If this year’s blockbuster entertainment has taught us anything, it’s that Hollywood still doesn’t really know how to handle a powerful woman.
If this year’s blockbuster entertainment has taught us anything, it’s that Hollywood still doesn’t really know how to handle a powerful woman. Even ignoring the rushed mishandling of its strongest ladies by “Game of Thrones,” 2019 has seen Marvel completely disservice their most significant female Avenger (Black Widow) and unimaginatively demonstrate the uber-powerful Captain Marvel’s power by simply having her blow up lots of spaceships and power-punch bad guys across multiple movies. Alita spent half of her own movie pining after a loser, while most other tough lady roles were either love interests, cameos or had very little screen time. And those are just the films that have even tried to have strong women in them at all.
Dark Phoenix, the 12th and supposed concluding entry to the storyline of the Fox era of X-Men films (though spin-off New Mutants is set for 2020), continues this trend, and this is especially egregious considering that it’s based on one of the best (and more female-forward) comic book arcs of all time, Chris Claremont’s The Dark Phoenix Saga. While Dark Phoenix does have some dynamic girl power, it’s as if writer-director Simon Kinberg can’t quite imagine what a female character with god-like powers can be capable of. His imagination, like his peers who worked on The Avengers, Captain Marvel and others, can’t contemplate allowing a woman to create and destroy like Thanos, physically and radically transform like the Hulk or take on the fight for the safety of a nation or planet in the way that Thor and Iron Man do.
The titular Dark Phoenix, a combination between the telepathic mutant Jean Grey (played by Sophie Turner) and a cosmic entity called the Phoenix Force, is supposed to be one of, if not the, most powerful mutants of all time. In this film, Jean absorbs the Phoenix Force (which confusingly retcons one of the few cool elements of 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse) on a beautifully staged space mission and transforms from powerful mutant to near-god. Why then does the movie built around her consist mostly of broody discussions about Jean’s mental state and tragic past? Where’s the cosmic destruction and otherworldly ass-kicking? Her most frequent displays of power involve moving things and people around, Alex Mack style. And to add extra salt to the wound, rather than giving the Phoenix a formidable adversary, she gets Jessica Chastain’s pale, underdeveloped alien, Vuk.
Kinberg’s general point is apparently that the real war here is between Jean’s inner self, the Phoenix Force and her X-Men friends. But Kinberg fails to recognize how little attachment fans have to this iteration of the X-Men. Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy and Nicholas Hoult are all excellent performers, but few have been watching the most recent X-Men films just to see these actors (with the exception of Lawrence, perhaps, who is given nothing to do this time around). Rather, they tuned in to see the nifty retro swagger of 2011’s First Class, the time traveling gymnastics of 2014’s Days of Future Past and (to a point) the expanded cast of mutants in Apocalypse. Here, we get very few new mutants, and the relationships between the existing ones aren’t developed.
The other problem here is that this story has been done badly before, and recently, with 2009’s X-Men: The Last Stand. This mimics Universal’s attempt to reboot its poorly received (yet underrated) 2003 Hulk with 2008’s more formulaic The Incredible Hulk. But Fox’s mistake is even more perplexing, because even though there was a bit more time between the two X-Mens than the two Hulks, at least the Hulk films were written by different people. Simon Kinberg co-wrote Fox’s first take and then got the job to do it again. While there were some good things about The Last Stand, its portrayal of Phoenix was not one of them, as it reduced her to a supporting villain driven mostly by madness and grudges towards lovers and father figures. Kinberg didn’t know how to handle the Dark Phoenix back in 2009, and he’s made many of the same mistakes in his second go around. In a genre where bolder takes are yielding great results (Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok spring to mind), the decision to have Kinberg not only write Dark Phoenix but make his directorial debut on it is baffling.
Still, Dark Phoenix does feature some exciting action scenes, particular the early space mission and a wild train sequence towards the end, and the cast (particularly Turner) are all compelling even in underwritten roles. Dark Phoenix isn’t an awful film by any stretch, but it is one that could and should have been so much better than it is. Here’s hoping that the Phoenix will rise again in better hands.