At one point in Dark Phoenix, Magneto (Michael Fassbender) confronts longtime frenemy Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), who has just delivered his trademark rousing call to arms. “You’re always sorry Charles, and there’s always a speech,” he says. “But nobody cares.”
This pretty much sums up the film. First, because it really fails to give us any reason to care about what’s going on (we’ll get to that), but mostly, because those words are emblematic of just how a film that’s reportedly meant to focus on a woman’s struggle with her mutant identity is really all about one man’s guilt.
As Sophie Turner’s first role after the disappointing final season of Game of Thrones, Dark Phoenix carried high expectations. Unfortunately, it’s a letdown. The script is clunky, the plot barely worth dwelling on, and the most compelling character development arcs belong to the wrong people.
Director Simon Kinburg’s directorial debut, which he also wrote, opens with a traumatic event. It’s 1975, and a young Jean Grey (Summer Fontana) is riding in the car with her parents, arguing over the radio station. She gets upset, which triggers her powers, and, unable to control their scope, she causes the car to crash, killing both her parents (she’s led to believe). That’s when Charles Xavier comes in and offers her a place where she can learn to use her gift for good, and gain a new family in the process.
Fast-forward to 1992, and Jean (Sophie Turner) and her fellow X-Men — including boyfriend Scott Summers/Cyclops (a bland Tye Sheridan), Ororo Munroe/Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters, who unfortunately did maybe a day’s work on the film), Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), and Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) — are sent in to help a space mission gone awry. Something goes wrong, and Jean ends up absorbing an energy blast that should leave her dead. Instead, she returns with nary a scratch, and feeling “so good,” earning her the nickname Phoenix — ”as in reborn from the ashes,” Scott helpfully explains.
Turns out this cosmic energy is one that’s been traveling the universe for some time, and there’s a group of aliens trying to tame it to rebuild their lost homeland. When they realize that it has entered Jean, enhancing her powers to the point of near god-like abilities, they land on Earth to try and retrieve it. As shapeshifters, they can take human form, thus Vuk co-opts the body of a very pale-eyebrowed woman named Margaret (Jessica Chastain), and takes charge of the Jean Grey woman-hunt.
Meanwhile, Jean’s powers are growing beyond her control, which forces Charles to come to terms with a mistake he made years ago: Rather than let her deal with the trauma of her past, he built mental barriers in Jean’s mind, which the energy is now eroding. Betrayed by her mentor, and scared of her own might, Jean sets off on a quest to find answers.
The story of Dark Phoenix is one that many women are familiar with. It’s about trying to come to terms with her identity after a lifetime spent trying to quash her most basic impulses. But in Kinburg’s hands, this tale instead morphs into a warning about the danger of an emotional woman on a rampage. “She’s all desire, rage, and pain,” Charles says about Jean after using Cerebro to delve inside her mind (she’s grown too powerful for him to do it on his own). It’s no coincidence that those are the three emotions that men fear most in women. Dark Phoenix feels all too much like a movie made by men straining very hard to empathize with its female leads, but never succeeding.
Thus, we get mortally cringe-worthy lines, like when Raven, questioning Charles’ judgment in sending his X-Men to space to help the U.S. government, reminds him that the women on the team are always saving the men. So much so that maybe they should be called the “X-Women.” (Good one!) Not even Jennifer Lawrence can save cursed dialogue like this, and the rest of the cast suffers a similar fate. Even more distracting is the sheer amount of makeup worn by Jean, Raven, and Storm at any given time in the film. No joke: Raven comes back from space with the most professional-looking smoky eye known to man, while Jean’s pink shimmer and perfect wingtip is expertly reapplied throughout, and remains impeccable even after a stint to Magneto’s mutant haven island with a tropical — and therefore, humid — climate, and several bloody fights. Not only does it feel unrealistic — fighting, presumably, requires one to sweat or at least muss up one’s glorious hair just a little bit — it hammers home the male gaze that feels uncomfortably prevalent throughout the film.
But the most problematic aspect is that deep down, this isn’t Jean’s story at all. It’s Charles’. Each installment of the rebooted X-Men franchise has made it increasingly clear that Professor X’s own insecurities about belonging and fitting in are what drive him in his purportedly selfless quest to help all mutants. And it’s been mostly harmless, until now. His approach towards Jean is incredibly paternalistic — he protected her from her own woman brain! — and the revelation of his misdeeds force others around him to question his judgement. Dark Phoenix is about an idealistic man experiencing a woman’s trauma as a catalyst to confront his own demons. The ending, which shows Magneto and Charles enjoying a game of chess for old time’s sake in a Paris cafe (called, incredibly, “Les Vieux Copains,” i.e. old friends, which is exactly what Magneto says to Charles when he sits down — subtle, this movie is not) further cements who the real protagonist is.
It’s a shame that Dark Phoenix doesn’t give Sophie Turner much to do beyond wave her hands around in a power stance. There’s a really interesting character in there somewhere, and one gets the sense that she never quite gets to bring her to life. As for her interactions with Jessica Chastain, they feel stale, mostly because we’re never given a reason to care for the latter’s struggle to regain a homeland or civilization that was never explained or developed beyond B-plot dialogue.
There is a fascinating, gut-wrenching story to be told about a young woman’s inner conflict between the societal pressure to curb her darker emotions, and the precarious freedom that comes with surrendering to them fully. This is not it. In that sense, Dark Phoenix’s handling of Jean’s story mirrors Game of Thrones’ botched Daenerys character arc. It’s rushed, without nuance, and ultimately ends with a dude.