In the new print edition of the Mercury, we ran an interview with Chris Claremont wherein he reflected on the “Dark Phoenix Saga,” a story he penned nearly 40 years ago that follows the X-Men’s good-natured, girl-next-door Jean Grey as she gains, and is subsequently corrupted by, cosmic levels of power. The new Dark Phoenix film, based on Claremont's story, was screened for critics after the Mercury's press deadline—which some took to indicate a film would be very bad. I imagined that instead, the late screening date might be an attempt to avoid a fiasco like the one earlier this year, when trolls beset Captain Marvel—for having the audacity to be about a woman superhero—with bad Rotten Tomatoes ratings.
Now that I’ve seen Dark Phoenix, I’m even more glad that we published the Claremont interview, and not a review, in print—because Claremont's comments are oddly prescient to the tones and themes that Dark Phoenix works with: feminism, power, corruption, and trancendence.
With Dark Phoenix, we find ourselves in a familiar territory: Before the Avengers-focused Marvel Cinematic Universe movies took over the world, audiences had to make do with all sorts of creative silliness to see their favorite superheroes on the big screen. At best, you could expect two or three good performances. Supporting characters might as well have not existed, they were pushed so far to the stories’ peripheries. The approach worked for Spider-Man, but it never produced anything that impressive for the X-Men movies, which always felt like films built around a series of walk-ons. After all, this current batch of X-Men films began—with X-Men: First Class—as a project linchpinned on the energy of McAvoy and Fassbender eye-fucking over a chess board. It's always neglected its other characters, even in cases where good actors were attached to the roles, like Jennifer Lawrence (Mystique) or Nicholas Hoult (Beast).
Unlike a lot of X-movies, the dour Dark Phoenix carries a heavy, ominous feeling throughout, which actually isn't a bad look for the X-Men. The stories people remember best from the comics have all been pretty emo.
Dark Phoenix represents director Simon Kinberg’s second pass at “Dark Phoenix Saga” (he wrote the script for director Brett Ratner's 2006 clusterfuck X-Men: The Last Stand), and it has some beautiful, awe-inspiring things in it: Sophie Turner’s performance as Jean Grey is strong enough to put her on par with the film’s two other stars, James McAvoy (Professor X) and Michael Fassbender (Magneto). There’s an affecting score by Hans Zimmer. The film has a lot of nice hairdos. But there are also some shockingly lousy elements that detract from overall piece: bad performances from child actors, wince-inducing dialogue, a criminal waste of Evan Peters (Quicksilver), and a guy whose dreadlocks move like sentient octopus arms. Like I said, silliness!
Unlike a lot of X-movies, the dour Dark Phoenix carries a heavy, ominous feeling throughout, which actually isn't a bad look for the X-Men. The stories people remember best from the comics—including the “Dark Phoenix Saga”—have all been pretty emo. And I was impressed this film managed to stay on task for its entire two-hour runtime, since X-Men movies have a history of distracted plots and multiple endings.
After all was said and done over those two hours, I realized that, despite my gripes, I liked Dark Phoenix. But I liked it without the confidence of someone who knows that the thing they are describing is good. I liked it with the anxiety of someone ready to protest and argue on its behalf (which I've done in this review). So I like Dark Phoenix with my fan heart, but not my critic mind. Dark Phoenix is a movie where, should you find yourself landing on a positive reaction, you have to square your shoulders. Because you're gonna have to fight for it, X-fans!