It’s tempting to imagine how Fox executives and the creative talent involved with the new (and hopefully final) film in their X-Men series would have reacted to seeing the final season of Game of Thrones. After all, the focus of Dark Phoenix — Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey — was surely cast based on her popularity in the fantasy series. But as Sansa Stark was mostly sidelined in its final episodes, delivering one blank-faced line after another when she was on screen, it’s hard not to wonder if a sense of panic ever set in; after all, they’d left someone who can barely hold her own in a scene to lead a tentpole film. Turner has always been an actor of limited skill, whose go-to choice is to express rage through inexpression. There are many (many) ways in which Dark Phoenix is an utter failure, but few are as prominent as Turner.
The film takes place in the altered timeline that came in the wake of X-Men: Days of Future Past, which essentially wiped out the continuity of every previous film, making this both a sequel and a remake. Following the massive destruction of X-Men: Apocalypse, the mutant superheroes have fallen into an almost staid routine of saving the day whenever they get a call from Washington. Though Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is happy with this more routine life — as well as the medals and honors that come with it — his confidante and former foe, Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), fears that the X-Men are putting themselves in too much danger. After all, minor crises came and went before there were X-Men to fix them, and life went along as usual for the most part.
When a space shuttle’s trip into outer space is curtailed by massive solar flares, the team is assembled; but as they blast into space, they realize that it wasn’t a solar flare at all, but some sort of seething, undulating energy force. Nightcrawler (Kodi-Smit McPhee) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters) manage to rescue the astronauts from their doomed shuttle — except for one. Jean Gray (Turner) returns to the shuttle and is able to rescue the last astronaut, but before escaping she’s set upon by the mysterious energy cloud. It envelops her until she seems to absorb its massive power within herself.
The ship is destroyed, but Jean is miraculously found safe; yet when she returns to Earth, there are signs that something has gone seriously awry. Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), her boyfriend, notices a more manic personality, and she’s also quick to anger, often venting via her destructive telekinetic powers. When a party in the woods behind Professor X’s school sparks a memory of the childhood accident that killed her parents, Jean is overwhelmed and lets out a blast of energy that levels the entire shindig, injuring many of her friends.
It’s not just a problem that Jean can’t control this new force within her; she’s also being pursued by a group of aliens called the D’Bari, who’ve been tracking down the mysterious energy in hopes of harnessing its power for their own destructive purposes. They look a bit like dried-up, brown mummies/zombies, but like pod people, they can take on the appearance of others. Jessica Chastain plays their leader, Vuk, who hopes to either manipulate Jean into giving up her new power, or simply kill her in order to release it.
The Dark Phoenix storyline, which has long been a favorite of X-Men and superhero comics fans, is a particularly dark entry for the series, with its rape symbolism (a woman overcome by a stronger force against her will), and its unfortunate outcomes for many of the characters involved. Brett Ratner’s The Last Stand was an utter mess in ways more to do with his lack of talent, but that film’s failures should have been a warning to annoying attempting to remake the Dark Phoenix story. Jean has always been one of the most sympathetic and fleshed-out X-Men, and the story of her downfall is inherently dark and draining. It doesn’t help that Turner can’t pull off her own hurt and anguish. Her pursed lips and squinting eyes, signifiers of anything from rage to confusion to an overly sunny day, don’t truly convey the destruction going on within the character. Dark Phoenix is paradoxically one of the darkest films in the series, yet one that keeps viewers at a greater distance than most previous entries.
Though Turner’s is the most obviously lacking performance, Sheridan gives her a run for her money — though in the opposite direction. He simply emotes too damn much, seemingly determined to avoid the trap that James Marsden fell into when he played the role: Cyclops’ ever-present visor blocked off too much of Marsden’s face, and that made it hard for him to really project emotions and expressions. In order to fight the absence of visible eyes, Sheridan whips his lips into embarrassing duck-faced pouts, as if he’s posing for a bathroom mirror selfie, and he’s reduced to gaping expressions of concern. (Anyone who only heard his line deliveries might have a better experience.) Sheridan has shown that he’s a better actor than this in Ready Player One, Mud, and even as a child in The Tree of Life. Part of the blame has to fall with director (and writer) Simon Kinberg, who produced all of the X-Men films from First Class on, and co-wrote The Last Stand. A great director can coax a good (or at least serviceable) performance out of even a bad actor, and with Sheridan, it should have been no problem. But either Kinberg’s inexperience or lack of taste allowed Sheridan’s overwrought — even campy — performance to stand.
It’s impossible to watch Dark Phoenix without thinking of that other recent superhero film, Avengers: Endgame. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has had its share of problems, but one thing they’ve excelled at since Iron Man has been the infusion of humor into their films; even the darker ones have occasionally been leavened by a bit of laughter. Though it may seem jarring at times, jokes can be a rare stab at veracity for otherwise fantastical films; even in our darkest moments, humor manages to intrude in real life, usually in welcome ways.
I’ve been replaying Dark Phoenix in my mind to think of a single joke or moment of levity throughout the oppressive morass, and perhaps one or two come to mind (though they earned nary a chuckle from the sold-out audience I saw the film with). A lighter moment totaling twenty seconds can help fortify an audience for another forty minutes of somber dreck, but even that was too great an expenditure for this film. There’s a clumsy moment where a group of dumb military guards has imprisoned the X-Men, and the all wear armbands reading MCU; Kinberg is suggesting in the not-at-all subtle scene that the MCU has hobbled — and even stolen — this more pure superhero property. The wild success of Marvel Studios has mostly been a net negative for film in general, as they’ve institutionalized a mindset that smaller films — and films that don’t have existing intellectual property — simply can’t succeed in the market (or even if they could succeed, they wouldn’t make enough of a dent to be worth any studio’s time). But if the MCU can finally put this latter-day X-Men series out of its misery, then it has at least done one good thing.