark Phoenix gravitates to the shadows — where everything from motivation to the cut of the costumes — gets a little more difficult to define. It’s an uncomfortable place to be, because we crave easy judgments fuelled by emotional certainty. Yet, if there’s one thing living in the Jean Grey zone for two hours accomplishes, it’s holding up the looking glass to our splintered moment in time, where the line between good and bad gets blurrier with each passing nanosecond of the news cycle.

@katherinemonk

THE EX-PRESS, June 11, 2019

-30-

Review: Dark Phoenix

User Rating

4 (21 Votes)

Summary

3.5Score

Where the formula once called for bright, bold and decisive action, Dark Phoenix gravitates to the shadows — where everything from motivation to the cut of the costumes — gets a little more difficult to define. It’s an uncomfortable place to be, because we crave easy judgments fuelled by emotional certainty. Yet, if there’s one thing living in the Jean Grey zone for two hours accomplishes, it’s holding up the looking glass to our splintered moment in time, where the line between good and bad gets blurrier with each nanosecond of the news cycle. -- Katherine Monk

1 Reply to "Dark Phoenix destined to split audiences as much as it splits character"

  • leeeide- June 16, 2019 (8:49 pm)

    I really, really liked your review. It made me take another long look at the movie. The primary reason I watched this movie, other than loving superhero movies, is that my co-host of “The Movie Review Show”, Stephen Craig, suggested it because we try to review the most talked about and hot movies. After unintentionally seeing some poor reviews online and the RT and Metacritics scores, I had my doubts about the movie. And after watching it, I was ready to give it a poor rating, around a 3.5 or 4.0 out of 10, but then I decided to check out some other reviews because somewhere inside of me I felt I was missing something. And I was missing something. I believe the poor ratings result mostly from this movie being more nuanced and subtle than most superhero flicks. Jean Grey isn’t your typical superhero. Besides the obvious female part of her atypicalness (yes I made that word up), she’s indecisive. She struggles with what to do with her new-found awesome level of power. The director decided to recreate a new breed of superhero, one who is more human and indecisive about using their superpowers. That said, although it’s a noble aspiration to change the prototype of a superhero, to me, the reduction of action scenes and absence of stylish villains, plus the absence of Wolverine, the X Men’s most stylish and beloved of the group, sucked the life and energy out of this finale. The franchise, and movie fans, deserved better. The X Men will eventually resume their story lines in the Marvel Comics Universe. Let’s hope it’s done with more style and energy. Yes, it’s possible to have more nuanced, complex superheroes but you need to strike the right balance between spectacle and psychological/emotional issues. If we want predominantly the latter we’d go see a drama. So my flip flopping continues. Instead of a higher score, like an 8.0, I’m back down to my original 4.0 score.

    To learn about the movie review show I co-host with Stephen Craig, go to our show’s page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/The-Movie-Review-Show-769005923456512/

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